June 2012 Archives

PNAS special issue on evolution and the brain


The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has a special issue consisting of papers from the most recent Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences under the general title “In the Light of Evolution VI: Brain and Behavior.” Topics range from the evolution of protosynaptic gene expression networks to “A hierarchical model of the evolution of human brain specializations.” Full texts are available free.

Hat tip to Todd Wood.

Lygaeus kalmii


Lygaeus kalmii – small milkweed bug. Compare with box elder bug, Boisea trivittata, which we displayed here.

Read alla bout it! Radical Muslim organization Answers in Koran opens theme park in Kentucky. In rare display of ecumenism, governor promises additional theme parks dedicated to Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, and Scientology:

Gov. Beshear [says] that even though he might not agree with the religious message of the park, the economic benefits of Koran Kountry make it worthy of his administration’s support.

“I wasn’t elected to debate religion,” Beshear said. “I was elected to create jobs.”

Thanks again to Dan Phelps for the link.

Photography contest, IV


Polish your lenses (but not dry, please) – this post announces the fourth Panda’s Thumb photography contest,

Lab Rats

The winners will receive the usual great deal of satisfaction and a so far unspecified prize.

The theme of the contest is lab rats, by which we mean any object of experimentation or observation, from single-celled organisms, through nematodes, fruit flies, rats, chimpanzees, and undergraduates to volcanoes, stars, and galaxies. In order not to omit theoreticians, we will consider computer-generated pictures and also photographs of equipment, such as computers. Photomicrographs and electron micrographs are likewise welcomed.

Similarly, in order not to omit laypersons, we will have a second, general category, which includes pictures of just about anything of scientific interest. If we get enough entries, consistently with Rules 12 and 13, we may divide either category and award additional prizes, presuming, of course, that we can find some prizes.

The rules will be substantially the same as last year’s and will be posted in detail on Monday, July 30, at noon, Mountain Daylight Time (UTC - 6 h). We will accept entries from July 30 through August 13, inclusive.

We will leave this post in place for one week.

Wiley’s Non Sequitur cartoon for today, June 18, 2012, “very nicely captures the problem of the creation laws,” as my colleague Kim Johnson very nicely put it

Wright State U., you’re doin’ it wrong


Ratio Christi is a new-ish college campus oriented apologetics organization whose Wright State University (Ohio) chapter’s goal “… is to populate heaven by planting seeds of Truth into the minds of atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and spiritual seekers.” If one is so inclined, one can earn a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) at a discount through Ratio Christi. In some ways Ratio Christi looks like a sort of successor to Casey Luskin’s now-defunct IDEA center.

Like Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, Ratio Christi is heavy on anti-evolution. It’s recommended resources include books and papers by Disco ‘Tute stalwarts like Michael Behe, David Berlinski, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, and Jonathan Wells, along with Fuzzy Rana of Reasons to Believe, young earth creationist Paul Garner, and apologetics philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

The subtitle of this book is “Confessions of a religious paleontologist,” but you will find only one confession: that the author, Robert Asher, believes in God. More on that later.

The heart of the book is 8 chapters that irrefutably demonstrate descent with modification. I found much of the book compelling, but also fairly difficult and much more detailed than I thought appropriate for a lay audience. A number of times, Asher uses a term that is obviously well known to biologists, but known to me only vaguely if at all – and I have been a fellow traveler in biology for approximately a decade. Pseudogene, for example, appears, undefined, in the very last sentence of the chapter that describes the evolution of whales from terrestrial to marine animals. I looked it up in the index and found that it is defined, implicitly at best, 50 pages later.

No, I am not fooling or exaggerating. You may see a billboard here. As nearly as I can tell, they are serious about it.

Thanks to Dan Phelps for the link.

