March 13, 2005 - March 19, 2005 Archives

The New York Times has an article (reg required) about Imax theatres refusing to carry films that mention evolution for fear of pissing off the religions right.

People who follow trends at commercial and institutional Imax theaters say that in recent years, religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including “Cosmic Voyage,” which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; “Galápagos,” about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution; and “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea,” an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor.

People who follow the issue say it is more likely to arise at science centers and other public institutions than at commercial theaters. The filmmaker James Cameron, who was a producer on “Volcanoes,” said the commercial film he made on the same topic, “Aliens of the Deep,” had not encountered opposition, except during post-production, when “it was requested from some theaters that we change a line of dialogue” relating to sun worship by ancient Egyptians. The line remained, he said.

Mr. Cameron said he was “surprised and somewhat offended” that people were sensitive to the references to evolution in “Volcanoes.”

”It seems to be a new phenomenon,” he said, “obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science.”

The journalist Judith Hooper has recently leveled unfounded charges of fraud against Bernard Kettlewell, the distinguished naturalist who demonstrated natural selection in the peppered moth in Britain. My colleague Ian Musgrave and I recently analyzed Kettlwell’s data and Hooper’s charges, and concluded that the charges are wholly without merit. What follows are lightly edited excerpts from our paper in Skeptical Inquirer.

This week's Nature has an article summarizing the sequencing of the human X chromosome by Ross et al. (that should be Ross ET AL.!!!; see the author list at the end). There is an impressive wealth of quantitative and genetic detail here, but I'm not going to reiterate it. Mostly, I want to outline the evolutionary story.

And it really is an obligate evolutionary story they're telling. A paper on the sequence of a chromosome is not just a recitation of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts—it is about extensive analyses, comparisons of genomes from different species, reconstructions of past translocations, inversions, and mutations, and about the logical and mathematical modeling of the history of transformations that produced a particular arrangement of genes. What we have in the X chromosome is a text that shows the smudges and strike-outs and rearrangements of hundreds of millions of years of editing.

Continue reading "Evolution of the X chromosome" (on Pharyngula)

New Scientist reports on the findings of a study on the impact of genes on religious inclinations

Genes may help determine how religious a person is, suggests a new study of US twins. And the effects of a religious upbringing may fade with time.

Until about 25 years ago, scientists assumed that religious behaviour was simply the product of a person’s socialisation - or “nurture”. But more recent studies, including those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s religiousness.

But it is not clear how that contribution changes with age. A few studies on children and teenagers - with biological or adoptive parents - show the children tend to mirror the religious beliefs and behaviours of the parents with whom they live. That suggests genes play a small role in religiousness at that age.

Now, researchers led by Laura Koenig, a psychology graduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, US, have tried to tease apart how the effects of nature and nurture vary with time. Their study suggests that as adolescents grow into adults, genetic factors become more important in determining how religious a person is, while environmental factors wane.

The study can be found in Journal of Personality (vol 73, p 471)

We’ve all seen ID advocates bristle at the suggestion that ID is no different than astrology, Holocaust denial, UFOlogy, or any other pseudoscience. Why declare ID wrong before it even gets out of the gate? How dare we tar them with that brush!

In my mind, the biggest danger that ID poses to the world is the threat of making satire redundant. Check these guys out:

It’s an ID site run by people called the Christian Guardians Fellowship. It begins with the header, “EVOLUTION THEORY IS A MONUMENTAL HOAX.” At first glance, you’d think it’s just more of the same old stupidity, but there’s a neat twist. They have a new and superior method for proving Intelligent Design. And that method is… wait for it… astrology.

Torquarator bullocki

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The deuterostomes are a superphylum of animals that includes three phyla: the chordates (us!), the familiar echinoderms (sea urchins and starfish), and a peculiar group called the hemichordates (at times, you will see another phylum, the chaetognaths or arrow worms, grouped in the deuterostomes, but there is now evidence that they don't belong there). All are linked by their pattern of development. During gastrulation, animals form a structure called the blastopore, which is where migrating tissues tuck themselves inward to establish the three germ layers of the embryo. In deuterostomes, the blastopore will eventually become the anus. In the complementary category, the protostomes, which includes annelids and arthropods, the blastopore develops into the mouth.

The hemichordates are probably unfamiliar to most people reading this. They are marine worms that share two characteristics with us chordates: a hollow, dorsal nerve cord and a perforated feeding structure, the pharynx. They lack two others, the notochord and post-anal tail, hence the name hemichordate. There are two classes of hemichordate, the pterobranchs and the enteropneusts, which differ greatly in appearance and lifestyle.

