Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

An Evolving Society

Most real scientists believe in the theory of evolution and, despite polls that show something different, I suspect that many people (especially if they aren’t Americans) would be more than willing to ascribe to an understanding more in line with a God guided process of “decent with modification” than a purely Creationist philosophy saying the world is only 6000 years old. (Even if the Chairman of the Texas Board of Education has different feelings about the issue.) The only difference between the “standard” theory of evolution and a theistic evolutionary argument is the extent to which God was involved, if at all, in tinkering with the tiny bits over time.

In recent weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to the implications of how evolution works and how evolution might work on human activities. This line of thinking was spurred by recent book review in the New York Times about A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark, a historical economist at the University of California, Davis. I will preface my comments by saying I haven’t read the book yet and am basing my comment on the description provided in the Nicolas Wade article and the preview chapter available. But then again my line of thinking only marginally touches on the thesis given by Clark.

Nevertheless, I’d like to start with a discussion of Clark’s ideas. The premise is as simple as it will be controversial.

In looking at the economic data for England for the years between 1200 and 1800, Clark argues that the English population was caught at the edge of the Malthusian limit. This is the highest population a society can sustain. In any area, the human population would grow up to the point where agricultural techniques provided just enough food for most people to survive. Any minor increase in population would soon die due to lack of food. The only exceptions to this rule were formed by increased agricultural land use and the occasional marginal improvement in technology.

From the online version of the first chapter

The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.1. Before 1800 income per person —the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.

Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.
So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.

The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed for ever the possibilities for material consumption. Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries. The richest mod ern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average. Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled. There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest.

Clark calculated that the average caloric input of the poor in pre-industrial England was a quarter less than what would have been consumed in a normal hunter-gatherer society (a point also made by Jarod Diamond in Germs, Guns and Steel). As a matter of fact, only the rich in the European societies would have been able to eat more than the 2300 calories consumed on average by hunter gatherers. I know from other reading that in the middle of the 18th century, not only the poor but even the rich regularly suffered in the late winter and early spring from symptoms of serious malnutrition. Rickets, caused by malnutrition, was still common into the early parts of the last century.

The only real exception to the continual marginal lifestyles led by the majority of people was caused by the mass deaths due to the black plague. These devastating catastrophes produced a temporary improvement in the lives of the survivors because the available aerible land was able to temporarily produce an excess until the Malthusian limit was again reached.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1800th century, a turning point was reached. Something dramatically changed in England and allowed mankind to finally escape the Malthusian Trap that had been holding it captive since the beginning of time. It was the key to this something Clark searched for.

Clark’s detective work led him into the archives looking at wills and other documents. By tracing who survived, he felt he had uncovered the reason for the Industrial Revolution. You see; as opposed to the Billy Joel song, it wasn’t the good dying young, it was the poor. There was a strong social current in English society but it ran downhill; it was the rich producing poor relatives, generation after generation, replacing the poor who had died from below. According to the New York Times review,

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes. Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy.

It is unclear, exactly, why Dr. Clark feels that literacy, thrift and a willingness to do hard work as opposed to a strong sword arm and good luck made what he calls the “economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” Especially in light of the fact that people like Charlemagne were illiterate, the cases of spendthrift kings, princes and Popes longer than the lists at any tournament and a willingness to do hard work simply ignores the amount of brutally hard work done by the poor in England.

But Clark’s merry romp through Social Darwinist philosophy unfortunately doesn’t appear to stop there. From his first chapter,

Why an Industrial Revolution in England? Why not China, India, or Japan?6 The answer hazarded here is that England’s advantages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protestant Reformation, not the Enlightenment, but the accidents of institutional stability and demography: in particular the extraordinary stability of England back to at least 1200, the slow growth of English population between 1300 and 1760, and the extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful. The embedding of bourgeois values into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics, was for these reasons the most advanced in England.

Let me try to rephrase that idea. If you wanted to genetically “prepare” a society, whether through planning or luck, for the jump into the Industrial Revolution what you need are a group of people willing to starve the poorest of the poor to make room for the more industrious, “skillful” genetic racial representatives trickling down from above. And on the other side of the globe, the Japanese Tennos were apparently too infertile to produce a social change but fertile enough to produce a field ripe to adapt to the new ideas and methods coming from England a mere 100 years later. China took a century more to get on the right track. Um. Right.

Clark also ignores the agricultural civilizations in the Americas and in Bantu Africa; all arguably similarly captured in the Malthusian Trap; all arguably with similar cultural survival rates. The article simply comments that these cultures just aren’t “ready” for western advancement yet.

My response in a word: blech.

I can’t believe this drivel managed to make it into the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps it was published because the Times’ editors know full well that the eugenic ideas presented will generate a certain amount of controversy producing in turn both readership and advertising revenue.

Is Clark really trying to push for the idea of a genetically superior upper class? Hasn’t he even seen any of the Paris Hilton escapades? What about the Norwegain princess who believes in angels? Are these people mutants?! [Well… arguably, yes – but I won’t go there.]

I am however loath to completely eliminate the idea of evolution from the how societies improve. I however don’t think the solution can be found in the evolution of bodies but in the evolution of ideas.

Thus I’d like to spend some time looking at where a naïve understanding of evolutionary thinking might take us. I’d like to look at the idea of memes. But time is short. Thus todays discussion is –

To Be Continued…

Evolution is not just a theory!

Evolution is not just a theory.

Pass the word! Digg it! Memorize the arguments!

That is all.

(Hat tip: Phil Plait/Bad Astronomy)

Creationist Poll Dancing

Monday’s Gallup poll has gotten some attention lately.

PZ Myers and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist and author of I Sold My Soul on eBay, both weighted in on the issue. People seem very surprised at the fact that a majority of Republicans support the creationist viewpoint. Actually this was to be expected and any other result would have been the earth-shattering bloggable result.

The first thing I would point out is that the majority of Americans do believe in evolution, even if the graphs being tossed about on Pharyngula and FA don’t seem to show it.

This is my graph of the Gallup data reformatted to highlight the belief in evolution over time.


Note: “Present Form” corresponds to the Gallup answer “God created man in present form.“ These numbers are roughly equivalent to the answers found when you look at the belief in the literal six-day creation story (35% in 2006 according to a Pew Research poll) and other indicators of fundamentalist religious tendencies.

There are a couple of comments you can make here. First, it is getting better. Not quickly, but it is getting better. If you consider that a belief in God will almost require dropping into either the creationist camp or into some kind of theistic evolutionary theory, the results aren’t too surprising. Also, depending on how the questions are phrased, the relative percentages within the evolution camp can shift significantly.

Perhaps far more surprising is the following result from the Gallup poll.

It might seem contradictory to believe that humans were created in their present form at one time within the past 10,000 years and at the same time believe that humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. But, based on an analysis of the two side-by-side questions asked this month about evolution and creationism, it appears that a substantial number of Americans hold these conflicting views.

  • 24% of Americans believe that both the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism are probably or definitely true
  • 41% believe that creationism is true, and that evolution is false
  • 28% believe that evolution is true, but that creationism is false
  • 3% either believe that both are false or have no opinion about at least one of the theories [my emphasis]

The means that almost a quarter of the American population have probably never taken any time to actually try to match up religion and science. Both are “true,” each in it’s own frame. You could probably pick 1 of 4 people and by deep discussion and questioning achieve nothing but irritation. The ideas would not compute. They don’t want to think about it. One could argue that they aren’t in their right minds. Which brings me to the political aspect of the poll.

According to Gallup, only 30% of Republicans believe in evolution with 68% towing the Creationist line. These numbers are almost reversed in Democratic (61%/37%) and Independent (57%/40%) camps. In the same poll, Gallup found Americans evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (31% each) and 36% mostly democratic leaning Independents.

Does this mean that being conservative means you are religious? One blogger thinks so.

People aren’t conservative because they believe in unrestricted gun ownership, and they aren’t liberal because they believe in the right of a woman to make choices about tissues in her own body. No, if this is right, people choose their beliefs because of their political temperament and not the other way around. ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ need to be seen as clusters of personality traits and stable overall worldviews, and not political creeds consisting of enumerable doctrines.

While this might be true, the skewed data might also be the result of 30 years of effort the fundamentalist religious right has put into taking over the Republican party. You might be religious and conservative. There was a time when you might also have been a Democrat. The Republican party has become so conservative because it has gotten such an influx from the Religious right.

