July 2011 Archives

Freethought Blog Network Startup


PZ Myers, Ed Brayton, The Digital Cuttlefish, Chris Rodda, and DarkSyde are starting a blog network called FreethoughtBlogs.com. It’ll open August 1, tomorrow. From the comments on the Facebook announcement of the opening it looks like Ophelia Benson will be joining it soon, too.

Design and falsifiability


Last month I had an interesting conversation with Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute (DI), at Evolution News and Views (ENV), a DI blog/site that recently opened some articles to comments. The topic of the original post was common ancestry in humans and other primates, but Casey and I discussed various aspects of design thought.

One subject that came up was the falsifiability of design. I maintain that design arguments, whenever they also postulate the existence of an omnipotent deity (or any super-powerful being, for that matter), are inherently unfalsifiable. And I want some feedback on my argument.

We got a special deal for our readers. If you are headed to Off-Broadway, you can get discounted tickets to The Rap Guide to Evolution. Just use discount code MARK11. Offer expires 9/5/11. Below is the information that I received from the production company:

The Rap Guide to Evolution

Written and performed by Baba Brinkman, featuring DJ Mr Simmonds

Directed by Dodd Loomis

Projections by Wendall K. Harrington

A smash hit at the Edinburgh Fringe and around the world, RAP GUIDE is a tour-de-force theatrical performance, the true definition of wow-and-now entertainment. Baba Brinkman’s provocative and fearless comedy inventions, brilliant wordplay and hilarious subversion of familiar rap themes is the most surprising and delightful doorway into the grandeur of life on earth you are likely to encounter. Don’t miss it!

“Astonishing and brilliant!” — New York Times

“Smart, funny and seriously meta!” — Time Out New York

“Dope!” — Time Out New York

“Totally original and thought-provoking!” — Time Out New York

“★ ★★ ★ !” — Time Out New York

“A total Dar-winner!” — NY Post


Soho Playhouse - 15 Vandam St.

(between Varick St and 6th Avenue)

Performance Schedule

Tuesday 8pm | Wednesday 8pm | Thursday 8pm| Friday 8pm

Saturday 7pm & 9:30pm | Sunday 5pm & 7:30pm

Special Offer

$ 39 Tickets (Reg. $55)

Three easy ways to buy:

Online: Visit www.RapGuidetoEvolution.com and use code MARK11

Phone: Call 212.352.3101 and mention code MARK11

In Person: Print out a copy of this offer and visit Soho Playhouse Box Office — 15 Vandam St (between Varick St and 6th Avenue)

For more information visit www.RapGuidetoEvolution.com.

Offer expires 9/5/11. Offer is subject to availability and may be revoked at any time. Offer includes $0.75 facility fee. Blackout dates may apply. Normal service charges apply to online and phone orders. No exchanges or refunds. Not valid for prior purchases. Cannot be combined with other offers. Schedule subject to change. All sales are final.

Editor’s Note: We are giving away copies of The Way of the Panda in our photography contest.

What is a panda? Ever since the French naturalist-priest Armand David “discovered” the panda in 1869, this question has fascinated people the world over. In The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal (Amazon), Henry Nicholls explores the development of natural history knowledge about the panda as well as how politics and popularization shape science. The panda’s distinctive markings, scarcity, and relative mystery have made it useful as a symbol, and few other animals are as closely identified with a particular nation. In other words, a panda bear is often not just a panda bear.

Written in three parts, The Way of the Panda covers a lot of ground from bringing pandas into the consciousness of the world outside China to the future of pandas and people. It sometimes wanders a bit from its focus on pandas, such as when the reader learns about a hullabaloo raised over the remains of a beloved London Zoo gorilla. Overall, though, it seems to be a thorough history of pandas and what we’ve made of them.


Xiaotingia zhengi


A lovely new dinosaur fossil from China is described in Nature today: it's named Xiaotingia zhengi, and it was a small chicken-sized, feathered, Archaeopteryx-like beast that lived about 155 million years ago. It shares some features with Archaeopteryx, and also with some other feathered dinosaurs.

As predictable as the sunrise, creationists are launching another round of the disgusting practice of trying to tie every mass murderer to Darwin and evolution, self-consistency and logic be damned. This time it’s about Brevik, the bomber and shooter in last Friday’s killings. We saw this at Uncommon Descent on Sunday (“Norway shooter a Darwinian terrorist?”) – itself relying on an article from the fundamentalist WorldNetDaily (“Terrorist proclaimed himself ‘Darwinian,’ not ‘Christian’”), and today from alleged scholar John West at the Discovery Institute (“Fundamentalist Christian or Deranged Social Darwinist?”).

