October 2009 Archives

Typecasting?

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Paul Bettany, who plays Charles Darwin in Creation, is also playing the archangel Michael in the upcoming supernatural fantasy movie, Legion. According to the trailers, Michael comes to Earth to save humanity from the God’s wrath.

I hope I’m not the only one who finds this pairing of roles amusing.

(Very) brief Freshwater update

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The administrative hearing on the termination of John Freshwater as an 8th grade science teacher in the Mt. Vernon (Ohio) School District resumed yesterday after a 5 month hiatus. I missed most of yesterday due to a doctor’s appointment, but a friend took notes and will write them up for me sometime soon. I attended the session today (Thursday) and another is scheduled for tomorrow. I’ll likely post an omnibus account over the weekend. Meanwhile, there are news accounts here, here, and here.

Just last week over at the Thinking Christian blog there was a huge stink raised over the alleged inappropriateness of linking ID to creationism. After much argument the anti-linkage people more or less conceded that there were some good reasons to link ID to a somewhat generic definition of creationism (relying on special creation), but still protested loudly about how inappropriate it was to make the linkage, because most people (allegedly) would assume that creationism = young-earth creationism, and linking ID to young-earth creationism was oh-so-wildly unfair.

Well, it’s now a week later, and, what do you know, but right there on the latest blogpost on William Dembski’s Uncommon Descent is a big fat advertisement for a straight-up young-earth creationist conference. And who is endorsing the conference? Dean Kenyon, Discovery Institute fellow, coauthor of Of Pandas and People, and one of the most-cited inspirational figures in the whole ID movement, who is mentioned dozens of times in Stephen Meyer’s new book Signature in the Cell. Here he is, endorsing young-earth garbage:

According to US biophysicist Dr. Dean Kenyon, “Biological macroevolution collapses without the twin pillars of the geological time-scale and the fossil record as currently interpreted. Few scientists would contest this statement. This is why the upcoming conference concentrates on geology and paleontology. Recent research in these two disciplines adds powerful support to the already formidable case against teaching Darwinian macroevolution as if it were proven fact.”

…proving that, yep, he’s still YEC, as has been his consistent position since at least 1980, even though this was widely doubted over on the Thinking Christian blog, and even though Stephen Meyer and all other ID advocates systematically obscure this fact.

So who is the one confusing ID and YEC? Not me. They do it themselves.

Blogging Live from Darwin / Chicago 2009

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Ingrid Laas and I, members of Wisconsin Citizens for Science and Madison Science Pub, will be blogging from the Darwin / Chicago 2009 event from October 29 - 31 in Chicago. You can find the posts at Madison Science Pub. Follow us and intrepid advisor Flightless Frank as we cover the talks, sample the food, and go behind the scenes of the vast, worldwide Darwinian conspiracy and report on its seedy underbelly… and Frank’s.

Norm Levitt has just passed away. He was coauthor with Paul Gross of the 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (the book which first called BS on the more ridiculous assertions of the postmodernist/social constructivist critique of science). Higher Superstition so annoyed the mandarins of science studies that they assembled a special issue of the journal Social Text to rebut it. Unfortunately for them, that issue contained Sokal’s famous parody article – Sokal had been inspired by Levitt & Gross – and the revelation of the hoax effectively deflated the community of academics who advocated strongly relativist views of science.

Back in 1996, Steve Fuller – that’s Steve “affirmative action for intelligent design” Fuller, for those of you who followed the Kitzmiller case – wrote one of the “serious” articles in Social Text, and, I learned today, apparently also read Sokal’s article when it was submitted, somehow without catching the obvious signs of parody.

Others in the science-studies movement took the critiques with some sense of humor and humility and made some adjustments – notably, Bruno Latour has admitted that the tools of science-critique were very easily turned against progressive causes like environmentalism, and that science studies had to admit that science had some actual solidity in comparison to your run-of-the mill social phenomenon (see his “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”, 2004)

But not Fuller. Apparently, Fuller has hated Levitt ever since the beginning of the “Science Wars.” And now that Levitt is safely dead, Fuller is calling Levitt a fascist. And comparing postmodernists to the Jews, and their critics to anti-Semites…presumably fascist anti-Semites (gee, I wonder who they could be). It’s really a piece of work.