Since the days of the Moral Majority, fundamentalist religious leaders have insistently attempted to get their followers to move into the Republican party. Not because they agree with all issues; Jesus “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God (Mat 5:9)” Christ might not have voted red in the last election. No they are Republican because that is the party the church is supporting

Jerry Fallwell said back in the 1980’s, “get them saved, get them Baptized, and get them registered.” That is why the difference between the two parties is so dramatic. The hard core believers who make up about 36% of the Republicans consider themselves a members of the Religious right as opposed to 16% in the Democratic party and 7% of Independents (Pew)

Nothing has changed, no real news here. The Republican party is made up of conservative, religious, church goers. Perhaps more surprising is that only 3 Republican candidates didn’t agree with the base. After this poll, that might change.

Let the the political poll dancing begin.

Creationist Museums – Get em while they’re hot

Ok. The evolutionary blogging community has calmed down briefly after the splash created by Ken Ham’s 27 Million dollar Creationist museum theme park. Of course there are still a few ripples.

Like the actor who played Adam in one of the Infotainment videos being the former owner and occasional star of BedroomAcrobat, a porn site. (Hey, has anyone thought about the fact that no one else in the Christian community had that much practice being fig-leaf-less? In public? Maybe the choice wasn’t that bad!)

Then there is the increasingly open spat between the organisation that built the museum theme park, Answers In Genesis – US (AiG-US) and the organisation formerly known as Answers In Genesis Australia. (TOFKAAIGAus)

TOFKAAIGAus recently published the completion of a 40 page report outlining how the AiG-US first took over AiG-Canada and then eviscerated and finally killed TOFKAAIGAus forcing it to lose the AiG name. AiG-US and particularly Ken Ham apparently marginalized the Australian CEO Carl Wieland after which the Australian Board of Directors to signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) and a Deed of Copyright Licence (DOCL) which “seriously disadvantaged” the Australian ministry.

The report makes interesting reading and highlights the behind the scenes manoeuvring that goes on in many large organisations. Interesting is how former Chief Magistrate Clarrie Briese, author of the report, indignantly points out how, um, unbiblical this behaviour has been. Scandalous.

TOFKAAIGAus has apparently filed suit so we’ll have to wait for results but, in the mean time, they have found a new shorter acronym, Creation Ministries International – CMI.

But what do you do if you don’t have 27 Million dollars or another country’s ministry to plunder?

No matter, you open a Creationist museum theme park anyway. According to Canada’s Globe & Mail ,

Harry Nibourg wasn’t sure what to expect when he opened Canada’s first permanent creationist museum to the public yesterday, so he asked volunteers to act as security guards just in case.

But there were no protesters or trouble, only about 20 people eager to see what all the fuss is about these days in Big Valley, a southern Alberta village of 350 people that’s surrounded by green fields, oil-well pump jacks and cattle.

Mr. Nibourg’s tiny Big Valley Creation Science Museum, which still smells of fresh paint, is crammed with material that purports to debunk evolution and prove that the universe was created by God some 6,000 years ago and that dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth together. Located about 200 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, the museum, which has attracted international media attention, has been both condemned and praised on the letters-to-the-editor pages of Alberta’s two largest daily newspapers.

So for those of you closer to Canada than Kentucky, you can go to Big Valley and visit the slightly scaled down house of propaganda.

While visiting wonderful Alberta, you could also visit the correctly famous Royal Tyrrell Museum which houses one of the worlds largest collections of fossils and is only 600 kilometers away in Drumheller, Alberta.

After all, who needs Ken Ham to get ham fisted Creationist propagnda? Creationsit museums – perhaps cheaper by the dozen.

(Hat Tip Don Spencer’s Artifacts)

What Need Forgiveness

One argument often brought against atheists is that they can present no ultimate authority for ethics. This, apologetics argue, will lead down a slippery slope where relative ethics become no ethics; genial coexistence leading to genocide. Should the secular ethicist present the idea of an evolved morality, the apologetic will riposte again with the relativistic argument that evolution implies change – ergo the slippery slope beckons yet again.

But what if there is an ultimate morality. What if ethics is a framework not for prescriptive morals but descriptive reality? What if moral feelings are as “natural” as sight? What if the sense of righteousness is often overlooked, not because it does not exist, but because it is perhaps most easily overridden and ignored (maybe because it is most recently evolved)?

Before I embark on an exploration of morals, I’d like to detour into the realm of our more well understood senses; moving from the precise to the relative, in order to give myself a framework for discussion.

Let us start with that most important sense, sight. If you take an atheist and the most fundamental Christian (or Muslim) out on a beautiful summer day, both would agree that the sky is blue. Before the work of Newton, Foucault and others, the description of light wasn’t understood as a physical phenomena; the sky was “just” blue; now we understand the manner in which the light is scattered giving us a physical understand of such a beautiful backdrop.

As the day passes into evening, the sky might turn a beautiful shade of red. Let us bring a third person to our group. Discussing the evening sky, the first person comments on the beautiful hue, the second agrees. But the newcomer disagrees and says the sky is simply gray. You see our third individual is color-blind, physically unable to detect the color red (a condition far more common than you might think).

Irrespective of our group the sky still has a color, be it blue, red or gray. Key here is that the physical ability of each person limits the capability to see color. That ability is not only inborn but changes from person to person. We accept it as a fact of life, like the fact that some people are taller than others, with no further thought.

We can continue our thought experiment by moving to the idea of smell. Let us take our group and lead them to a flower, asking each to partake of its wonderful aroma. The first, a parfumeur, pronounces the scent exquisitely unique and breathtaking, the second, consumed by a bad cold, smells nothing. The last refuses to consider the idea in the knowledge that the mere attempt will likely produce an allergy attack and literally take his breath away.

Again the flower has not changed. The smell is still there but the reactions: enjoyment, indifference and rejection, all based on secular realities, all completely different.

Finally, our imaginary group chooses to dine together, each preparing a dish for the others. The first makes a vegetable curry, the second roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and the last a wonderful white wine sorbet, creamy and perfectly chilled. But again in our experimental world, all is not right. You see, one is unused to eating spicy foods and the curry is hot enough to make the eyes water; the roast beef unacceptable to the vegetarian and the sorbet unpalatable to the other who refuses alcohol preferring to remain abstinent.

Here the problems arise not from the physical characteristics of our merry band, but the cultural ones. Each person has learned behaviors and proclivities added to physical characteristics inherited at birth and acquired through illness or training.

This brings us back to morality.

Let us assume for a moment that morals are the cognitive translation of right-ness as just as sight is a cognitive translation of electomagnetic quanta, smell and taste the interpetation of minute chemical concentrations in air, liquid or solids.

We accept the existence of color blindness and intuitively understand that height changes from individual to individual; illness, medication or alcohol might temporarily heighten or dampen certain scenes. We all live happily (?) in largely multicultural societies. If we assume all these things are normal, why appeal to a higher power to justify the existence of morality? Could not the perception of right, a sixth “moral” sense, have evolved much like the other senses? And couldn’t that sense differ from person to person, culture to culture? None of the earlier discussion implied that the thing itself changes, the sky remained red, the curry – spicy. It means that we might all differently perceive a single, definite moral reality.

If sight, smell and sound evolved to react to certain specific, concrete environmental conditions, why must one assume morals be a different beast? One might comment that it because morals seem so ethereal; there is no physical “there” there.

Unfortunately perception is not necessary for existence; describe “red” to the blind man; try to prove the existence of “red” to the blind man. You might collect a group of people in a double blind (no pun intended) experiment each telling the blind man whether the color on the card is grey or red. You would do better than chance, so there is something there. But the hits wouldn’t be perfect – color blindness – remember? You might present the theoretical and physical characteristics of light and explaining that red can be found somewhere around a wavelength of 630nm; the blind man would still not feel the emotional majesty of a crimson sky.

If one assumes the other senses, sight, smell and the rest, all evolved in order improve the chances of genetic survival, couldn’t morals self assemble in much the same way? The simplistic argument that unbridled selfishness leads to evolutionary advantage seems neither to be born out by experiment nor perception. Doesn’t unbridled selfishness lead to short term gains but ultimately to failure (see for example Jared Diamond’s Collapse)? Might one of the very steps on the path of evolution to “man” been the development of a different long term understanding of right-ness; a way of knowing as genetically ingrained but as variable as eye color? Those who did not “see the light” slowly losing out to their more moral competition?

And doesn’t this model seem to fit the “facts” better? The Golden Rule is almost universal. Only the most radical fundamentalist denies that “unbelievers” lack any grounding in moral thought (or they read far too much into Ps 14:3). If one assumes that it is not morality itself but moral sensibility that changes from person to person, culture to culture doesn’t that answer many questions, not of how the world should be, but at least of how the world actually is? Do religions claim to be reality or merely an improvement, optional?