West does the usual thing, word-searching Brevik’s 1500-page screed for the few references to Darwin, and brazenly playing down the hundreds of references to Christianity and God and the Templars and Christian holy war against Islam. These are just brushed off by West. West pretends that Brevik calls himself a “Christian atheist” through pretty optimistic (optimistic from West’s perspective) readings of some Brevik passages, which completely ignores the various quite direct references that Brevik makes towards his own belief in God. Here’s West:

Bill&Ted2Crop.jpgThe inaugural BILL, BILL the First, primordial BILL, the founder, the prototype, the archetype, the Platonic BILL form. It has to be something special.

The inaugural BILL is “The Ultraviolet Garden,” one episode from a 1991 lecture series by Richard Dawkins. The series of five lectures was called “Growing Up in the Universe” and was the 1991 edition of The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. That series is meant to be enjoyed by children and adults alike, and “The Ultraviolet Garden” accomplishes this quite well.

TED.jpgThey have TED. We have BILL.Bill&Ted2Crop.jpg

We here at Panda’s Thumb are pleased to announce the establishment of a new video lecture series: Brilliantly Illuminating and Lively Lectures, or BILLs.

Once every two weeks, a new BILL will be posted along with commentary by a PT crew member. Topics can vary widely, with the only criteria being brilliance, illumination, liveliness, and/or financial contributions from members like you. Feel free to nominate lectures for inclusion in this prestigious series by leaving a comment here or by emailing the director of the BILL series at BILL at pandasthumb dot org.

Our first two BILLs are already selected, and the inaugural BILL will be posted on Wednesday 27 July.

TED is cool. But BILL is more excellent. Party on, dudes!

Freshwater: A Sad Footnote


In a Columbus Dispatch story we learn that John Freshwater has recently sold his home and small farm to pay legal costs associated with his effort to retain his job as a middle school science teacher in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. That saddens me. While I disagree vehemently with the various shenanigans in his classroom described during the 38 days of administrative hearing on his termination, it gives me no pleasure at all to know that Freshwater is no longer on his land tending to his apple trees and evergreens and selling apples and Christmas trees in town in their season.



Oviraptor sitting on a nest of eggs – American Museum of Natural History, New York.

I’ve been organizing Science Pub in Madison, Wisconsin since July of 2009. Each month we invite a different UW Madison science professor to Brocach Irish Pub in downtown Madison. At Science Pub there’s no PowerPoint, no podium or microphone. We just sit our speakers down in a big comfy chair with the beverage of their choice from the bar.


Freshwater: ODE Admonishment Withdrawn


A while back I noted that the Ohio Department of Education had sent John Freshwater a letter of admonishment concerning his use of a Tesla coil in his middle school science classroom. Freshwater objected, and the Rutherford Institute joined his defense.

Now the Rutherford Institute has posted a press release announcing that the letter of admonishment has been removed from Freshwater’s record by the Ohio DOE. Apparently it’s to ascertain whether ODE’s procedures were followed in issuing the admonishment. From the press release:

In its letter, the ODE stated that it is investigating The Rutherford Institute’s charges that the admonishment against Freshwater was issued in defiance of Freshwater’s due process rights and in violation of the Department’s own rules. Institute attorneys insist that the ODE’s issuance of the admonishment violated Freshwater’s due process rights because the teacher was not given proper notice or an opportunity to defend himself against the charges.

I’m also informed that a new 5-year professional teaching license to teach high school, for which Freshwater had applied early this year, was issued by the Ohio DOE on April 8, 2011. So the Department of Education has apparently taken a complete pass on any disciplinary action concerning Freshwater.

Photography contest, III


This post announces the third Panda’s Thumb photography contest,

Land, Sea, and Sky

The winners will receive a great deal of satisfaction and a copy of the book The Way of the Panda, courtesy of the publisher.

Branta canadensis


Photograph by Louis Shackleton.


Branta canadensis – Canada goose, Greenfield Lake, downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. The goose in the background is probably a hybrid between B. canadensis and a domestic goose. You may see more of Mr. Shackleton’s photographs here.

Doonesbury on creationism


I noticed this while picking up a few items at the local market. It retails at $7.99, and has no commercials, other than a couple of pleas to subscribe to Discover Magazine.

There is no mention of this issue on the web. None.*

It’s a special summer 2011 issue of Discover, titled “Evolution: Rethinking the Story of Life.”