Continue reading "Torquarator bullocki" (on Pharyngula)

There’s a post on ID over on Political Animal written by guest blogger Brad Plumer, who is apparently filling in for Kevin Drum. He gives us a nice plug, mentioning that he hasn’t seen us before and didn’t know that there are scientists who do indeed take the effort to address the claims of the ID movement. (Kevin though has seen us before - he linked to us on our second day of existence, nearly a year ago, sending us a much welcomed flood of traffic right from the start.) We certainly do put a fair amount of effort into rebutting the claims of the ID movement, quite successfully in my opinion, but of course that hasn’t stopped them or even seem to have slowed them down much. And that’s partly why I would like to address Plumer’s main point that perhaps (just maybe) we should concede the ID advocates’ push to get their ideas taught in public school science classes alongside evolution. Plumer writes:

Still, when the Washington Post today headlines the coming battle over creationism in the classroom, I wonder if a slight retreat by the reality-based community on evolution might not in fact be the best tactic, in order to vanquish the ID silliness in the long term. Really.

and later…

What I’m saying, essentially, is that if ID is truly as ridiculous as we all think it is, then why not shove it on the stage and force it to cluck around in public?

This is not an unreasonable sounding idea. Others have come up with it before, notably Richard Dawkins, who once stated something to the effect that we should spend the ten minutes it would take to rebut creationism and then move on. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Let me explain why this probably isn’t a good idea.

Introduction. In the beginning of March 2005 William Dembski sent an email message to several critics of his output, including me. Dembski wrote:

“Dear Critics,

Attached is a paper that fills in the details of chapter 4 of No Free Lunch, which David Wolpert referred to as “written in jello.” The key result is a displacement theorem. Along the way I prove and (sic) measure-theoretic variant of the No Free Lunch theorems.”

Dembski concluded his message as follows:

“… I expect that Ken Miller’s public remarks about intelligent design being a ‘total, dismal failure scientifically’ will become increasingly difficult to sustain. This paper, and subsequent revisions, can be found on my website I welcome any constructive comments about it.”

I occasionally run PubMed searches on “intelligent design” – not to see if any IDists have published any new research supporting ID, that never seems to happen – but to see if any new editorials about or critiques of ID have appeared lately.

Actually, most of what you get on these searches are references to engineering-related publications describing new inventions and the like. Sometimes you get publications about biomimetics, the process of using biological “designs” to inspire human invention.

Today, this was the top hit on my “intelligent design” search. It has to be seen to be believed:

Zuo J, Yan G, Gao Z. (2005). “A micro creeping robot for colonoscopy based on the earthworm.” Journal of Medical Engineering Technology Jan-Feb;29(1):1-7. OpenURL Link

If ever there was a shoe-in for an IgNobel Prize, this is it. The obvious question is, should the Prize be awarded in Biology, Engineering, or Medicine?

The Bathroom Wall

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With any tavern, one can expect that certain things that get said are out-of-place. But there is one place where almost any saying or scribble can find a home: the bathroom wall. This is where random thoughts and oddments that don’t follow the other entries at the Panda’s Thumb wind up. As with most bathroom walls, expect to sort through a lot of oyster guts before you locate any pearls of wisdom.

The previous wall got a little cluttered, so we’ve splashed a coat of paint on it.

Swallow Hard Fred, its a caterpillar!

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Fred Reed, right-wing creationist hero of the moment asked what he imagined to be hard questions that challenge the validity of evolutionary biology. They are actually rather tired and often answered “problems.” When confronted with any creationist making bold pronouncements, one should first look in The Index of Creationist Claims, or Creationist Lies and Blunders. That will take care of a majority of their so-called “evidenecs.” Several of Reed’s arguments have been debunked here already; The Neck of the Giraffe, and How I Spent My Morning. The key appeal of the Fred Reeds of the world is that they are ignorant, and lazy. It is neither a shame nor a crime to be ignorant, we are all born totally ingnorant. It is not a crime to be lazy, but it is a waste of ability. And true enough, it is not a crime to be ignorant and lazy, nor should it be even abstractly. But what chafes my butt is that I am actually forced to pay thousands of dollars a year on “professional liability insurance” because I am legally acknowledged as an expert in certain areas, and people, and courts of law, and corporations pay me cash money to provide them with my professional expert opinion. The salt in the wound is that ignoramuses like Fred Reed can promote their inanities without liability. Something to do with the First Amendment freedom of speech ‘guarantee.’ Nothing is ever truly secure and ironically the seperation of Church and State also ‘guaranteed’ in the First Amendment is under attack by the far-right. Because he isn’t an expert at anything, and even stressed that he doesn’t know what he is writing about, Fred’s not accountable for his false statements. This is a classic example of ‘buyer beware.”