Finally it should be noted that the existence of God is neither explicitly accepted nor denied in this model.

A Deist might make the argument that an omnipotent (and perhaps omni-benevolent) being loaded the dice in order to force intelligent creatures to develop moral feelings. This might be called the Anthropic Gambit. Just like God tweaked all the other constants in the Universe, the speed of light, the various forces, masses and frequencies, She also tweaked the ‘goodness’ constant. Like the Anthropic argument for God, this idea is undeniably, well, undeniable but it is also unprovable. And of course Ockham’s razor warns us to steer clear of these kinds of uncharted waters (but people sink in them every day).

Critical is that the existence of God isn’t necessary. There is no necessity for a God-given authoritative morality any more than there is a necessity for a God-given authoritative blue. There is no need for Kant’s argument that “ought implies can.” (Since we ought to achieve moral perfection it implies that we can achieve moral perfection. But we always fail, we always make mistakes. Thus the only way that moral perfection can be achieved is through God or God’s forgiveness. I call this the Forgiveness Gambit.)

There might be an ultimate morality waiting to be discovered, understood and researched. By refusing to ask the question, indeed by denying the question itself, Deity-based moral systems perhaps lock themselves into an intellectual trap no different than that experienced by Creation “scientists.”

If one assumes that the failing is not in existence or authority, but in perception, what need Christian forgiveness? Must one forgive the color-blind, allergic vegetarian?

Time Magazine – Scum of the Week

It was awfully nice of Time Magazine to choose Richard Dawkins to be one of the Times 100 . Apparently they thought it was too nice.

That’s why they chose Michael Behe to write the article. Yes – that Michael Behe,

Of Richard Dawkins’ nine books, none caused as much controversy or sold as well as last year’s The God Delusion. The central idea—popular among readers and deeply unsettling among proponents of intelligent design like myself—is that religion is a so-called virus of the mind, a simple artefact of cultural evolution, no more or less meaningful than eye color or height.

It is a measure of the artful way Dawkins, 66, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, tells a tale and the rigor he brings to his thinking that even those of us who profoundly disagree with what he has to say can tip our hats to the way he has invigorated the larger debate.

Dawkins had a mild Anglican youth but at 16 discovered Charles Darwin and believed he’d found a pearl of great price. I believe his new book follows much less from his data than from his premises, and yet I admire his determination. Concerning the big questions, the Bible advises us to be hot or cold but not lukewarm. Whatever the merit of his ideas, Richard Dawkins is not lukewarm.

Uh. Time. Was this really necessary? I’m not exactly a Richard Dawkins fan boy but still. Could you have picked someone marginally neutral. You know like Paula Zahn?

Of course they seem to always try to find someone from the ‘Dark Side’ to write these things. That way they don’t end up being too glowing. But still – Michael Behe?

Evolution – Smevolution

From the NYT

There were revealing moments that went past the well-rehearsed lines by all the candidates. Three of the candidates — Mr. Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado — raised their hands to signal that they did not believe in evolution.

Video at Crooksandliars

Science = A Free Exchange of Ideas?

I spend far too much time reading blogs and articles written by scientists for scientists. But I also enjoy reading the behind the scenes view of science journalists like Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how science can be effectively communicated in a form both understandable and interesting to most lay people.

That is why the news of a paper on framing science by social scientist Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney published in the latest Science sounded so interesting. At least until I realized that the article is only for scientists – or journalists – or those so interested in science to spend somewhere between $100 and $300 for a subscription to a journal that will rarely produce enough information for a ‘layman.’

But then again the article about framing science was directed at scientists and not laymen. And it isn’t that science publications through the American Association of Publishers (AAP) aren’t using framing to present to congress a case against free public access to science papers.  (To be fair, Nature and Science aren’t part of the AAP – John Wiley & Sons, Reed Elsevier and the American Chemical Society are.) And thus scientists will discuss the problem and discuss the ideas and forget that the public are the ones who need to have more input.

But back to framing as such.

Many scientists and journalists seem to think there is a fundamental problem with science education. Carl Zimmer seems to think so.

As a science writer who doesn’t deal much in political reporting, I’m with them–but only up to a point, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I find framing science a bit murky. Nisbet and Mooney tell us that scientists must frame, but for what? They don’t actually say what the goal of framing is, and their implications are hard to turn into a clear picture.
Certainly scientists should think about why the rest of the world ought to care about their research. Certainly they should think about how it will get sucked into the political blender (and how they might want to jump in after it). But framing doesn’t seem like quite the right response to the fact that over two-thirds of people in this country don’t know enough about science to understand a newspaper story on a scientific subject. It seems more like surrender to me. Fixing high school science education seems a better plan. Don’t let kids come out of high school without knowing that a laser emits light, not sound; without knowing about standard deviations; without knowing what a stem cell is. Fixing high school science would be a lot harder than staying on message, but it would be a lot more important.

But the problem isn’t simply education. The problem isn’t simply knowledge. I often see knowledge as an ever growing pyramid.

Children today are being saddled with ever more information on a broader front than ever before. There is little time to filter what knowledge can be accumulated. To think that training hormone-challenged teenagers will solve the issue of scientific thought is a fantasy, to be relegated next to the myths of a historically well trained public (did the Second World War start in 1939 with the invasion of Poland or eight years earlier with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria? Nice western bias – huh? Should we concentrate on science or geography or current events or spelling and basic math?)

Would we prefer people to understand science or be able to balance their check book? Do we want people to understand science or know where Iraq is? Do we want our children to understand the mechanics of evolution or that homelessness isn’t caused by laziness? There is only so much time to teach. A selection must be made. Thus the focus shouldn’t be on the teenagers but their parents and the media. A realistic CSI would be nice, but wouldn’t get ratings. Shows like Mythbusters and Bullshit! are a step in the right direction (Even they get some things wrong – the secondary smoke episode anyone?).

Since I am unable to read the article, I am unable to look at the specific recommendations being made by Nesbit and Mooney.

But I would make a few concrete suggestions.

It has become common knowledge that the Republican National Committee distributes a memo containing talking points. How to frame certain issues using specific language. Scientists need the same thing. Scientists, like politicians need to be able answer bluntly false ideas, not with facts – facts are often unimportant to the general public – but with concrete talking points refuting the idea. And the talking points need to be widely spread – passed from prof to prof, grad student to grad student, sci-blogger to sci-blogger. Perhaps generated at a side conference for distribution before AAS meetings.

From what I understand, the article lists three main areas where scientists should frame responses: climate change, evolution and stem cells. I’d like to touch on each.

It is ironic that one of the biggest supporters for trying to get climate change information into the world, Matt Nisbet, would mange to get his article published on the same Friday the second part of the IPCC on Climate Change report gets finished. Thus Nisbet’s article gets discussed and the IPCC report gets even less attention by the general science blogging public. Nesbit has already railed against the idea of publishing the report on a Friday; the idea of publishing the Report on a Friday going into Easter Weekend is even less intelligent framed and shows how important this issue is.

Since it is the uncertainty that most climate change opponents attack, it is the uncertainty that must be explained, not the climate change. Opponents highlight the uncertainties and question the ability of scientists to make accurate predictions. This can be combated at two levels.

First, is the question of how certain scientist needs to be. Most climate change documents now use very specific language to define how ‘certain’ information is. Many of the conclusions reached are ‘very likely’ meaning better than 90%. (Always to be followed with the comment that this could be 94% certain, it just didn’t make the next level of extremely likely – 95%.*) If you hear the weatherman predict a 90% chance of rain, do you take an umbrella? Does making it 95% likely change your mind? If there are 9 chances out of 10 that it will snow, do you buy a snow blower? How certain is certain?You don’t attack the climate argument, you attack the certainty argument using everyday examples about what we think certain to be.

But take the idea even farther. The opponents of climate change point to the fact that you can’t predict the weather next week how can you predict the weather in 100 years. The answer, you can’t. But you can make some very good estimates. I know the weather will get warmer in the next few months. I know that next summer will be warm but I can’t tell you how many hurricanes there will be. Some things look really random but aren’t. Take casinos. No one can say exactly which number will come up next. But by understanding and studying the odds, the casinos know that certain numbers will come up often enough for them to win money in the long run. Climatology isn’t about knowing exactly which number will come up next; climatology is about calculating the profit (or loss) for mankind.

Moving to evolution, look at the “it’s just a theory” criticism.

