July 2012 Archives

Photography contest, IV



The fourth Panda’s Thumb photography contest,

Lab rats,

begins – now!

We will accept entries from July 30 through August 13, inclusive.

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 encourage entries in 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 more prizes.

The winners will receive an autographed copy of Among the Creationists, by Jason Rosenhouse, which received a very favorable review here.

Better late than never


In 1999 I posted to the Talk Reason website a critical review of Professor Nathan Aviezer’s book In the Beginning [1] and of his article The Anthropic Principle published in the Jewish Action journal [2]. My review was titled The End of the Beginning (see here.) [3]. Soon afterward one of my friends (on his own initiative) sent a copy of that essay to Aviezer and asked him to respond. Professor Aviezer chose to ignore my friend’s request. Of course, Professor Aviezer was under no obligation to respond to critique. In the following years my essay evoked some discussion on the internet, but Professor Aviezer remained silent in regard to my critique. In 2003 my book Unintelligent Design [4] was published, wherein one chapter was a slightly modified and updated version of my essay in question. Professor Aviezer remained unresponsive to my critique. Suddenly, in February 2012, 13 years after my review of his work appeared, Professor Aviezer posted a reply (see torahmusings.com/2012/02/fossils-and-faith ) [5].

See the full text of this post here.

SchwabFigure 2.2_600.jpg

Erythropsidium – a protist with a simple eye, or ocellus. Figure 2.2 of Evolution’s Witness. Image © F.J.R. “Max” Taylor, Ph.D.

Who knew? A single-celled organism has a camera eye with a lens. A certain fish has two corneas and controls the intensity of light on its retina by injecting pigmented particles between them. Other animals can shield their rods (the receptors for low intensity) during the day. A conch can grow a wholly new eye. A flatfish has both eyes on the same side of its head, but starts life with bilateral symmetry. A sea snake has a light sensor in its tail to ensure that the tail is hidden under a rock. Some birds cram their corneas through their irises in order to focus on nearby objects under water. The woodcock can see behind its own head - in stereo. Some animals have two foveas in each eye, one for peripheral vision and one for binocular vision.

Late last night, I got word from Ed Brayton that Panda’s Thumb blogger Skip Evans was found dead at his Madison, Wisconsin home. Skip had been having problems with his cardiovascular system, and so far as we know now those problems appear to have been the cause of his death.

Skip should be well known to most of our readers, either by his posts here or by some of the contributions that he made to advancing science education and countering the socio-political machinations of the creationism movement. A couple of the high-profile things Skip did included much of the concept of NCSE’s “Project Steve” and its naming, plus taking on (now convicted felon) “Dr.” Kent Hovind concerning his “doctoral disssertation”. Skip personally requested a copy of Hovind’s dissertation from “Patriot University”, and they shipped Skip the original, including taped-in graphics Hovind had scissored out of science magazines.

I’ll plan to add some photos later, but I wanted this news to go out soonest to our community. Skip was a friend of mine, and I appreciated his good humor. I already miss him.

His colleague posted this comment on Facebook:

To ease the pain of Skip’s dear friends, please know that he has so many people who loved him here. He was only with our company a year, but brought more life and energy to us in that short time than most people do in a lifetime. I went to a presentation on the fallacies of creationism a few weeks ago, where Skip gave an irreverent and poignant and funny talk. Over 150 people were in stitches. We were lucky to know him.

Hyla chrysoscelis


Photograph by Nicholas Plummer.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Hyla chrysoscelis – Cope’s gray tree frog.

Still more fun: Douglas Axe’s Crocoduck


In addition to being the bananaman, Ray Comfort is the co-popularizer of the crocoduck. Comfort believes that because modern biology shows that birds are descended from theropod ancestors, there must be a transitional form between extant birds and extant reptiles; hence a half-crocodile, half-duck. Here’s the video in which Comfort’s ex-child actor sidekick Kirk Cameron made that claim.

