December 2013 Archives

The bad news: Only 67 % of Democrats accept evolution. The worse news: Only 43 % of Republicans accept evolution. The very worst news: The Republicans are down 5 % from 4 years ago. This, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, as reported by CBS news in an article entitled “Republicans’ belief in evolution plummets, poll reveals.”

More precisely, Pew asked whether “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, or humans and other living things have evolved over time.” You may see the report, “Public’s views on human evolution,” here.

Pew reports a number of “key findings,” such as organizing the data as a function of religion; no surprises there. Approximately 1/3 of all adults agree “that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution [was] due to natural processes,” whereas approximately 1/4 of all adults believe that “[a] supreme being guided evolution.” 4 % “don’t know,” so altogether 60 % of adults accept evolution. The breakdown by religion was equally unsurprising. Interestingly, however, across every demographic, slightly more people think that “[nonhuman] animals have evolved over time” than that “humans have evolved over time.”

Finally, I use “accept” evolution, rather than Pew’s and CBS’s “believe in,” because evolution – descent with modification – is a scientific fact and not a belief.

Necrophila americana

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Photograph by Peter Clark.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Necrophila americana, American carrion beetles devouring what is probably a Boletus mushroom. The large mushroom was reduced to shreds in about two hours. Boxford, Massachusetts, August, 2007.

In science we often get together with other scientists and present preliminary results before the publication of the manuscript.  I think that attending meetings is an excellent opportunity to learn what other people are working on, share the research that I am currently engaged in, and both give and receive feedback about the analysis and interpretations.

In this case, I presented a poster at the scientific meeting I attended, the 2013 annual meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, about work that was recently accepted for publication (expected to be published in January). I’m working on an accessible research blog post about this work. In the meantime, here is the description from the poster this summer, and the pdf version of the poster (you can also download the preprint version here):

Megadyptes antipodes

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Photograph by Erik Duerr.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Megadyptes antipodes, yellow-eyed penguin, Sandfly Bay, South Island, New Zealand. Mr. Duerr writes, “The yellow-eyed penguin is probably the world’s rarest (population ~4000) and most ancient (i.e., created slightly before the others on Day 5). It’s IUCN listed as endangered, with habitat degradation and predation by exotic predators among the primary reasons. The photograph actually isn’t great because the light was low and I don’t have the fancy lenses needed for those conditions, but I thought the pathos of a penguin trying to walk up a sand dune was too much to pass up! He persevered through many slides backward.”

This is a splendid book, though frankly it does not entirely live up to its subtitle, “The scientific method in action.” What I learned most from it is that there is no scientific method, at least as it applies to startling new discoveries, and that those new discoveries are often made by people who are utterly single-minded in their dedication to their subject.

A reader asks weather anyone knows what book this page comes from or not:

MysteryWorkbook_600.jpg

I say, wind, shmind, the whether on the moon was stormy that day or not. Anyway, how do they know weather there is wind on the moon – were they there (or not)? Read and understand.…

Submitted by the Whether Underground.

Speaking of hybrids, I was reminded that after my post about the platypus (check it out here), I received a lot of funny depictions of the platypus as a hybrid. Before I share, however, let’s get one thing straight:

The platypus is not a hybrid.
The platypus is not a hybrid.
The platypus is not a hybrid.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s have some fun. Every time you see one, you can be the one to explain that the platypus belongs to a unique lineage of mammals that, while awesome, is not a beaver-duck hybrid (or maybe that’s just what I’ll do). Please share more in the comments.

EIGHT Years Already? Merry Kitzmas!

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Can you believe it’s been EIGHT YEARS since Judge Jones issued a devastating anti-“Intelligent Design” ruling?

Ah, the memories of Kitzmas past. Remember “Waterloo in Dover”? “Cdesign proponentsists.”? The “breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision”?

I freely admit, this is basically the same post I did two years ago to mark Kitzmas. It’s looking more and more like the Intelligent Design movement is hoping we forget all about this black mark on their movement.

Why, there’s not even the cursory dismissal of Judge Jones over at the ID movement’s whining page.

Merry Kitzmas, everyone!

Merry Kitzmas!

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See above. :)

Ice stalagmite in lava tube

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Photograph by James Rice.

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Ice stalagmite in lava tube, Arizona. Mr. Rice evidently sent us this picture in retaliation for our posting last week.

I was recently invited to comment on an Anthropology Network discussion on LinkedIn, where someone asked, “I’m wondering what this community’s thoughts are about the theory that humans are a hybrid?” and linked to the blog post by Eugene McCarthy supposing that humans resulted from a hybridization event between chimpanzees and pigs. Because it is a private network, I’d like to repost, with some expansions, what I added to that discussion. But, let’s just start off by clearing the air: 

Chimpanzees did not mate with pigs and produce humans.

Chimpanzee, by Ikiwaner (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Adorable piggy, by A R, via Wikimedia Commons


I am not a little piggy!


by Gert Korthof

Origin of life researcher and Nobel Prize winner Jack Szostak has made an important step towards creating a prebiotically plausible protocell (prebiotic implies that it did not originate from pre-existing forms of life, but its components could have self-assembled from raw materials available under physical and chemical conditions of the early earth). The protocell is a fatty acid vesicle, which is a simpler form of a cell membrane, in which RNA replication occurs autonomously without the help of enzymes. The results have been published in Science Nov 29 2013.