Never mind that Levitt was not just a liberal, but a straight-up socialist. We all know how popular that position is in the U.S. these days. Oh, and his memorial service on Nov. 1 will be at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in New York.

For those who think that Levitt’s passing should be treated with a bit more class, I note this in the announcement:

It is with much sadness that we report the death of Norman Jay Levitt on Saturday, October 24, 2009, due to heart failure. His wife of 38 years, Renee Greene Levitt, reported the news to friends and colleagues of Norman, and announced that a memorial service will be held on Sunday, November 1 at 1:30 PM at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Avenue at 91 St. She also asked that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be sent to the National Center for Science Education, 420 40th Street, Suite 2, Oakland, CA 94609.

Latrodectus hesperus

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Photograph by Paul Burnett.

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Latrodectus hesperus - (male) western black widow spider. Mr Burnett assures us, “Yes, that’s my thumb and forefinger. And yes, it was alive, although unhappy.”

Happy Birthday!

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To the earth. According to Archbishop James Ussher, of course.

Hat tip to Epsilon Clue for the reminder.

According to a press release issued by Intel, a survey they conducted found that parents are more prepared to talk to their children about drugs than science and math.

Parents clearly want to be part of the solution. Ninety-one (91) percent of parents believe parental involvement is crucial to their children’s academic success, with nearly 9 in 10 (89 percent) saying that talking to their children about the importance of math and science in the real world would help improve their children’s performance and interest. Among the findings:

  1. Despite recognizing the importance of math and science, parents say they are uncomfortable addressing these subjects with their children. More than 50 percent (53 percent) of parents of teenagers admit that they have trouble helping their children with math and science homework. Parents of high school students are also more likely than parents of younger kids to express disappointment in their own ability to help their child with these subjects.
  2. Nearly a quarter of parents (23 percent) who admit to being less involved in their child’s math and science education than they would like say their own lack of knowledge in these subjects is a key barrier
  3. Another 26 percent of parents who are less involved than they would like wish there was a one-stop shop with materials to refresh their existing, but unused math and science knowledge so they can better help their kids.

And for those of you wondering about the title, here is the most memorable PSA from my childhood:

Smithsonian to open Human Origins Hall

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In spite of the Disco ‘Tute’s recent efforts to imply that the Smithsonian Institution is somehow sympathetic to anti-evolutionist films, the stodgy old place persists in being a place where evolution education is important. Most recently it has announced (pdf of press release) the upcoming opening of a new exhibition hall devoted to human origins:

A new exhibition hall dedicated to the discovery and understanding of human origins will open next year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Based on decades of cutting-edge research by Smithsonian scientists, the David H. Koch (pronounced “coke”) Hall of Human Origins will premiere March 17, 2010, which also marks the 100-year anniversary of the museum’s official opening on the National Mall.

The $20.7 million exhibition hall will be complemented by ongoing human origins research and education programs, which are all key components of the museum’s broader initiative, “Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human?” The initiative focuses on the epic story of human evolution and how the defining characteristics of the species have evolved over 6 million years as its ancestors adapted to a changing world. The museum will launch a compelling new Smithsonian Human Origins Web site and a revolutionary virtual experience hosted on the Blue Mars 2150 virtual Web site. It will include a complete reproduction of the physical exhibition plus additional features visitors can only experience on the Web.

It’s noteworthy that the main funding is coming from two people with science and engineering backgrounds, the eponymous David H. Koch, a chemical engineer and executive vice president of Koch Industries, and Peter Buck, a physicist and co-founder of Subway restaurants. It’s good to see there’s significant science philanthropy to offset the likes of Howard Ahmanson, a major funder of the Disco ‘Tute.

According to Inside Higher Education, Butler University has sued one of its own undergraduates, junior Jess Zimmerman, for defamation. The incident was also picked up by Stu Kreisman at the Huffington Post.

Details are murky, at least to me, but evidently the university had demoted both Mr. Zimmerman’s father, Michael Zimmerman, founder of Evolution Weekend, and his stepmother, Andrea Gullickson, the chairman of the school of music. When Professor Gullickson was demoted, Jess Zimmerman anonymously wrote a blog in which he accused the university of acting arbitrarily. The suit was dropped yesterday, but there is no guarantee that the university will not reinstate it.