That general false claim–the claim that evolution predicts that there must be an evolutionary pathway directly linking two extant organisms or extant biological structures–is not unique to creationist loons, though. Doug Axe has posted a response to Paul McBride’s review of “Science and Human Origins” on ENV, and has disabled comments on his post. I won’t elaborate, but will note that an amusing part of Axe’s response is this:

Ann [Gauger] and I conducted experiments to find out how many changes would have to occur in a particular enzyme X in order for it to begin performing the function of another enzyme, Y. We found that they are too numerous for unguided evolution to have accomplished this transformation, even with the benefits of a massive bacterial population and billions of years. Having carefully made the case that our chosen X and Y are appropriate for the aims of our study, we think this result has catastrophic implications for Darwinism.

As has been shown, though, the research that Axe cites, The Evolutionary Accessibility of New Enzymes Functions: A Case Study from the Biotin Pathway, does not test an evolutionary hypothesis. By studying whether one extant enzyme in a family of enzymes could have evolved from another extant enzyme in the same family, when the evolutionary account is actually that both evolved from a common ancestor, Gauger and Axe are making precisely the same error that Comfort and Cameron made: the notion that “common descent” means that related extant populations evolved from each other, rather than from a common ancestral population. That about equivalent to claiming that common descent means that I am descended from my cousin Keith.

Even young-earth creationist biochemist Todd Wood rebutted that particular claim more than a year ago. Wood wrote

Instead of ancestral reconstruction, Gauger and Axe focused directly on converting an existing enzyme into another existing enzyme. That left me scratching my head, since no evolutionary biologist would propose that an extant enzyme evolved directly into another extant enzyme. So they’re testing a model that no one would take seriously? Hmmm…

Axe and Gauger quite simply didn’t test an evolutionary hypothesis in the paper Axe cited, but Axe continues to claim that it says something about the limits of evolution. But when even an honest young-earth creationist sees the error, persisting in it is no more than perverse. Axe is doing the equivalent of waving Ray Comfort’s crocoduck over his head, hollering “Evolution couldn’t do it!” Maybe Ray will have an opening in his ministry for Axe when the BioLogic Institute sinks beneath the waves.

Fun on Facebook


The BioLogic Institute, the purported research arm of the Disco ‘Tute, now has a Facebook page where they post miscellaneous anti-evolution notes, many from the recent book by Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin titled “Science and Human Origins”. One recent note was headed

From the scientific evidence, it is stubbornly uncertain how the first humans arose, whether from a lineage including ape-like creatures and far humbler ancestors or not.

Nick Matzke did a lovely job of rebutting that claim in the comment thread on the post. In the end, ‘BioLogic Institute’ abandoned the field, saying

I am closing this discussion because we are talking past each other. Our responses will be posted separately at www.biologicinstitute.org.

Where, as Jeff Shallit noted, comments are not allowed. As is their habit, when challenged the brave scientists of the Disco ‘Tute retreat to their insulated world, safe from those pesky critics’ comments.

Troy Britain smacks Casey Luskin


Troy Britain at Playing Chess with Pigeons flays a post by Casey Luskin about a recent paper on proto-feathers on dinosaur fossils. Britain shows how Luskin doctors a quotation by replacing a comma with a period, uses strategic ellipses in quotations to conceal relevant context, and in the end questions the common descent of dinosaurs. Yup, that means that Luskin really did imply something like the separate creation of ornithischians, saurischians, and theropods, three major clades of dinosaurs.

In other news, dog bites man.

Anthracoceros coronatus


Photograph by Siromi Samarasinghe.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Anthracoceros coronatus – Malabar pied hornbill, Bundala National Park, Sri Lanka.