Florida Citizens for Science points to the existence of a new group, Citizens for Objective Public Education, and says,

I have an assignment for you folks. The national science standards that many states, including Florida, are considering adopting are predictably under fire due to the prominence of evolution in the draft document. Kansas has hit the news first, firing the initial shot: Kan. official wants evolution concerns considered,

referring to an AP release which is posted in somewhat longer form here. According to an AP release datelined Topeka,

Both Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum are wrong, but I think Drum is infuriatingly wrong.

They're arguing over a statistic, the observation that about 46% of Americans believe the earth is 6000 years old and that a god created human beings complete and perfect as they are ex nihilo. Andrew Sullivan sees this as a consequence of the divisiveness of American politics, that they're using it as a signifier for red vs. blue.

I'm not sure how many of the 46 percent actually believe the story of 10,000 years ago. Surely some of them know it's less empirically supported than Bigfoot. My fear is that some of that 46 percent are giving that answer not as an empirical response, but as a cultural signifier. That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America, or whatever the "other" is at any given point in time. I simply do not know how you construct a civil discourse indispensable to a functioning democracy with this vast a gulf between citizens in their basic understanding of the world.

Transit of Venus


Transit of Venus, Boulder, Colorado, June 5, 2012. This picture was taken by projecting an image of the sun onto a smooth, white cardboard, using an 8x25 monocular fixed to a tripod. The eyepiece of the monocular was adjusted to project an image approximately 0.5 m from the eyepiece. The monocular had a pair of erecting prisms, so the image at the focus of the objective is erect; the image on the screen is therefore inverted. The printing on the cardboard was an aid to focusing; the camera was handheld. Unfortunately, there was a cloud cover most of the day; if you look closely, you can see both clouds and sunspots.


Photograph by David Young. This picture was taken with an SLR camera with a 270-mm lens and a solar filter, all mounted on a tripod.

By Yan Linhart, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado at Boulder

Lou Guillette, an expert on sexual development, explained to a congressional committee in 1993 that sperm counts have been decreasing for decades and warned the congressmen, “Every man sitting in this room today is half the man his grandfather was!” Since Guillette’s testimony, we have learned further that the sex ratios of newborn babies are changing in some industrialized regions: the proportion of newborn males to females is decreasing.

These dramatic changes are associated with our increasing exposure to multiple chemicals and may shape our evolution as a species. Gender-bending chemicals affect some individuals more than others and some populations more than others. In addition, they can reduce the frequency of fertile males in populations of humans and wildlife.

cover_nature.jpgWell, I just got interviewed about this, so I suppose I should blog it! Today a review paper is coming out in Nature entitled “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere” (Nature, UC Berkeley press release) It is getting a huge amount of press, in part because of the message, and in part because of the upcoming United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The message of the paper is that, while much is uncertain, we think that the biosphere – the global community of species and ecosystems – is heading for a “state shift”, or “tipping point”, due to human activity. More on what exactly this means in a moment.

Congratulations to Eugenie Scott


Genie has been announced as the recipient of the 2012 Richard Dawkins Award, which will be delivered at the Denver meeting of the Atheist Alliance of America on Labor Day weekend. Everyone be there to applaud wildly!

Gill slits, and Adam and Eve


Troy Britain at Playing Chess with Pigeons does an exceedingly thorough job on creationist and IDist blather about gill slits in embryology, and in the process provides some nice historical context. Recommended.

And for the “ID isn’t religious” crowd out there, IDists Ann Gauger and Douglas Axe of the Disco ‘Tute’s Biologic Institute, along with the DI’s attack gerbil Casey Luskin, have a new book called Science and Human Origins coming out in which they “…debunk recent claims that the human race could not have started from an original couple.” An intelligent design argument for a literal Adam and Eve, anyone? The Discovery Institute is becoming more and more overtly creationist, with apologetics overwhelming any scientific aspirations it might once have had. And after all, what do those dumb population geneticists know?

Charadrius vociferus


Charadrius vociferus – killdeer. Walden Ponds, Boulder, Colorado.

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