Here the talking point might be not to speak of evolution but of theories and to use a clearly loaded image – the apple. Evolution is a theory in the same sense gravity is a theory. Take an apple. If you hold it out and let go, it is clear the apple will fall. No one would dispute that. Now take a cannon ball. Galileo argued that both the apple and the cannon ball would fall at the same rate. Newton, born the year of Galileo’s death would finally put numbers on the time needed for an apple to fall from a tree, a cannon ball from the tower of Pisa or even the time needed for the moon to fall around the Earth, something we now call an orbit.

Most people think of this as the theory of gravity. But it does not explain the origin of gravity, it describes the process. (Indeed the search for the ‘origin of gravity’ may have suffered a major setback in March when an important part failed during a preliminary test of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The part failed partly because engineers didn’t balance the forces correctly – another Newtonian concept.)

But evolution is like gravity. Scientists study and argue about the exact process of evolution. While many of the equations necessary for describing evolution are as simple as Newton’s laws, the specific processes, the individual actions, the origins are still being described. They are still being debated. But the ‘fact’ of evolution is as accepted by scientists as the ‘fact’ that the apple will fall by the general public. And the general public will usually get the ‘theory’ of gravity wrong when they assume that a cannon ball will fall faster than an apple. Which is more important?

The apple is traditionally depicted as the forbidden fruit used by Satan to lead Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. If the knowledge presented by the apple is dangerous, is the knowledge of the theory of gravity any less dangerous than evolution?

Perhaps the most difficult issue approached by the article is on stem cells.

Here the line is difficult to draw because the issues effected are less scientific as ethical. Where do we draw the line? While I agree with most scientists that research on stem cells ‘harvested’ (need to frame a better term there) from unused in-vitro embryos is scientifically ok, I still have different problems with the idea. In a climate of increasing commercialisation and sale of scientific results, who owns the cells and the patents generated from the embryos? Is it ethical to ask parents for permission to use ‘their’ material? Isn’t it likely that one stem cell line will eventually be used simply because it was in the right place at the right time? Isn’t it equally likely that that line will be worth billions? Who gets the profit?

Doesn’t this debate need to solve the “if yes – how” question before returning to the question of whether IV stem cells should be used. Should the pharma company that patents the first stem cell therapy be required to fund future in-vitro fertilisations – at least for the uninsured and underinsured?

I am wary of stem cell research on many ethical levels few of which have anything to do with the science as such. I disagree with the standpoint of the religious right but nevertheless I think the “let us just do the research” standpoint is simply naïve. I don’t have any talking points here. I would love to see the debate shifted to a more centrist position but I don’t see a good way of doing it.

Those scientists who feel threatened because framing science hides the facts are missing the point. Those framing dissent are hiding the facts. They exploit gaps and cracks in theories and knowledge to generate distorted pieces of a larger picture. 

Framing science isn’t hiding the facts, because the general public not only lacks the ability to put the misused pieces of the puzzle into place, but the general public doesn’t even know what the picture should be. Scientists need to spend more time painting the picture and less time trying to fill in the cracks exploited by the enemies of science.

But scientists also need to learn to get on message – on one message and unfortunately it usually has little to do with science qua science. In order to fight those who would use any means to destroy science, perhaps it is time for scientists to learn to fight fire with fire; talking point with talking point. And perhaps that is the role missing today. The creator and disseminator of science talking points – and not science.

Those scientists who think teaching more science will solve the problem need to spend more time watching Monster Garage and American Idol. That is the level of intelligence and knowledge^at which any debate needs to be focused. Not on a future knowledge utiopia – on the here and now – the idol worshiping America world.

That is what I hope Mooney and Nesbit are fighting for. Even if I can’t access the article because it isn’t free, fortunately this exchange of ideas is free.

Note: Matt Nesbit responded to a number of criticisms and comments on the article and linked to a broad number of comments on his blog. It is well worth the read to get an overview of the responses.. 

* From the IPCC Report, most climate change documents have evolved a similar language.

In this Summary for Policymakers, the following terms have been used to indicate: the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result: Virtually certain > 99% probability of occurrence, Extremely likely > 95%, Very likely > 90%, Likely > 66%, More likely than not > 50%, Very unlikely < 10%, Extremely unlikely < 5%.

The following terms have been used to express confidence in a statement: Very high confidence At least a 9 out of 10 chance of being correct, High confidence About an 8 out of 10 chance, Medium confidence About a 5 out of 10 chance, Low confidence About a 2 out of 10 chance, Very low confidence Less than a 1 out of 10 chance.

Michael Egnor Google Bomb

You know the GoogleBomb the ScienceBloggers started against Michael Egnor?

It seems to be working.



Heads Up: Mark CC=Woo Killing?

Mark Chu-Carroll has an excellent post up over at Good Math/Bad Math.

He manages to roll a precise and coherent definition of tautology together with an anti-creationist smackdown, an explanation of why all scientific theories can be described to be tautologies and a personal explanation of why all this means so much to him.

Perhaps the best part is how well he points out the fallacy of using tautologies to attack evolution.

The theory of gravity? If you let go of something, it will fall – therefore, if you let go of something, it will fall.

Relativity? Light bends when it passed through a gravitational field – therefore, if I shine a light through a gravitational field, it will bend.

Evolution? The things that survive to reproduce are the things that survive to reproduce.

All true statements and the last, a classic creationist canard.

The question is about trying to describe why and how things survive and not simply claiming they have survived. The theory of gravity isn’t as much about saying that something will fall but rather in predicting how it will fall.

But creationist attack scribblers like Casey Luskin or ‘Dr’ Michael Egnor don’t ever seem to understand this. I present medicine á la Dr. Egnor. If you give a patient a remedy, they will get better, therefore, if you give the patient the appropriate medication they will get better. (Saves research costs – just give the patient what they need to get better.)

Why are you still here? You should be there reading his stuff.

Heads Up – Discovery Institute Distortions

Casey Luskin, attack typist at the Discovery Institute, has yet another fair and balanced snit about an anti-intelligent design op-ed by Dave Thomas.

The op-ed is about current efforts in New Mexico to finally pass legislation that will last long enough to be brought before the Supreme Court. (Dover failed in this sense.) Thomas points out rather strange wording in the bill and the fallacy behind it.

The carefully crafted “academic freedom” measures made no specific mention of intelligent design. But it was clearly the driving purpose behind these, which would have permitted and encouraged teachers to present so-called weaknesses of evolution science in biology classes.

The measures would have also have given students the “right and freedom to reach their own conclusions about biological origins.”

We don’t encourage students to “reach their own conclusions” on how to add fractions. Why should we suddenly do so with the biosciences? [my emphasis]

PZ Meyers, professor, lover of squid and spritely starting of his 5th decade of existence, has pointed out just how foolish Luskin’s attacks on this op-ed really are.This is well worth the read for all those who were under the impression that the Discovery Institute is an honorable group.

(Hat Tip: Phil Plait/Bad Astronomy)

Dawkins Dissing

I just can’t resist this…

And who says creationists haven’t evolved humor?

That’s it, I’m convinced!

I guess I’ll just have to become a worm-like follower of the Discovery Institute now. Goodbye world of rational thought. *sigh*

Hello – um – Disco?

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan/The Daily Dish)

Finding Words

I had promised to fire another broadside in the on-going, online discussion about evolution in schools

Dr. Esler pointed me to the following summary of the history of the struggle to teach evolution as published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I would point him to the far more complete discussion of the issue in Eugenie Scott’s book Evolution vs. Creationism. Of course her book isn’t available for free or online. Fortunately, since it doesn’t contain the word scrotum, it is probably still available at a local library.

If I had more energy, I would point out the fact that all the secular attacks outlined in the article seem to have been responses to people attempting to regulate scientific learning in classrooms. (In the case of the Scopes trial, they were successful for almost 50 years…) I would argue that is the problem. What are often perseved to be secular attacks on religion are simply an attempt to describe the world without recourse to God; to use naturalistic explanations and not supernatural apologetics to define how the universe works.

There was nothing new in the article, but it is a nice summary of the three main battles fought in the American war on science. (A war only really being fought in truly religious countries – countries like America and Turkey.)

Interestingly, I found the summary rather disjointed from the rest of the article. After showing reaction after reaction to efforts by religious groups to remove or derail the teaching of evolution in public schools the author sums up this way.

Of course, the theory of evolution cannot answer all questions about how life emerged or how the human brain developed, nor is evolution even relevant to the question of where the original matter of the universe came from. There is plenty of room for diverse opinions and beliefs on these subjects. Alfred Russell Wallace, for example, who, simultaneously with Darwin, proposed the theory of natural selection as the engine of evolution, believed that the development of the human brain could be explained only by divine intervention. Nobel laureate John C. Eccles, in his treatise on the evolution of the human brain, was unable to account for the unique individual self and concluded: “I am constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the Self or Soul to a supernatural creation . . . which is implanted into the fetus at some time between conception and birth.” And Stephen Hawking speaks for himself and probably for most physicists when he concludes that if and when scientists are able to construct a unified theory of the universe, humans will still be confronted with the nonscience questions of why we and the universe exist, and “about the nature of God.”