Jason Rosenhouse moved from the east coast to Kansas for a postdoc. He had studied a bit about creationism while a graduate student at Dartmouth, so it would be an exaggeration to say that he was surprised to learn that not everyone in Kansas was a liberal Democrat (even by today’s standard of liberalism). Nevertheless, for reasons that are not made completely clear, he humored his inner anthropologist and attended a handful of creationist conferences over a period of several years. The result is the splendid book Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, which both shows creationists as regular people, just like scientists, and also takes them seriously, without condescension or sarcasm.

Not that Rosenhouse cuts them any slack. He gets up to the microphone and asks pointed questions, and he is completely open about who he is and what he believes. He mingles with the conference attendees and is impressed by how very pleasant they are; he is pleasant in return, except for one apparently unfortunate interaction with Ken Ham. Nevertheless, however pleasant the creationists may be, Rosenhouse makes clear that he and his interlocutors are always talking past each other, and his critiques have virtually no effect - except occasionally, when he sees a young student listening intently and thinks he may have planted some seeds of doubt.

Freshwater: No clear indication?


One of the claims in John Freshwater’s appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court is that he was “…not provided any clear indication as to the kinds of materials or teaching methods which are unacceptable…”. That is, no one told poor John what he couldn’t teach by way of alternatives. I spend a little time looking for evidence that he was in fact given guidance with respect to material inappropriate for use in his 8th grade science classroom. It turns out that there’s a fair amount of evidence that on a number of occasions Freshwater was specifically instructed that creationist and intelligent design material was not appropriate. I’ll mention a few salient occasions here that took me less than 30 minutes to find. Note that they’re from sworn testimony in the administrative hearing, the basis for the original resolution to terminate Freshwater’s employment as a middle school science teacher.

First, of course, there’s Freshwater’s 2002-2003 proposal that the Mt. Vernon district adopt the Intelligent Design Network’s Objective Origins Science Policy, and to add “critically analyze evolution” language to the district’s science curriculum. In support of his proposal Freshwater offered Jonathan Wells’ Survival of the Fakest, originally published in that distinguished science journal The American Spectator (actually a conservative commentary rag). He also distributed Wells’ Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution, and among those who spoke to the BOE in support of his proposal was young earth creationist Georgia Purdom, then an assistant professor at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, now a full-time employee of Answers in Genesis.

Freshwater’s proposal was rejected by the District’s Science Curriculum Committee and then by the Board of Education. That looks like a clear indication to me.

Freshwater: The Columbus Dispatch editorializes


The Columbus Dispatch is the major (and conservative-leaning) newspaper in central Ohio. Its coverage of the Freshwater case has been quite good–it had a reporter attending many of the sessions of the administrative hearing. Now, with the Ohio Supreme Court having accepted Freshwater’s appeal for consideration, the Dispatch has a strong editorial on the topic. The last three paragraphs of the editorial are

Lower courts have spoken clearly: Freshwater violated the Constitution by using his position as a teacher to attempt to impart his religious beliefs.

Equally important, he failed his students, by presenting a religious belief as science, when it is nothing of the sort. Science, by definition, is the study of natural processes, not supernatural ones. Any theory that invokes supernatural explanations for natural phenomena is not science, it is religion, and therefore is inappropriate in a science class.

The Supreme Court can do public education a great service by upholding the right of school boards to insist that science classrooms be reserved for the teaching of science.

It was good to read that.

Tetraopes tetrophthalmus


Tetraopes tetrophthalmus – red milkweed beetle, Chautauqua Park, Boulder, Colorado. See also small milkweed bug.

“Science and Human Origins” (Amazon; Barnes&Noble) is a slim book recently published by the Disco ‘Tute’s house press. It’s by Ann Gauger and Douglas Axe, members of the Disco Tute’s Biologic Institute, along with Casey Luskin. The book is blurbed thusly:

In this provocative book, three scientists challenge the claim that undirected natural selection is capable of building a human being, critically assess fossil and genetic evidence that human beings share a common ancestor with apes, and debunk recent claims that the human race could not have started from an original couple.