This is the first time that nonenzymatic RNA copying succeeded inside a fatty acid vesicle. The big obstacle has always been that magnesium ion Mg2+ was necessary for RNA copying, but two negative side-effects of high Mg2+ levels frustrated success. Firstly, high Mg2+ levels break down the simple, fatty acid membranes that probably surrounded the first living cells. Secondly, Mg2+ catalyses degradation of single-stranded RNA. After a long trial-and-error process, Szostak et al. discovered that citrate removes these two side-effects. Citrate efficiently protects fatty acid membranes from the disruptive effects of high Mg2+ ion concentrations, while both allowing RNA copying and protecting single-stranded RNA from Mg2+-catalyzed degradation.

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An illustration of a protocell, composed of a fatty acid membrane encapsulating RNA ribozymes. © Exploring Life’s Origins.

Ice stalagmite

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Ice stalagmite. My furnace drowned during the recent floods in Boulder, and I replaced it with a high-efficiency furnace. The furnace discharges into a plastic pipe, which the technicians ran up the old flue. We are nearing the end of the first cold snap of the year, with nighttime temperatures running below 0 °F, and the condensation from the pipe evidently caused the ice stalagmite on the roof.

Ham-fisted animal husbandry

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Gwen Pearson, an entomologist formerly known as Bug Girl, has performed sort of a retrospective analysis of the Ark Park‘s facilities for caring for its animals. You might have thought that the Ham-merheaded proprietors of the Ark Park would have performed a prospective analysis but evidently you would have been mistaken. Cheer up! Here is Dr. Pearson’s advice to the Ham-itic designers:

NCSE has just announced the second webinar in its ongoing series, to be held on December 18, 2013, at 1:00 p.m. PST. The webinar will focus on “[s]topping bad legislation and encouraging policymakers to support strong science education…,” according to NCSE.

The webinar will be led by Josh Rosenau, Programs and Policy Director for NCSE; Vic Hutchison, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma, and founder and past president of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education; and Dena Sher, legislative counsel at the ACLU’s national office. You may register for the webinar here.

We reported on NCSE’s earlier webinar here.

Freshwater: Memo opposing reconsideration

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The Mt. Vernon Board of Education’s attorneys have filed a memo in opposition to John Freshwater’s motion to the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider his case. The memo essentially argues that Freshwater has nothing new in his motion for reconsideration, no new evidence or arguments, but is merely a rehash of his previous claims, and therefore it should be denied. It argues on the same grounds on which the Court made its decision, that the case for Freshwater’s insubordination is sufficient by itself to uphold Freshwater’s termination.

A couple months ago, Richard Hoppe and I blogged about the lawsuit brought by a creationist group against the state of Kansas, alleging that teaching real science to students violates the First Amendment by “indoctrinating” them with ideas that might make them question their religious training. State officials today filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit, which you can read here. It’s a very strong motion–the most important parts are pages 28-43–so I don’t have much to add. Kansas is clearly in the right and deserves easily to win this motion. More at the NCSE’s site.

Here’s some reading material for you: A new article by Chris Mooney, posted at Mother Jones, argues that we have certain psychological dispositions that make it easier for us to accept religion than evolution. Larry Moran was not impressed with the article. Neither was Jerry Coyne. But I think the article was a bit better than they suggest, and I make my case in this post over at EvolutionBlog. Comments may be left there. Enjoy!

The Honors program at the University of Central Florida has a documentary film class whose previous projects have been well-received. Now, they are crowdsourcing funding for their latest project, “Filthy Dreamers”. This one is about antievolution efforts in Florida following the 1925 Scopes trial.

In the late 1920’s a controversy sparked about the teaching of evolution to women students at Florida State Women’s College. Nearly 100 years later, public figures and activists are still trying to control curriculum in public schools, colleges and universities. The students enrolled in this Honors class through the University of Central Florida aim to educate and inform our viewers about the long history of censorship in the classrooms, the libraries and around the campus.

Please check it out.

By Gaylen Rathburn, via Wikimedia Commons


I was excited to learn today that there is genome sequence for the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus)!! A friend wondered why I was so excited, asking, “Is it evolutionarily interesting?”

Well, first off, I’ve always been fascinated with manatees: they are so defenseless, and yet grow so large that they are rarely predated on. They are, however, especially susceptible to human-made water vessels. I am excited for their genome because I’ve always loved them. But, they are also pretty evolutionarily awesome.

I am a little bit late reporting this, but Josh Rosenau reported on November 26,

It’s a joy to be able to report on a sweeping victory for science education in Texas, and to be able to give an eyewitness report of the fight over the textbooks that will be used in that massive textbook market for years to come. The 2009 battle over Texas science standards made it quite possible that the textbooks adopted last week would be riddled with creationist claims, or would give creationist board members a toehold to demand that publishers rewrite their books or be left off of the state’s approved list. In the end, the books available to students will be solid, accurate, and honest about evolution and climate change.

Alligator mississippiensis

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Photograph by Rick Duhrkopf.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Alligator mississippiensis - American alligator, Anahuac National Wildlife Preserve, Anahuac County, Texas.

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