October 2011 Archives

Arphia xanthoptera

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Photograph by Richard Hughes.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Arphia xanthoptera – autumn yellow-winged grasshopper, Eustis, Florida. Mr. Hughes writes that this is a mating pair, camouflaged amidst fallen leaves. The male is on top.

I hope this is not too far off task, but I wanted to brag that my colleague Paul Strode is one of two high-school science teachers who will take part in the national Education across the Life Sciences meeting in Washington. According to an article in the Boulder Daily Camera, he will serve on a panel on “Thinking Evolutionarily: Evolution Education across the Life Sciences.” The purpose of the meeting, which is sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, is to

enable educational leaders, members of professional scientific societies, and members of other scientific and science education organizations to develop a strategic plan that will develop a national database of resources from disciplines across the life sciences to help faculty make evolutionary science a central focus of introductory biology survey courses and other courses across the life sciences curriculum.

Incidentally, I am the unnamed Colorado School of Mines (not University of Colorado) professor who co-authored the book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) with Dr. Strode. I hope no one will consider it churlish of me to note that I am somewhat bemused by the fact that, when the book came out, I could not get the Camera to review it.

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The sixth BILL is a visit with two of the biggest names in evolutionary biology, a couple of scientists who have undertaken one of the great long-term studies in recent scientific history. They are Peter and Rosemary Grant, whose work was the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.

BILL the sixth is “How and why species multiply”, a tag-team lecture by Peter and Rosemary Grant presented as part of the Darwin’s Legacy course at Stanford University in 2008.

The lectures comprise a wide-ranging, engaging, and accessible introduction to the findings that emerged from the Grants’ three decades of research in the Galapagos archipelago. A book by the same title has just been released by Princeton University Press.

Don’t be put off by the length of the YouTube video; Peter begins his lecture at :14, Rosemary starts at :48 and finishes at 1:14, so the actual lecture is an hour. The remaining time is a panel discussion/Q&A that I haven’t previewed. Rosemary’s excellent lecture can stand alone, so feel free to start at :48 to enjoy a clear and engaging account of the influences of song and size on genetic variation and speciation. She ends with a nice summary of the whole lecture.

As usual, tips and comments are below the fold. Recommendations for future BILLs should be sent to the BILL czar (BILL at pandasthumb dot org) or can be left in the comments.


Dasymutilla gloriosa

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Photograph by Pete Moulton.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Dasymutilla_gloriosa – female thistledown velvet ant busily digging up the burrows of sand wasps along the bank of the Rio Salado north of Mesa. Mr. Moulton adds, “This isn’t an ant at all, but rather a wingless Mutillid wasp; and for all its cute fuzzy appearance, it’s reputed to be a ferocious stinger.”

This is a report by Gaythia Weis, a member of the board of Colorado Citizens for Science, about the enlightened position taken by Aims Community College, Greeley, Colorado, when confronted with a talk by a creationist and, more specifically, concern about the publicity for that talk. The talk, which was sponsored by a recognized student organization, was originally and incorrectly advertised as if it were a college-sponsored event. Briefly, Aims (and Ms. Weis) recognized that the speaker had a legal right to speak, but the college wisely dissociated itself from the speech. In short, according to Ms. Weis, the college administration “got it.” Herewith, Ms. Weis’s essay:

I’d like to encourage other Panda’s Thumb readers to tune up their eyes and ears and be watchful for the following sort of situation, in which creationists are apparently trying to insert their views into our public community college education system. Besides protecting the teaching of science, we need to be mindful of our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion. Still, a firm line can be drawn between the rights of a student group to meet on campus, and the presentation of that group’s views as if the viewpoint is supported by the public institution itself. The following example shows how a small bit of constructive intervention can have positive effects.

[Republished from Homologous Legs, from October 2010 - I think this topic is particularly relevant at the present moment]

You hear it a lot, the claim that bad design is evidence against intelligent design. Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins, two of the most well-known educators about evolutionary biology, regularly mention it in their books and other writings, and so do numerous other defenders of evolution, striking back at the apparently growing intelligent design (ID) movement that is threatening science education in the US and across the globe.

The argument from bad design is as follows. If life were designed by an intelligence, particularly a supernatural intelligence, organisms wouldn’t be observed to have redundant organs, clumsily constructed systems and life-threatening faults with the ways their bodies work. Vestigial structures, like the tiny hind leg bones of whales or the flimsy wings of flightless ratites, wouldn’t exist, and the vast portions of genomes that do nothing, such as the broken remains of ancient retroviruses, wouldn’t be there. Life looks nothing like it was designed by an intelligence.

Fortunately for intelligent design, some ID proponents have an answer to this problem, as expressed here by Robert Crowther, the Director of Communications for the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture:

All a response…this [bad design argument] really requires is to post a few photos of clearly designed items that have had amazing, spectacularly bad problems. (The Hindenberg for instance. Or any Toyota apparently.) How stupid, yes I said stupid, do you have to be to equate bad design with no design?

In other words, bad design is not a problem for intelligent design because, while many objects have problems associated with them, these problems don’t take away the fact that the objects were designed. Intelligent design is compatible with a spectrum of the Designer’s possible competence, so pointing out a biological system that has flaws does not constitute evidence that the system was not designed.