Fossilized Ripples

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Photograph by Paul Blake.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Fossilized Ladder Ripples, Torpedo Creek Quarzite near Mount Oxide in the Western Succession of the Mount Isa Inlier, Queensland, Australia. In environments such as tidally influenced areas, water currents often go in different directions, resulting in unusual ripple patterns (hard to explain tidally influenced areas in a global flood). Torpedo Creek Quartzite is about 1.69 billion years old.

One of my favorite examples of the step-by-step evolution of molecules has been the work coming out of Joe Thornton's lab on glucocorticoid receptors. It's marvelous stuff that nails down the changes, nucleotide by nucleotide.

It's also work that Michael Behe called "piddling", despite the fact that it directly addresses the claims of irreducible complexity. Have you ever noticed how the creationists will make grand demands (show me how a duck evolved from a crocodile!) and then reject every piece of fossil evidence you might show them because there are still "gaps"? This is the converse of that argument: when you've got a system where you can show each tiny molecular/genetic change, they dismiss that as trivial. You really can't win.

Well, Thornton has been working hard and coming up with more and more details, while Behe is still sitting there, eyes clamped shut and ears stoppered, insisting that IT CAN'T HAPPEN LALALALAALALALALAAAA. Behe threw together some dreck claiming that not only didn't Thornton's work demonstrate evolution, but it actually supported Intelligent Design creationism!

Boy, did he make a mistake.

Remember how when the creationists started playing games with his work, it roused Richard Lenski to slap down Conservapædia hard? We've got a similar situation here.

Joe Thornton has written a beautiful response to Michael Behe.

Read it. Really. It's a whole lesson in important principles in evolutionary theory all by itself. It exposes the ignorance of Behe through and through, and demolishes the premises of Behe's latest foolish book. And it made me feel soooo gooooood.

I was just catching up on a few blogs, and noticed all this stuff I missed about Jonathan Wells' visit to Oklahoma. And then I read Wells' version of the event, and just about choked on my sweet mint tea.

The next person--apparently a professor of developmental biology--objected that the film ignored facts showing the unity of life, especially the universality of the genetic code, the remarkable similarity of about 500 housekeeping genes in all living things, the role of HOX genes in building animal body plans, and the similarity of HOX genes in all animal phyla, including sponges. 1Steve began by pointing out that the genetic code is not universal, but the questioner loudly complained that 2he was not answering her questions. I stepped up and pointed out that housekeeping genes are similar in all living things because without them life is not possible. I acknowledged that HOX gene mutations can be quite dramatic (causing a fly to sprout legs from its head in place of antennae, for example), but 3HOX genes become active midway through development, 4long after the body plan is already established. 5They are also remarkably non-specific; for example, if a fly lacks a particular HOX gene and a comparable mouse HOX gene is inserted in its place, the fly develops normal fly parts, not mouse parts. Furthermore, 6the similarity of HOX genes in so many animal phyla is actually a problem for neo-Darwinism: 7If evolutionary changes in body plans are due to changes in genes, and flies have HOX genes similar to those in a horse, why is a fly not a horse? Finally, 8the presence of HOX genes in sponges (which, everyone agrees, appeared in the pre-Cambrian) still leaves unanswered the question of how such complex specified genes evolved in the first place.

The questioner became agitated and shouted out something to the effect that HOX gene duplication explained the increase in information needed for the diversification of animal body plans. 9I replied that duplicating a gene doesn't increase information content any more than photocopying a paper increases its information content. She obviously wanted to continue the argument, but the moderator took the microphone to someone else.

It blows my mind, man, it blows my freakin' mind. How can this guy really be this stupid? He has a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in developmental biology, and he either really doesn't understand basic ideas in the field, or he's maliciously misrepresenting them…he's lying to the audience. He's describing how he so adroitly fielded questions from the audience, including this one from a professor of developmental biology, who was no doubt agitated by the fact that Wells was feeding the audience steaming balls of rancid horsepuckey. I can't blame her. That was an awesomely dishonest/ignorant performance, and Wells is proud of himself. People should be angry at that fraud.