The quest to banish religion from politics and government is ultimately, as the Jesuit priest Robert Drinan notes, “hopelessly unrealistic, because religions are by their nature intended to create cultures, even civilizations.” Religion and government are not inherently incompatible, and they necessarily have formal and informal relationships with each other. Nor are science and religion inherently incompatible. Nevertheless, religion is not science and should not be taught in science class. In the United States, the higher power that prevents this is the First Amendment.

I guess I just have to pass.

If the point is to say government and politics are ridden with religious feeling, more today then say 230 years ago, I would have to agree. Secular beliefs are being pushed farther and farther into the gutter. They are being demonised.

But to point at, say, Iraq and decry the horrible sectarian fighting while proudly proclaiming America to be a ‘Christian Nation’ is, for me, deeply troubling. Wouldn’t an amendment to the constitution be simpler or at least honest? Revoke the first amendment and simply proclaim America Christian. Sixty percent of the American population would probably support the idea. Even the some members of the Jewish population would probably support the issue. I’m pretty sure Debbie Schussel would go along with it.

I really don’t think science answers all the questions. If it did, we wouldn’t need continuing research. I find it interesting that the author of the article seems to a priori define the limits of future research on evolution. I find it interesting that the author manages to mix decent with modification with the concept of the origin of the universe and the big bang. (Did Darwin go there? I think not.)

If the point is to say that science hasn’t answered all questions yet. My response is – well yeah. If the point is to go quote mining, for possible philosophical comments by scientists, there are whole books for that kind of thing. If the point is to say science will never answer the question, I would ask how you can be sure. Did Newton envision rockets to the moon? Would he have said you can’t get there because – well – you just can’t?

But even to point me to the article, is to misunderstand my point. It is to misunderstand what I am fighting for, or perhaps what I am fighting against.

My argument is simply that science is the process for understanding how things work and that is what needs to be taught.

I agree, science does effect both philosophy and religion. We no longer simply postulate that matter is made up of basic elements, we measure them, we refine them, we manipulate them. Most of us no longer follow the idea that the world is flat, or that the sun orbits the earth; both religious beliefs that were changed by science. But religion didn’t change the science, the science forced a re-interpretation of the religious doctrine.

I guess, I can’t stop people from feeling threatened, by feeling that their very beliefs are threatened by science. I would say that, for some – like the flat-earthers, those beliefs are threatened. I question the idea that the solution is to stop science, to stop teaching science, to make strawman arguments (“…nor is evolution even relevant to the question of where the original matter of the universe came from” – I mean, WTF?).

But on the other hand, I do get upset when people, using religious apologetics, nevertheless claim to support science. People who use science and genetics daily but claim it just doesn’t work. I seem to get so upset that I can’t even find the words to properly express my outrage, to express my position.

Since I seem to be having trouble getting my feelings across, I guess I’ll just wait a couple of weeks and let those people most effected speak out. Not the doctors, not patients, the the high school students themselves (Hat Tip: Bug_girl/Skepchick)

2007 National High School Essay Contest

Why would I want my doctor to have studied evolution? If you are a high school student in the United States, we want to hear your answer to that question. Send us an essay of not more than 1,000 words by March 31st. There are prizes for students and rewards for participating teachers.

If I’m having trouble finding the correct words, I sure hope these kids won’t.

Discovering Uncovering Allah

Perhaps the Discovery Institute should invite Dr Oktar Babuna to speak.

The Discovery Institute would like American schools to ‘teach the controversy’ about evolution, Dr Babuna would probably be more than willing to oblige. You see Dr Babuna is a Turkish neurosurgeon and doubts evolution. Indeed he does more than doubt, he actively disbelieves evolution.

But for some reason, I doubt the Discovery Institute will be inviting Dr Babuna anytime soon. You see, while both sides think evolution needs to be discounted, Dr Babuna is a creationist. That might not be too bad but he is also an Islamic creationist.

From the Florida Alligator,

What students learn about evolution in books is “fake” and has no scientific value, a Turkish neurosurgeon said to about 50 students Tuesday.

Human life is a result of Allah, not evolution, said Dr. Oktar Babuna, a controversial Muslim speaker.

In his speech, which was sponsored by Islam on Campus and cost $3,000, Babuna argued against Darwinism and said the only way to understand life on Earth is through Allah and the teachings of the Koran. Babuna said it is scientifically impossible for evolution to have occurred.

The fact that this information comes to my attention today can only be seen as either a bizarre case of synchronicity or a divine act of Allah.

There are a couple of things to look at here.

It has long been known that Turkey, although one of the most western Middle Eastern countries, trails behind all western countries in understanding and acceptance of evolution. According to Seed last November.

… It teaches evolution in its schools, but, even so, appears to be losing the science education battle. In 1985 the minister of education mandated that creationism be included in science textbooks. By the late 1990s, the BAV [Bilim Araştirma Vakfi (“Scientific Research Foundation”)] was attacking scientists who opposed a creationist curriculum via slander and death threats. The cumulative damage to science has been significant. Ümit Sayin, a neurologist at Istanbul University and outspoken critic of Turkish creationism, estimates that the number of university-educated Turks who understand evolution has dropped to 20 percent from 40 percent over the past 15 years.

BAV, founded in 1990, grew from the Turkish fringe into a global media empire. Oktar claims to have 4.5 million followers worldwide, who read his hundreds of books and essays and have seen the dozens of television documentaries that BAV produces and provides free of charge to Turkish TV stations. BAV’s Web sites offer downloadable PowerPoint presentations and questions to challenge science teachers. The foundation organizes anti-evolution conferences and petitions and runs a telemarketing scheme to sell books by Harun Yahya (Oktar’s pen name), which are available globally in 29 languages. Only Oktar and his lieutenants seem to know where the money for all these initiatives comes from, and they’re not telling.

But the BAV does seem to be making quite a bit of progress. They also produce a free textbook. The Atlas of Creation had already been covered by the Templeton Foundation in November.

In February, news circulated that a large number of these anti-evolution textbooks were surfacing in France. Surfacing is perhaps the wrong word, they were being mailed to tens of thousands of schools and universities for consideration as alternative teaching materials.

Of course evolution wasn’t the old target. That evil-doer Darwin was the main target. The coverage at Yahoo cleverly points out the real point of the book.

The book features a photograph of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center with the caption: “Those who perpetuate terror in the world are in fact Darwinists. Darwinism is the only philosophy that values and incites conflict.”

The theories of Charles Darwin are “the true source of terrorism,” it said.

The books sent by post from Germany and Turkey began arriving in French schools and universities about 10 days ago.

The French ministry of education was not amused. The connection I am making here is that some of those textbooks were mailed, not from Turkey, but from Germany.

Now, usually, all this Islamic creationist propaganda would just be grist for my evolutionist mill. That would be if I had not found a minor bit of information linking our Dr Babuna to another doctor I have discussed recently.

If the photos don’t lie, (and who knows they might be doctored in some weird Darwinist plot to overthrow the universe), it seems Dr. Babuna suffers from chronic lymphocytic leukemia or CLL. He has been treated in Seattle as well as the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. Now the MDACC has been mentioned on Dr Esler’s blog before because Dr Esler is a haematologist – in Texas.

I seem to have fallen down the wrong rabbit hole this week.

Now. I don’t think this was just chance. How could all these things just happen?! Within one week! Blind chance? Think of the odds. Evolution? I don’t think so. Descent with modification?! Ha! Don’t make me laugh!

There is obviously a guiding hand here; an overarching design. I am definitely going to have to rethink the error of my ways. I need to make a decision; to finally take a stand.

What do I do this weekend – read the Bible, read the Koran or watch simply Twilight Zone episodes?

Still, my remaining psychic powers do give me one small bit of knowledge. Despite his involvement in denouncing evolution and his connections to Seattle, Texas, haematology and medicine in general, I know something else about Dr. Babuna.

I know the Discovery Institute won’t ever be inviting Dr Babuna to speak.

Because, despite all the things I have uncovered, they just don’t want to discover Allah.

Quicky: Creationist Bashing

Just a quick heads-up on this absolutely wonderful article by Bruno Maddox on the soon to be opened creation museum in the fine town of Hebron, Kentucky. The article, published in the latest issue of Discovery, begins thusly…

In the beginning, wrote God in His epic, loosely autobiographical best seller, The Bible, the Lord made the heavens and the Earth. Pondering from the vile comfort of the Marriott in Hebron, Kentucky, I assumed that this single statement represented the bulk, if not the entirety, of creationist ideology. Hence the name, I reckoned in a flash of insight. God created everything; if something exists, then God created it. Yes, that’s what they believe, those creationists.