In my previous post, I described the misguided approach Gauger and Axe have taken to criticizing evolution, and one of the peculiarities of their criticism is that they cited another paper by a paper by Carroll, Ortlund, and Thornton which traced (successfully) the evolutionary history of a class of proteins. Big mistake. As I pointed out, one of the failings of the Gauger/Axe approach is that they're asking how one protein evolved into a cousin protein, without considering the ancestral history …they make the error of trying to argue that an extant protein couldn't have directly evolved into another extant protein, when no one argues that they did.

The tactical error is that right there in the very first paragraph of their paper, Carroll, Ortlund, and Thornton point out the fallacy of what the creationists were doing.

Direct comparisons among present-day proteins can sometime yield insights into the sequence and structural mechanisms that underlie functional differences. Such "horizontal" comparisons, however, cannot determine which protein features are ancestral and which are derived, so they are not suited to reconstructing the events that produced functional diversity.

They don't mention Gauger and Axe, of course — this paper was written before the creationists wrote theirs — but a methodological flaw is still spelled out plainly, the creationists reference it so I presume they read it, and they still charged ahead and did their flawed study, and then had the gall to claim their work was superior.

The Discovery Institute has me on a mailing list for their newsletter, Nota Bene. That's probably unwise: usually I just glance at it, see another ignorant bit of fluff from Luskin or Nelson or one of the other usual suspects, and I snigger and hit 'delete', but sometimes they brag about how they're really doing science, and I look a little closer. And then I might feel motivated to take a slap at them.

The latest issue contains an article by Ann Gauger, babbling about her recent publication disproving Darwinism, written with her colleague Douglas Axe, published in their tame 'science' journal, Bio-complexity, and edited by Michael Behe. It's not work that could survive in a real journal, I'm afraid.

Freshwater: Another one down

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A while back I mentioned that one of the legal proceedings initiated by John Freshwater in aid of his quest to regain his teaching job was a complaint to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission alleging religious discrimination by the school district in his firing. I’ve finally learned that the Commission dismissed that complaint way back last June, saying

Based on the investigation conducted in this matter, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission has determined that there is No Probable Cause to believe that the Respondent [the school district] engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice under section 4112 of the Ohio Revised Code and hereby orders that this matter be Dismissed. (bolding in the original)

Still in progress (if that’s the right word!) are Freshwater’s complaint (on the same ground) to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and his appeal of Judge Otho Eyster’s decision on Freshwater’s appeal of his termination in the state court system.

Euonymus alatus

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Euonymus alatus – burning bush.

Waaay OT: For Donald Westlake fans

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Barnes & Noble is bringing out a slew of Westlake books for the Nook late this month. Westlake, who died nearly three years ago, was the creator of John Archibald Dortmunder, one of the great comic criminals in the genre, and it looks like a bunch of the Dortmunder books are among those being published for the Nook.

For those wondering where it went…

I unpublished a post I put up 17 minutes ago on the HuffPo’s reporting of Freshwater’s appeal. I failed to read carefully and mistook an AP news story reported on the Rutherford Institute’s site as the press release I linked below. Mea culpa.

Ardea herodias

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Ardea herodias – great blue heron, Walden Ponds, Boulder, Colorado.

Freshwater: Appeal Denied (UPDATED)

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Today Judge Otho Eyster of the Knox County (Ohio) Court of Common Pleas denied John Freshwater’s appeal of his termination as a middle school science teacher by the Mt. Vernon City Schools. In his ruling (Page 1 and Page 2, both PDFs at the Mount Vernon News site), Judge Eyster wrote that “Based on the number of witnesses and exhibits presented at the Referee’s hearing held over a period of twenty-one (21) months, the Court finds Freshwater’s request that the Court conduct additional hearings is not well taken.” Further, the Judge wrote, “…there is clear and convincing evidence to support the Board of Education’s termination of Freshwater’s contract(s) for good and just cause,…”.

In the decision Freshwater was ordered to pay the costs of the proceeding.

As I understand it, Freshwater still has the option to pursue an appeal of Judge Eyster’s ruling up the ladder of the state courts. As far as I know he still has the support of the Rutherford Institute. No public comments by Freshwater and/or that Institute concerning the Court’s ruling have as yet been made.

UPDATE As foreshadowed just above, The Rutherford Institute today (Oct 6) issued a press release saying it will appeal Judge Eyster’s decision to the Ohio 5th District Court of Appeals. (Hat tip to Accountability in the Media, a site operated by Freshwater supporters.)

Carnival of Evolution 40

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CoEButton.jpgThe 40th Edition of the magnificent Carnival of Evolution is now up at EvoEcoLab. You’ll find a rich diversity of entries, ranging from antibiotic-resistant ice-age bacteria to penguins in Africa. A book review, a podcast, and Flying Monsters 3D. Letters from Huxley. The cost of lanterns (fireflies are the topic). “Magic traits.” Jawless fish, fish with limbs, malaria. And, of course, sex with Neanderthals.

Carnival admission is free. Rides are safe for people, but may be harmful to ideas. Now run along!

Aquamarine on feldspar and mica

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Aquamarine on feldspar and mica, with smoky quartz in the background, from Diane’s Pocket, Mt. Antero, Chaffee County, Colorado. Geology Museum, Colorado School of Mines, May 2011.

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