An egregiously stupid remark by an IDiot (redux)

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We have a twofer! In his account of his visit with Stephen Meyer to Norman, Oklahoma, a couple of weeks ago, Jonathan Wells made another totally stupid remark just following the one for which he got an earlier award. This one contains a deceptive analogy that the ID creationists have grown fond of lately. Recall that their recent mantra has been ‘evolution can’t increase “biological” information.’ That’s the shorthand gloss of Dembski’s so-called Law of Conservation of Information.

In the Q&A Wells ‘explained’ to a questioner that HOX genes are remarkably non-specific, and burped up the egregiously stupid remark for which he got the earlier award:

If evolutionary changes in body plans are due to changes in genes, and flies have HOX genes similar to those in a horse, why is a fly not a horse?

To win his second award, Wells went on to write another truly dumb thing.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

It's yet another transitional fossil! Are you tired of them yet?

Darwinopterus modularis is a very pretty fossil of a Jurassic pterosaur, which also reveals some interesting modes of evolution; modes that I daresay are indicative of significant processes in development, although this work is not a developmental study (I wish…having some pterosaur embryos would be exciting). Here it is, one gorgeous animal.

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(Click for larger image)

Figure 2. Holotype ZMNH M8782 (a,b,e) and referred specimen YH-2000 ( f ) of D. modularis gen. et sp. nov.: (a) cranium and mandibles in the right lateral view, cervicals 1-4 in the dorsal view, scale bar 5cm; (b) details of the dentition in the anterior tip of the rostrum, scale bar 2cm; (c) restoration of the skull, scale bar 5cm; (d) restoration of the right pes in the anterior view, scale bar 2 cm; (e) details of the seventh to ninth caudal vertebrae and bony rods that enclose them, scale bar 0.5 cm; ( f ) complete skeleton seen in the ventral aspect, except for skull which is in the right lateral view, scale bar 5 cm. Abbreviations: a, articular; cr, cranial crest; d, dentary; f, frontal; j, jugal; l, lacrimal; ldt, lateral distal tarsal; m, maxilla; mdt, medial distal tarsal; met, metatarsal; n, nasal; naof, nasoantorbital fenestra; p, parietal; pd, pedal digit; pf, prefrontal; pm, premaxilla; po, postorbital; q, quadrate; qj, quadratojugal; sq, squamosal; ti, tibia.

Evolution Videos and More

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Today I received this e-mail:

In spite of the (lack of) punctuation in the first line, the links led me to several excellent, convincing, and professional-looking videos with titles like “Evolution is REAL Science #1.” A few more clicks, and I found the home page of the producer, Jeremy Mohn, as well as his blog.

God Creates New Species of Bird

Darwin: A Life in Poems

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Darwin: A Life in Poems is a gentle collection of lyrics by noted British poetess Ruth Padel, who happens also to be a direct descendant of Charles Darwin himself. Her poems are based on his letters and books, and frequently incorporate these and other original sources, along with helpful explanatory notes in the margins.

Hyla versicolor

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Photograph by Darren Garrison.

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Hyla versicolor–gray tree frog.

If you can’t see the frog, just go below the fold.

The truth hurts

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I occasionally comment on the blog of Thinking Christian. The writer is a conservative evangelical sympathetic to ID, but does sometimes indicate some ability to look at evidence, thus leading to above-average arguments.

Anyhoo, this afternoon I came across his post “Maybe They Really Can’t Tell the Difference” [between creationism and ID]. TC starts:

IDiots can’t read.

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This is discussed in an earlier comment thread but I thought I’d promote it. The Disco ‘Tute is in a swivet over the California Science Center’s cancellation of a showing of Darwin’s Dilemma, the latest excretion of Illustrata Media, producer of the late unlamented Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (at the Disco ‘Tute). Disco Dancer Robert Crowther, of course, attributes the cancellation to the machinations of the Loyal Order of Dogmatic Darwin Conspirators. However, Doc Bill of antievolution.org has the story. In its glee about the showing, the ‘Tuters issued a press release that strongly implied that the Science Center and Smithsonian are somehow involved in the film’s premiere.