A creationist group called Answers in Genesis, which believes in the literal, scientific truth of the Bible, has decided to spend $27 million building a creation museum only minutes away by cab from this unlovely spot. When it opens in May, the museum is going to try to dazzle people with the wonder, beauty, and sheer scientific cunning exhibited by God during that action-packed week when He willed everything that exists into being. Yet the museum’s founders have chosen to set it in one of the few spots on Earth that could plausibly have been designed by chimpanzees.

There is another great irony to the project, it occurs to me as I finish my coffee and rise to meet my driver: that of God almost certainly not existing.

… and simply gets better.

Two side stories here.

First, you might take note of one of the persons mentioned in the article, Ken Ham. He is a man of obviously high integrity,  and who has a reason for living in Kentucky and not Austrailia.

And second, don’t forget the wonderful idea from the SciBlogger and gray parrot lover, Shelley Batts about what to do when these museums start to open. Something about Annoy-a-trons

Darwinistic Redoubts

It is rare that I get viscerally upset. Usually I simply have a passing feeling of unease leading into a rather grumpy day.

But this post got me rather riled up despite its rather innocuous start,

What is the most significant year to remember in relatively modern history? Is it 1776? Is it 1941? Is it Sept 11 2001?

Some will argue that the answer is 1859, the year Darwin published his Origin of Species.

While I could quibble about the fact that Sept. 11 2001 isn’t a year but a date, I would prefer first to point out who is writing this. Vance Esler is an oncologist born, raised and working in Texas. Not only does he treat people with various types of cancer, he is actively and proudly involved in research, recruiting patients for clinical trials.

Thus the third paragraph in his post is a bit of a breath-taker…

This book has been credited with providing the foundation upon which secular progressives began to build concepts which have led to the steady removal of God from public thought and life. After all, if life is only the result of random events occurring in a random universe, and not the product of an intelligent design, then it becomes so much easier to marginalize religious thought and influence in society.

Uh Oh.

We all know where this will lead and yes indeed it does move on into a rant about the political incorrectness of challenging evolutionary science.

Dr Esler points to the infamous ‘challenge’ to the theory of evolution from the Discovery Institute (DI) and signed by 700 scientists! Those “who have reached the epitome of their fields” in “engineering, mathematics, computer science, biology, chemistry or one of the other natural sciences.“

He does ‘forget’ to mention that PhDs in things like physics and mechanical engineering rarely involve deep discussions of evolution but no matter – 700 is an impressive number. And, being involved in research and scrupulously fair, Dr Esler directly linked to the similar list of unequivocal evolution supporters at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE)

Wait – he didn’t!? Hmm.

As of this writing (Feb. 21, 2006), the NCSE list has 790 signatories.

There is a catch. In order to sign the exclusive Discovery Institute list one must be a PhD in something sciency.

For entry onto the NSCE list one must not only be a PhD in something sciency but also be named ‘Steve.’ (Well, “[n]ot just Steve, but also Stephens, Stevens, Stephanies, Stefans, and so forth. Etiennes and Estebans are welcome.” You get the idea.)

You see, even though most scientists understand that research isn’t directly conducted by opinion poll, the Steve list shows clearly that not only is there resounding support in the scientific community for evolution, but the sub-set of scientists named Steve supporting evolution is larger than the DI list.

Oh! And while there aren’t many biologists on the Discovery Institute’s list, about 2/3 of the Steve list are. (Perhaps closer to their field of expertise. No?)

The rest of Dr Esler’s post is taken almost verbatim from the WorldNetDaily website, but what really got me going was his personal summation.

There is a another site called for physicians who have similar concerns. As a hematologist/medical oncologist who deals with the disastrous results of mutations every day, I can readily attest to the fact that most mutations are fatal, and it stretches credulity to think one could actually result in the appearance of an entirely new species. Needless to say, I have added my name to that list. [my emphasis]

I won’t touch the fallacy “Argument from Personal Incredulity.” I’ll let Wikipedia do that. Or perhaps you might just want to Google it.

But that other thing – the “most mutations are fatal” quip? Is that a ‘fact’ ‘Dr’ Esler?

So this rather detailed discussion for lay-people about mutations not only not being fatal but not even harmful is just so much hemp haze?

Q: Doesn’t evolution depend on mutations and aren’t most mutations harmful?
A: No. Most mutations are neither harmful nor helpful.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is that mutations can be neutral (neither helpful nor harmful), strictly harmful, strictly helpful, or (and this is important) whether they are harmful or helpful depends on the environment. Most mutations are either neutral or their effect depends on the environment. [My emphasis]

Dr Esler, have you ever heard of people having six fingers? Are the mutations to the H5N1 virus lethal to the virus or good for the virus and potentially harmful to us?

To sum up I would like to quote Dr Esler again. This time from another one of his posts.

It is one thing to place one’s property in the hands of a repairman or craftsman. It is another to place one’s life at risk. Such relationships are historically based upon trust. So whom do you trust? Do you follow the advice of the tall, good-looking, affable young man who borders on cocky because everyone thinks he is so great? [Barack Obama] Or do you rely upon the quiet, thoughtful physician who listens to your complaints and says, “I need to think about this.” There is no easy answer. Trust can take time to grow.

So right now I remain skeptical about non-physicians trying to rank physicians based upon dubious criteria and poorly collected data. I also maintain a healthy skepticism of doctors who are always right, always know what to do, and who register highly on my BS Detector.

Sir, I don’t know whether you are a “quiet, thoughtful physician” but a skeptic you are not.

I do not put my trust of evolution in the hands of electrical engineers or oncologists but in the hands of evolutionary biologists. Something about my feeling about non-specialists trying to rank things based on “dubious criteria and poorly collected data.”

You sir, are not an expert in mutation. You sir are not an expert in evolution. You sir, are an expert on cancer. You sir, register rather highly on a detector of mine.

If you were a skeptic, then you might know that true sceptics realise that scientists understand the limitations of their own knowledge. Dr Esler, while your knowledge of cancer might be broad, it does not lead you to be able to make judgements about the validity of evolution.

But I am sure you are a religious person, full of integrity. I am sure that you are convinced your position is correct and intellectually honest.

Thus, I wonder if you would be willing to put up a sign in your practice along the lines of “I DOUBT DARWIN – EVOUTION IS DESTROYING TEXAS” or something along those lines. That way your patients would know what they are getting into. While you are at it why not take a picture of the sign including your partners and post it to your blog?

But somehow – I doubt you will.

And because I feel this doubt, I felt forced to man the redoubts – for Darwin.

(Updated) An Unintelligent Venue?

Think Progress and Michael van der Galien at ModerateVoice freaked out about information about an upcoming event in Seattle on February 23. From Think Progress,

Today is Darwin Day, commemorating the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and of the publishing of On the Origin of Species. The National Academy of Sciences, “the nation’s most prestigious scientific organization,” declares evolution “one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have.” President Bush’s science adviser John Marburger calls it “the cornerstone of modern biology.”

Yet, on February 23, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will be the keynote speaker for the most prominent creationism advocacy group in the country. The Discovery Institute, a religious right think-tank, is well-known for its strong opposition to evolutionary biology and its advocacy for “intelligent design.” The institute’s main financial backer, savings and loan heir Howard Ahmanson, spent 20 years on the board of the Chalcedon Foundation, “a theocratic outfit that advocates the replacement of American civil law with biblical law.”

This time the TP people should have stopped progressing and thought a bit.

If one actually takes the time to read *ahem* the DI press release, the event isn’t being hosted by the Discovery Institute at all. It is being hosted by the World Affairs Council.

The World Affairs Council and CityClub are pleased to present a special luncheon with Senator John McCain.

Senator McCain will be speaking about his vision for the United States in the World. What is the role of the US in the global community? How should the US position itself over the next decade? What are the challenges, and how should they be addressed? What are the future global impacts on Washington State? United States Senator John McCain will address these topics of global relevance and their relation to the Puget Sound region.

And what totally anti-science company located in Seattle is sponsoring this event? No not Microsof! It’s that evil, all-knowledge-is-satanic, destroy-the-world-with-777’s company – Boeing.

Um. Oops.

While I agree, McCain’s rudder seems to be stuck in a permanent right turn and he isn’t drifting but forging full speed ahead into a conservative camp where only the SS fear to tread, I don’t think this event is one of those cases.