The introduction states

Even the fearsome T. Rex, like the one on the cover of this month’s issue, is fascinating largely because you know you’ll never see one in the flesh. The implication of these stuffed critters and mounted bones seems to be that evolution itself is dead too. It seems like a tale of the distant past… Story over. The reality is that evolution is very much a work in progress - and its awesome power is still changing how we understand the living world. Cancer turns out to be an evolutionary disease, for example. … The vital force of evolution is also evident in the growing problem of antibiotic resistance (page 80). … Our ideas about evolution are evolving too, shaped by new research. Scientists have only begun to wrap their heads around epigenetics, the way DNA can be chemically modified in response to diet, stress, or other environmental factors in ways that permanently change how genes are activated. … Evolution is very much alive and so is the science of evolution. Read on: A whole new look at the history (and future) of life awaits. - Kat McGowan, editor.

Creationism is not the focus of the issue, and creationists are mentioned only a few times in passing. One of these appears in an article on why Ernst Haeckel has been relegated to footnotes, while Charles Darwin is still in headlines:

Haeckel embellished some of his illustrations to emphasize similarities between the embryos of unrelated creatures. In doing so, he sowed enduring confusion: Creationists today still point to these drawings as evidence that evolution is a fraud.

(Haeckel’s numerous gorgeous illustrations are also discussed.)

Another rare mention: Bruno Maddox describes one of Darwin’s early blunders, involving not recognizing glaciation’s role in the formation of Glen Roy in the Scottish highlands. While not flattering to the young Darwin (“Not just a little bit wrong. A lot wrong. … And he could, additionally, be a real pain in the you-know-what about it.”), Maddox tosses this out about hiking to Glen Roy:

Certainly if you’re coming from the States - from Petersburg, Kentucky, say, or Dayton, Tennessee, or any other of the thousand places where you would be safer lighting a Marlboro off a burning American flag than being caught with a copy of On the Origin of Species - you’re going to find it quite a hike.

Asides from those brief mentions, the issue is Intelligent-Design and Discovery-Institute free, is refreshingly un-apologetic, and spends its pages packing in a lot of neat science. Included in the issue are articles on Stanley Miller’s new experiments, viruses and their role in the startup of Life, living fossils, marsupials, dinosaur digs, decoding your megafaunal genome, why we are human, how cattle affected human genetics, hot spots for evolutionary observations, superbugs, and control of evolution itself.

It’s on sale till September 20th, 2011. It’s well worth the 8 clams!

* Until now, of course!

That's not hyperbole. I really mean it. How else could I react when I open up the latest issue of Bioessays, and see this: Cephalopod origin and evolution: A congruent picture emerging from fossils, development and molecules. Just from the title alone, I'm immediately launched into my happy place: sitting on a rocky beach on the Pacific Northwest coast, enjoying the sea breeze while the my wife serves me a big platter of bacon, and the cannula in my hypothalamus slowly drips a potent cocktail of cocain and ecstasy direct into my pleasure centers…and there's pie for dessert. It's like the authors know me and sat down to concoct a title where every word would push my buttons.

The content is pretty good, too. It's not perfect; the development part is a little thin, consisting mainly of basic comparative embryology of body plans, with nothing at all really about deployment of and interactions between significant developmental genes. But that's OK. It's in the nature of the Greatest Science Papers Ever Written that stuff will have to be revised and some will be shown wrong next month, and next year there will be more Greatest Science Papers Ever Written — it's part of the dynamic. But I'll let it be known, now that apparently the scientific community is aware of my obsessions and is pandering to them, that the next instantiation needs more developmental epistasis and some in situs.

This paper, though, is a nice summary of the emerging picture of cephalopod evolution, as determined by the disciplines of paleontology, comparative embryology, and molecular phylogenetics, and that summary is internally consistent and is generating a good rough outline of the story. And here is that story, as determined by a combination of fossils, molecular evidence, and comparative anatomy and embryology.

Anax junius


Photograph by Noah Young.


Anax junius – common green darner, Boulder, Colorado.

A little cis story


I found a recent paper in Nature fascinating, but why is hard to describe — you need to understand a fair amount of general molecular biology and development to see what's interesting about it. So those of you who already do may be a little bored with this explanation, because I've got to build it up slowly and hope I don't lose everyone else along the way. Patience! If you're a real smartie-pants, just jump ahead and read the original paper in Nature.

A little general background.


Let's begin with an abstract map of a small piece of a strand of DNA. This is a region of fly DNA that encodes a gene called svb/ovo (I'll explain what that is in a moment). In this map, the transcribed portions of the DNA are shown as gray shaded blocks; what that means is that an enzyme called polymerase will bind to the DNA at the start of those blocks and make a copy in the form of RNA, which will then enter the cytoplasm of the cell and be translated into a protein, which does some work in the activities of that cell. So svb/ovo is a small piece of DNA which, in the normal course of events, will make a protein.