By now, most regular readers of this blog have probably seen PZ’s recent analysis of Berlinski’s latest screed on “Darwin’s theory”. As most of you undoubtedly saw, PZ was somewhat irked by what Berlinski wrote.

After reading the full text of Berlinski’s polemic, my first thought was that PZ’s response was actually quite understated. I’ve cooled off a bit since then, but I still need to vent a little, so I thought I’d share one of the things that is extremely irritating about Berlinski-like anti-evolution claims.

The Kraken Wakes

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On 16 February Dr. Vincent Cassone debated Intelligent Design advocate Dr. Michael Behe. The debate was sponsored by the TAMU Veritas Forum.

Here is an outline of the debate. A number of issues caught my eye, but I will deal with one particular issue in this post.

“Behe’s rebuttal: The bad design argument [of the eye] is an argument from ignorance. May be reasons; in the case of retina, arrangement improves blood supply.”

No, it doesn’t. Behe shows his colours by giving a bad rehash of a bad creationist argument. I’ve briefly blogged the “blood supply” argument before, but I’ll put in a bit of detail this time.

"Intelligent Design" advocate William A. Dembski recently announced his completion of another draft paper. Titled "Searching Large Spaces: Displacement and the No Free Lunch Regress", Dembski's paper is an assertion, with math, that he was right about "No Free Lunch" all along.

After several failed attempts to get “intelligent design” into the Kansas Science Standards via regular channels, it appears that the Kansas Board of Education (which gained a 6-4 conservative majority last November) has settled on a plan to have six days of hearings, with equal time given to evolution and intelligent design. On the table are 20+ pages of revisions to the high school science standards, proposed by the Kansas Intelligent Design Network. These revisions systematically redefine science to include the supernatural (see the proposed revisions). The IDNet proposals were rejected by the Board of Education’s own appointed science standards committee (made up of Kansas scientists and educators), and were also rejected by 12 independent scientists who reviewed the proposed revisions the reviews are up on the Kansas Department of Education website).

According to one scientist who contacted NCSE, the Kansas Department of Education is beginning to contact scientists around the country and invite them to participate in the hearings, all expenses paid. The suspicion is that an equal number of “intelligent design” proponents from the Discovery Institute are going to be invited to testify as if they were equally credible experts.

The veteran pro-science group in Kansas, Kansas Citizens for Science, is recommending that scientists and educators boycott these hearings. They are calling the hearings a “Kangaroo Court”, with a predetermined conclusion, and they argue that the Board of Education is attempting to devise an ad hoc justification to override the conclusions of their own science standards committee and of the independent reviewers.

For a summary of recent events in Kansas, see NCSE.

Updates and position statements on the KCFS website.

KCFS Position Press Release 3-3-05.

KCFS Resolution concerning the “Science Hearings”

David Berlinski is babbling against evolution again (an abridged version has been published in the Wichita Eagle), and it's dreadful. This is a guy who is a competent mathematician with a degree from Princeton, and all he can do is whip out creationist lies in a lather of fury against Darwin. I've tried to dissect it as well as I can, while trying to choke back the nausea induced by such putrid arguments.

Continue reading "Berlinski: I can't believe I'm wasting time on this guy." (on Pharyngula)

New news from Dover

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The York Daily Record is once again outdoing itself in coverage of the story on the Dover ID policy and court case. In the Dover Biology section, Lauri Lebo has done another major story on intelligent design, this time on Of Pandas and People and the problems with it.

The story is entitled, “Furor breathes new life into aging ‘Pandas’: Book used in Dover a dated look at intelligent design concept.” The fact that the second edition of Pandas is 12 years old is a major theme (actually, the book is basically composed of creationist criticisms of 1980’s science, and the book couldn’t even get that right – see the comprehensive NCSE Pandas page).

It turns out that even Jon Buell, head of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, the group that produced Pandas, would not have recommended his own book:

The Neck of the Giraffe

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The Discovery Institute has put up a long screed by Fred Reed that was originally published in something called Men’s Daily News. The article is entitled, “The Metaphysics of Evolution.” Fred Reed claims those nasty evolutionists don’t really know anything, they rely on plausibility rather than evidence, that evolution is an religion of anti-creationism, and that Fred Reed has stumped all them evolutionists on the internet.

A representative quote is below. Hey Fred, if you want some answers to your questions, come on over to the Panda’s Thumb and ask them. Or, you could consider just going to a library, rather than wildly assuming that your personal ignorance bears some relationship to reality.

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