Now, there may be some question about whether the press release actually violated the Science Center’s contract with the ostensible sponsor of the showing, the American Freedom Alliance – IANAL, and don’t know the connection, if any, between AFA and the Disco ‘Tute. However, the first sentence of the Disco ‘Tute’s press release says

The debate over Darwin will come to California on October 25th, when the Smithsonian Institution’s west coast affiliate premieres Darwin’s Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record, a new intelligent design film which challenges Darwinian evolution.

That plainly says it’s the Smithsonian that’s doing the premiering. And that’s flatly false. It’s the institutional version of inflationary credentialism, one of the hallmarks of pseudoscience. Note that the press release also identifies Stephen Meyer as a scientist, more inflationary credentialism.

Hat tip to Abbie.

As Matt Young pointed out recently, the fifteen year wait for the complete publication of the Ardipithecus ramidus skeletal material discovered by Tim White, and his research group, is over. The material was finally published in Science and is open access. I will discuss the morphology of Ardipithecus ramidus and its implications in a second post. In this post I would like to look at the geological, environmental, and taphonomic background to the discoveries. I examine these first because they provide strong evidence to back up some of the behavioral interpretations of Ardipithecus ramidus.

Darwin’s Darkest Hour

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Update Tonight

That’s the title of a 2-hour NOVA program that will be shown Tuesday, October 6, on PBS. DDH is a drama presented by NOVA and National Geographic. It was written by the British screenwriter John Goldsmith and directed by John Bradshaw. It stars Henry Ian Cusick as Darwin. You may find an interview with the playwright and a wealth of other material, not least the WGBH Evolution website, linked to the website of the program. (Originally posted September 25.)

Sorbus aucuparia

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Photograph by Kari Tikkanen.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

Tikkanen.European_Rowan.jpg

Sorbus aucuparia–European Rowan, or Mountain Ash

Intelligent design creationists love to talk about information theory, but unfortunately they rarely understand it. Jonathan Wells is the latest ID creationist to demonstrate this.

In a recent post at “Evolution News & Views” describing an event at the University of Oklahoma, Wells said, “I replied that duplicating a gene doesn’t increase information content any more than photocopying a paper increases its information content.”

Wells is wrong. I frequently give this as an exercise in my classes at the University of Waterloo: Prove that if x is a string of symbols, then the Kolmogorov information in xx is greater than that in x for infinitely many strings x. Most of my students can do this one, but it looks like information expert Jonathan Wells can’t.

Like many incompetent people, Wells is blissfully unaware of his incompetence. He closes by saying, “Despite all their taxpayer-funded professors and museum exhibits, despite all their threats to dismantle us and expose us as retards, the Darwinists lost.”

We don’t have to “expose” the intelligent design creationists as buffoons; they do it themselves whenever they open their mouths.

Darwin blogs the Voyage of the Beagle

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I don’t know how I missed this, but some guy named Charles Darwin is blogging a sea voyage he’s on. It seems he’s keeping a journal, and he is blogging the entries so the rest of us can tag along. Read it as an antidote to the Luskin/Wells stupidity.

Hat tip to Phil Plait.

Egregiously stupid remark of the week by an IDiot

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It was a tough call given Casey Luskin’s stupidity about Ardipithecus, but we have a winner. In an account of Stephen Meyer’s talk at the University of Oklahoma last week, Jonathan Wells wrote

Furthermore, the similarity of HOX genes in so many animal phyla is actually a problem for neo-Darwinism: If evolutionary changes in body plans are due to changes in genes, and flies have HOX genes similar to those in a horse, why is a fly not a horse?

Hat tip to John Pieret.

This week’s Science has a special issue devoted to the fossil hominid Ardipithecus ramidus. It looks as though you may read at least some of the 11 articles free, and you may see a video featuring (mostly) Tim White. The fossil is interesting in part because it appears to show that certain expected traits may be absent from the last common ancestor of chimps and humans.

NESCent has announced a travel award for an evolution blogger to attend ScienceOnline2010 (January 14–17th, 2010, in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park). Bloggers should submit a blog post that highlights scientific results appearing in 2009, dealing with current or emerging evolutionary research. Posts should be 750–1500 words and must mention the contest.

For complete contest information, visit NESCent.

If you submit something to this contest drop me a line as well, and I’ll try to highlight your entry on PT as well.

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