Turnabout is fair play


Phil Senter has published the most deviously underhanded, sneaky, subtle undermining of the creationist position I've ever seen, and I applaud him for it. What he did was to take them seriously, something I could never do, and treat their various publications that ape the form of the scientific literature as if they actually were real science papers, and apply their methods consistently to an analysis of taxonomy. So on the one hand, it's bizarre and disturbing to see the like of Ken Ham, Jerry Bergman, and Henry Morris get actual scientific citations, but on the other hand, seeing their claims refuted using their own touted methods is peculiarly satisfying.

Senter has published a paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology that takes their claims at face value and analyzes dinosaur morphology using their own methods. 'Baraminologists' have published a set of taxonomic tools that use as input a matrix of morphological characters for an array of animals, and then spits out numbers that tell whether they were similar enough to be related. You can guess what the motivation for that is: they want to claim that Noah didn't have to carry representatives of every dinosaur species on the Ark, but only representatives of each 'kind', which then diversified rapidly after the big boat landed to generate all the different species found in the fossil record.

The problem for them is that Senter found that it works far too well. Using creationist techniques, all of the Dinosauria reduce to…eight kinds. That makes the boat haulage problem relatively even easier.

Carnival of Evolution 37

CoEButton.jpgThe 37th Edition of the Carnival of Evolution is on display at a very interesting blog called The Lessons of Evolution run by William, who describes himself thus: “I’m thirteen years old and I hope to become an evolutionary biologist but I have diverse interests.” William’s edition of the carnival includes posts on zombies, the Tree of Life, epistasis, Darwin’s library, and digital organisms. He even includes a link to a post that was rejected (selected for extinction).

It’s July. Go enjoy a carnival run by a teenager. Free admission!

Intelligent design news and discussion for the month of June, 2011.

I thought it would be best to wait until a month had passed to start doing TWiID again, mainly because:

  1. I think whole anthropochronological divisions are beautiful, in a rather frivolous way, and
  2. Not many overtly, over-the-top exciting ID things happened in June that warranted immediate attention by my loosely serious writings.

As such, this will be a slight departure from the usual TWiID style you might be used to. Instead of going into detail on only three or four pieces put out by the intelligent design movement, I’ll briefly to semi-briefly touch on a large number of them: in essence, all the vaguely interesting ones. But don’t worry, the regular weekly schedule will be back from next week.

So, on with the show!

Haliaeetus leucocephalus


Photograph by David Young.


Haliaeetus leucocephalus – bald eagle, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

[Republished from Homologous Legs]

The Novellatron1 - the skeptical, alien-made robot also known as Dr. Steven Novella - has many detractors in the worlds of pseudoscience and antiscience, but none that I would call his nemesis: other than perhaps that of Dr. Michael Egnor, conservative Catholic neurosurgeon and ID proponent.�Hmm, then again, maybe “nemesis” is too strong a word, and one that gives too much credit to Egnor. But he does seem to be the one person that keeps coming back for more slices of Novellatron pie, time after time, as unwise as that is.

Despite his fierce Internet battles with the Novellatron over dualism, neuroscience and, of course, intelligent design/evolution, Egnor never had a website of his own, instead using the resources of the Discovery Institute’s main blog, Evolution News & Views. Until now, of course.

So, I give to you: Egnorance. Yes, that is its name (and don’t worry about it wearing out). It has to be the single boldest attempt at derogatory nickname-reclaiming I’ve ever witnessed, based purely on the fact that the term can’t really be anything but a pun revolving around how ignorant Egnor is about many of the topics he passionately defends. He’s too conservative and middle-aged to be a hipster, so the ironic angle doesn’t work either. How perplexing.

Anyway, he’s in sparkling form over there, throwing out posts with rather alarming speed. (The speed almost gets me thinking about how he could possibly be keeping up with his professional career in surgery.) The usual topics are covered, including atheism, evolution, abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change: it’s all as you would expect from a pro-ID, arch-conservative Catholic.

I won’t talk in detail about anything he says (even though I easily could - there’s just so much to choose from!), lest I provoke his wrath and he writes something about me. Then again, would that be such a bad thing after all?

Good luck with reclaiming your writing’s nickname, Michael Egnor. Good luck. You’ll need it.

1. This is my nickname for Steve, and it is fast becoming his official nickname. It will be confirmed for certain when I go to TAM 9 next month, just you wait.

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