No matter what you think about (un-) Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute (and anyone who reads my blog will be clear on where I stand on that point), this speech isn’t about that.

Shame on you Think Progress. Shame on you Michael. This just plays into the hands of people like Ann Coulter who will then screed off about some left-blogosphere plot to overthrow pandas or something.

But the venue? For John McCain. While conservative, it wasn’t quite as unintelligent as one might think.


In all fairness, as Michael points out at Moderate Voice, the Discovery Institute is a co-presenter of the speech.

But let’s look at the other co-presenters, shall we?

Discovery Institute
Initiative for Global Development
Leadership Eastside
Leadership Tomorrow
Seattle Works 
[especially dodgy bunch this]
Trade Development Alliance
University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies
Washington Policy Center

So, just as long as Michael is willing to include the University of Washington and the Seattle Works in his list of right-wing religious pandering organizations, I will humbly admit to the error of my ways.

But somehow looking at that list, I don’t think this is a speech where one needs to get too worked up or worried that DI is one of many.

I have to admit that I cannot possibly get worked up about this. It seems to me that it is quite logical for Republicans who have Presidential aspirations to talk with / to think-tanks like The Discovery Institute. Whether one likes it or not, the ‘Religious Right’ is an integral part of the Republican Party.

Evolution Sunday

Better late then never, I would also like to get the word out.

Next Sunday, February 11 will be the second Evolution Sunday. The organisational web site for 2007 is here. Evolution Sunday is basically a chance for the science friendly churches to strike back and show the false dichotomy between materialistic science and theology preached by the far religious right. The idea is to allow evolution to be praised not in the school room but from the pulpit. To show that the idea of evolution does not destroy religion but simply allows a different interpretation.

Even though time is short, I would encourage you to speak with your ‘spiritual advisor’ – ahem – pastor/priest/imam/rabbi – and ask them to preach on the subject of evolution next week.

This isn’t just for fun, it is very important.

The only country in the ‘western’ world lagging behind the US in belief in evolution is Turkey. An earlier fundamentalist Turkish government basically banned evolution from school textbooks in the 1980’s. I somehow don’t think that’s an area where America wants to be number one.

I’m also very glad to say that Carlos Wilton, of the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in New Jersey will be giving a sermon on this and was one of the early signers of The Clergy Letter.

In February 11, 2007 hundreds of congregations from all portions of the country and a host of denominations will come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. For too long, strident voices, claiming to speak for all Christians, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science. More than 10,000 Christian clergy have already signed The Clergy Letter demonstrating that this is a false dichotomy. Now, on the 198th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, our church will join these thousands of others in affirming that Darwin’s theory of evolution does not threaten biblical Christian faith. Dr. Wilton will preach the sermon.

For those that haven’t noticed, Rev. Wilton is also (alphabetically) the first entry on my blog roll. I have been following his struggle with Non-Hodkins Lymphoma for more then a year. Perhaps because I clearly see the relationship between evolution, biology and medical care, I find his contribution especially appropriate.

So, is your church taking part? And why don’t you know? If your church isn’t taking part in Evolution Sunday, beg, barter or cajole your mosque/synagogue/church into taking part in this. If you only go to church on the ‘normal’ holy days, suggest to your imam, etc. that this might be a good day to add to the list. E-mail, talk and scold.

It’s us against the Philistines.

Intelligent Anniversaries

With December 20th approaching – the anniversary of the decision in the Dover Intelligent Design case – the Discovery Institute is once again trying to get traction by attacking the ruling by Judge John Jones III. This time they are trying to get him for copying parts of his ruling from the ACLU finding of fact.

I won’t tear the arguments apart. I’ll leave that to Ed Brayton, someone does a much finer job than I could. But I would like to repeat the money quote from the Pennsylvania York Dispatch article. It comes for Witold Walczak from the Pennsylvania ACLU who was on the legal team that showed just how unintelligent ID really is.

“They’re getting no traction in the scientific world so they’re trying to do something … as a PR stunt to get attention,” said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s lead attorney on the case.

“That’s not how scientists work,” he said. “Discovery Institute is trying to litigate a year-old case in the media.”

Walczak said the Discovery Institute staff is not, as it claims, interested in finding scientific truths; it is more interested in a “cultural war,” pushing for intelligent design and publicly criticizing a judge.

“Why don’t these guys go back to their ‘labs,’ and do something meaningful?” Walczak asked. “Oh, wait. They don’t have labs. Silly me.”

I love it. “They don’t have labs. Silly me.” And I thought lawyers were supposed to mince words. Perfect!

Have a happy anniversary. The anniversary of an excellent judicial step forward.

There’s a need

Reed A. Cartwright has a post up at Panda’s Thumb and at his blog talking about the landmark documentary released earlier this year.

The film Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus ( now has a distributor, Documentary Educational Resources. Institutions, like libraries and universities, can now buy a copy for $345. It includes the public performance rights that educational institutions need.

I suggest that if you get enough people together, you can buy a copy, watch it, and then donate it to your local library.

Check with your library first to make sure that they will accept the DVDs. Libraries can’t accept home consumer DVDs because libraries need to purchase public performance rights, which home DVDs don’t have.—Too bad for all those evangelicals that bought The Passion to donate to public schools.—However, this DVD comes with the public performance rights; although, they may not transfer.

He recommends getting people together to purchase the DVD and donating it to your local library. I’d like make a different suggestion. Ask your pastor at your local church if you can make an announcement after mass. I’ll just quote another luminary in the battle of science against ID-iots.

I said there is a need, if you want to donate that’s fine.

Of course that quote comes from the testimony of William Buckingham, the Dover school board member who ‘donated’ fifty copies of ‘Of Pandas and People’ to the public high school in Pennsylvania after taking a collection at his church. He also pushed through the ID-friendly curriculum change that put that small town on a rather dubious map and made Kitzmiller a household name. He was also specifically tattled by Judge Jones in the ruling for lying about buying the books during his deposition. (But he didn’t lie about people so that’s OK before the eyes of God Designer – if not the American justice system.)

He was asking for money to buy ‘Pandas’, perhaps this would be a nice time to return the favor.

Outlawing Dover

I get Bob Parks ‘What’s new’ newsletter in my mailbox every Friday. (Note: you can subscribe here. That’s not a nudge-nudge-wink-wink thing. It’s a do-it-or-I’ll-go-find-a-cricket-bat thing. Just so you know.)

Anyway. What to my wondering eyes should appear in the most recent newsletter? 


The nation was distracted this week: the leaked Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a terrifying new report on global warming, continued high gas prices, a White House lobbying scandal that grew from “a few” contacts with Jack Abramoff to 485, not to mention the news that two men have stepped forward claiming to be the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby.  That allowed the House to quietly pass H.R. 2679, the “Public Expressions of Religion Protection Act of 2006,” with scarcely a mention in the media.
The bill would prevent plaintiffs from recovering legal costs in any lawsuit based on the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, which of course only happens when the court finds the plaintiff’s Constitutional rights have been denied.  The Senate is expected to pass a companion bill, S. 3696.  Congress cannot simply abridge the Bill of Rights.  Maybe they think the Supreme Court is stacked.  Or maybe it’s the election.

After cleaning the coffee off my monitor and extracting large quantity of liquid from my nose, I started thinking. Was this just a Republican sneak-something-through-Congress-without-anyone-noticing? Were do you look? Well the Washington Post has a really nice database of votes*.

Going to the H.R. 2679 bill we find the following breakdown: 

     Republicans        Opposed: 6       Approved: 218        Not voting: 6
     Democrats          Opposed: 166   Approved: 26          Not voting: 6
     Democrats          Opposed: 1        Approved: 0

Twenty-six Democrats voted in favor of this! Excuse me?!

Who were these people pandering to the religious right?! WP gives us the list.

John Barrow
Marion Berry
Dan Boren
Allen Boyd
Dennis Cardoza
Jim Costa
Bud Cramer
Henry Cuellar
Lincoln Davis
Bart Gordon
Stephanie Herseth
Rubén Hinojosa
Daniel Lipinski
Jim Marshall
Jim Matheson
Mike McIntyre
Charles Melancon
Solomon Ortiz
Collin Peterson
Nick Rahall
Mike Ross
John Salazar
David Scott
Ike Skelton
John Spratt
Gene Taylor

This is really important. Kitzmiller  and the ACLU could not have litigated in Dover without being able to claim damages. If this law stands, we need to get ready for a major push to get Creationists, ID-iots and Controversials** onto school boards. There would be next to no judicial defense at that point. If your congressperson is listed above, please write and complain about the vote. Please write to your Senator expressing your displeasure in S. 3696.