In other words, down with common descent, and while we’re at it, a literal Adam and Eve could have been the ancestors of the whole human species.

And by three scientists? Ah, yes, I momentarily forgot that Casey Luskin got a Master’s in Earth Science before he went off to law school and then got a job with the Disco ‘Tute, where he is now listed as “Research Coordinator” (and is there called an attorney rather than a scientist). Once again, one detects a touch of inflationary credentialism.

Fortunately for me, I’m spared the chore of reading and critiquing the book. Paul McBride, a Ph.D. candidate in vertebrate macroecology/evolution in New Zealand who writes Still Monkeys, bit the bullet and did a chapter by chapter (all five chapters) review of the book. The book doesn’t come out looking good (is anyone surprised?). I’m going to shamelessly piggyback on McBride’s review. I’ll link to his individual chapter reviews, adding some commentary, below the fold.

At Evolution2012 in spirit


Evolution 2012 is starting tomorrow! This time it’s in Ottawa, representing the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology – a meeting of the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE), the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB), the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), and the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB).

Sadly, though, I can’t go this year. A good friend of mine is having her wedding right in the middle of the meeting. There’s only one wedding in someone’s life (well, hopefully!) and there are a lot of meetings, so I picked the wedding. I guess the wedding won’t be entirely evolution-free, seeing as the bride studies extinct giant sloths.

But at the moment I’m looking over the program for Evolution 2012 and experiencing a few missing-the-conference blues.

Ah, but here’s something to cheer me up. After you’ve been in science for awhile, you discover that you don’t even have to be at a meeting for your name to get into the program, due to the collaborations you are involved with! Here are the papers I’m a coauthor on:

The Ohio Supreme Court has accepted John Freshwater’s appeal of his termination as a middle school science teacher in the Mt. Vernon, Ohio, City Schools. The appeal was accepted on two Propositions of Law asserted in Freshwater’s Memorandum in Support (large-ish pdf).

The first Proposition of Law in the appeal claims that

The termination of a public school teacher’s employment contract based on the teacher’s use of academic freedom where the school board has not provided any clear indication as to the kinds of materials or teaching methods which are unacceptable cannot be legally justified, as it constitutes an impermissible violation of the rights of the teacher and his students to free speech and academic freedom under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and a manifestation of hostility toward religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The second Proposition of Law claims that

The termination of a public school teacher’s employment contract based on the mere presence of religious texts from the school’s library and/or the display of a patriotic poster cannot be legally justified, as it constitutes an impermissible violation of the rights of a teacher and his students to free speech and academic freedom under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and a manifestation of hostility toward religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

More below the fold (if my power stays on!)

Higgs particle found?


The physics community is all a-twitter (figuratively and literally) over the announcement today from CERN that two independent teams have detected a particle that has properties consistent with those hypothesized for the Higgs boson, the particle that gives matter mass. Ethan at Starts With a Bang has some background here and has set up a trap for stories on it here.

What caught my eye today, though, was a Reuters story on the discovery. In it we read

[The Higgs boson] is the last undiscovered piece of the Standard Model that describes the fundamental make-up of the universe. The model is for physicists what the theory of evolution is for biologists.


Opheodrys aestivus


Photograph by Nicholas Plummer.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Opheodrys aestivus – rough green snake.

If you want to publish a book with a vanity press and no editorial assistance, you had better know what you are doing. Charles M. Woolf, an emeritus professor of zoology at Arizona State University, unfortunately does not know what he is doing. His book, Darwin, Darwinism, and Uncertainty, is a series of three more or less unrelated essays. The first is a biography of Darwin and attempts to show that Darwin was a believing member of the Church of England until the ascent of Darwin to agnosticism later in his life; hence, “Darwinism” and theism are not necessarily incompatible. The second and least important essay is called “Theories for the creation of the universe,” but it concerns mostly the origin of complex, self-replicating molecules, and I found much of it very difficult to understand.

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