Remember, Dover cost the school district several million dollars in damages. These damages were only to cover the costs the plaintiffs incurred. No one made money in Dover. The DASB listened to the Thomas Moore Law Center who promised to do the case ‘for free’ (probably without mentioning the pesky damages thing) and lost. Indeed had the school board listened to their normal counsel, the entire thing would never have come to court. If the board had passed something marginally legal, normal counsel had represented the district and the district still lost – the case would have been covered by insurance. As things went, the old board was voted out and the new board was saddled with a huge bill. The people responsible for the debacle are long gone.

In conclusion, the problem wasn’t the plaintiffs, the problem was with the school board. I’ll just quote Judge Jones’ decision (pdf, 139 pages, a must read).

 The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an
alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources. [emphasis in original]

Remember, if you outlaw the first amendment, only outlaws will have first amendment rights.

*My only problem with the WP Database is that it also finds it necessary to list the votes by astrological sign.
** I’m still looking for a nice snappy verbal slap-down for the ‘Just-Teach-The-Controversy’ crowd herd.

Heads Up: Putting Selam in perspective

Nick Matzke has a post up over at The Panda’s Thumb putting Selam in perspective. For those who blinked, Selam is the ‘newest’ member of the Australopithecus afarensis family outlined in this month’s Nature.

I should note couple of errors in my earlier post.

  • I’m not sure, but if I read the quote from Nature exactly, the fossil might only be the completest juvenile fossil found to date. It is really unclear whether this is absolutely the most complete A. afarensis fossil ever recovered. However, it does appear that this is either the first or the most complete shoulder found to date.
  • I used the word hominid (Aside: is this the origin of the word Ho?) in the first post rather naively. Nick clearly points out that these terms are specifically defined and should not be bantered around lightly. (I stand ashamed.)

Like I said in the original post, I was trying to show what interested people, who aren’t experts, who read the articles really closely, might understand. I think I did a pretty good job.

I should also mention that Nick does a wonderful job jabbing the odd, verbal pointy-stick in the creationist cage to get them riled up. But then again that’s what Panda’s is all about. Just thought you might like a professional’s perspective.

Critiquing the News: New Fossil Find Foul-ups

The LA Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post all reported the new find of Australopithecus afarensis fossils yesterday. Since I’m not qualified to say much about the fossils themselves, I thought I’d critique how I felt the stories were presented and what I would have found important. Perhaps the most informative if slightly misleading lede came from John Noble Wilford in the NYT who started with:

If the fossil Lucy, the most famous woman from out of the deep human past, had a child, it might have looked a lot like the bundle of skull and bones uncovered by scientists digging in the badlands of Ethiopia.

Thee paleontologists who are announcing the discovery in the journal Nature today said the 3.3-million-year-old fossils were of the earliest well-preserved child ever found in the human lineage. It was estimated to be about 3 years old at death, probably female and a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species, the same as Lucy’s.

First, a rundown of the science I got from the articles.

The fossils were originally found in Ethiopia in the year 2000. Scientists have been working on them ever since with the results are just now being published in Nature. These are both the oldest fossils of a child hominid as well as being the most complete individual specimen of Australopithecus afarensis. The rare fact that the fossils come from a child gives key insights into the development of the species.

Perhaps the most interesting results show that while the shoulders most resembled those of a young gorilla, the legs were already adapted for walking upright. A fossilized bone from the throat, the hyoid, appears more ape-like than human indicating that the child probably sounded more like a chimp than a child. Finally, though studies on adult afarensis skulls show a comparatively slow brain development, the child’s brain size was comparable to the that of a chimp of equal age.

[If you work in this area, please leave a comment telling me what I got right (or wrong) on the science. And perhaps more importantly, why are you reading this?]

Now I’d like to make a couple of comments about the stories themselves.

First off what was wrong with the lede in the NYT? I feel that an uneducated reader (or those who are quote mining) might conclude that Lucy and the new fossil (named Selam or ‘peace’ in several Ethiopian languages) were contemporaries. This is patently wrong. Not only are the fossils dated about 150.000 years apart [WP], but both were found in completely different areas in Ethiopia [LAT]. I predict that is going to cause grief for evolution supporters forever.

After complaining about the lede in the NYT, I should probably even things out by finding something wrong with the other two articles. I give the worst slant award to the LA Times with the article starting:

No one knows how her body found its way into the stream or how long her distraught parents may have searched the shallows for the missing 3-year-old.

And ending with the dramatic note:

Did she stumble foraging among the reeds and drown? Was she escaping a predator or caught by swift flood currents?

Of this, her bones reveal nothing. Death came suddenly. Burial in the sand was almost as quick. She was lost for eons and then found.

Can’t you hear the sound of the 24-hour news service intro-music now. Child lost – film at 11 .

No criticism would really be complete without picking on the worst soundbite as related in the Washington Post.

“Before this, you didn’t know if it was like you might have the arm of a Danny DeVito and the leg of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” [Rick] Potts [of the Smithsonian Institution] said.

Great, now the ID-iots will claim that scientists think we descended from DeVito and Abdul-Jabbar.

Perhaps more disturbing are the inconsistencies between the articles.

Only the LA times seems clear on the time it took to recover (3 field seasons) and clean (5 years) the fossils. The NYT gives a general idea of 5 years and the Washington Post seems to have calculated an average by mentioning 4 years.

Perhaps worse is how this find is placed in relationship to the other discoveries of hominid child remains. The WP tries for the young earth creationist award by claiming the oldest child fossils to be from 60,000 year old Neanderthals. The LA Times felt it unnecessary to pin down an age letting readers ‘do the math’ by dating Selam to 3.3 million years and claiming she was 3 million years older than comparable fossils. (There is no mention of Neanderthals.) Clearest on this point was the NYT pinpointing the type (Neanderthal), the age (less then 300,000 years) and the location (Syria) of the oldest previously recovered fossils.

Why is all this important? Because even though scientists would prefer otherwise, how science is presented is just as (or perhaps more) important as the science itself. The contradictions in these articles caused both by bad science writing and perhaps ambiguous press releases, is just grist for the creationists mill. We have to get this stuff right the first time every time.

Or maybe we should just be glad that the fossils were found and that the foul-ups were most likely journalistic and not scientific.

Cinemagraphic Evidence of Evolution

Updated (Link fixed)

In the Rough

Select your movie size, grab some popcorn and enjoy.

Could I please borrow Eugenie Scott, PZ Meyers and Co?

Note: Most links are to German articles. 

Yesterday’s Speigel-Online had an article about creationism. Not creationism in the US, creationism in Germany. Yes, the little vermin are alive and breeding in Old Europe with the article citing 1.3 million in Germany alone.

I apparently missed the brouhaha last September, when Thuringia’s governor (Ministerpräsident) Dieter Althaus scheduled a ‘debate’ between an evolutionary biologist Ulrich Kutschera and the German creationist Siegfried Schere. The event was cancelled after Kutschera refused to debate, perhaps realising the futility of the mission. 

Last night, on arte (sort of a French/German PBS), they had an entire evening focused on Christian fundamentalism. (AND I MISSED IT! Grrrr!) The first film ‘Of Gods and Designers’ by Peter Moers and Frank Papenbroock was probably the most interesting. It showed the largest European creationist publishing house in England, interviewed both scientists and the ID-iots and, perhaps most disturbingly, presented a private and a public school in Germany where creationist propaganda is being presented as biology. The Spiegel article explains

Biology class at the August Hermann Franke School in Giessen, pupils in the eighth grade finish a fill in the blanks text. Completed the exercise reads “{Continental drift} started only after the Noachian flood. God sent the {flood} to the earth because the {people} were evil but Noah found {grace} in the sight of the Lord.” Further down in the text on the page, the world after the flood is described “Humans started eating meat; there were natural catastrophes and climate problems; people stopped getting as old”.

According to the article the August Hermann Franke School is an accredited but private Christian school. But that’s not where it ends. A public school is also – um – implicated.

In addition, at the public Liebig High School in Giessen there are public supporters of the biblical teachings. Biology teacher Wolfgang Meyer calls himself a ‘supporter of creationist theories.’ He feels it is important to teach pupils the background so they can learn that ‘the statements, to be found in school books, can definitely be questioned.’ [my emphisis]

The Spiegel article is nicely critical of the whole thing, no ‘two sides to every story’ here. And I can report one highlight. The links Spiegel has at the end of the article point to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the NSCE.

Now where’s Eugenie Scott when you need her? Oh, yeah. I remember, I put her up on a pedestal.

UPDATE: Spelled Ms Scotts name right and put up German warning.