July 10, 2005 - July 16, 2005 Archives

Given the high media profile of discussions about evolutionary biology and educational policy for public schools, several of the Panda’s Thumb contributors have agreed to make themselves available for representatives of the media. PT contributors often have credentials and expertise in relevant fields, or long experience in analyzing the arguments presented by various antievolutionary groups. The following list gives concise background information about each member of the Panda’s Thumb Media Advisory Panel.

Today’s entry comes from the “creatively nasty” file:

Lorentzen and Sieg (1991) have insisted that parsimony analysis should properly result in the display of all possible assignments of ancestral nodes (and thus all possible placements of changes of state) for each character. Their objective may find little support outside of the pulp and paper industry. –Joeseph Felsenstein Inferring Phylogenies (p70)

Some of you may recall that the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, publisher of the creationist textbook, Of Pandas and People, wants to intervene in the Dover, PA lawsuit to protect its intellectual property. Their textbook is central to the case that the school board violated the separation of church and state. In fact, the plaintiffs have subpoenaed FTE’s records about the textbook to help demonstrate its religious nature.

However, the publisher believes that their sales will be hurt if their textbook is found to be a leading cause of a first amendment violation. Therefore, FTE is trying to intervene in the case to convince the court that its textbook is something other than what it is.

Yesterday, the York Dispatch reported on some developments in the case: “Textbook publisher wants to join lawsuit - Says company is not a religious organization“.

Buell said his organization is “not at all” Christian or religious in nature. But attorney Eric Rothschild with the Philadelphia-based law firm Pepper Hamilton pointed out that the not-for-profit organization’s Internal Revenue Service tax exemption form says their primary purpose is “promoting and publishing textbooks presenting a Christian perspective.”

Buell blamed the “error” on a new accountant who was “not even from the state of Texas.”

He said he had never seen the form until Rothschild pointed out that his initials were on the bottom of one page.

The organization’s Articles of Incorporation from the state of Texas also mention religion, Christianity and the Bible.

Buell blamed that on the attorney who filed the papers.

”So the accountant got it wrong and the attorney got it wrong?” Rothschild asked.

”That’s true,” Buell said.

Rothschild also brought forth several other examples of the foundation’s possible religious ties, including an early draft of the book, which in its infant stages was titled “Biology of Origins.”

The draft mentioned “creationism” frequently. But in the final copy of the book, after the title was changed, the word creationism was replaced with the phrase “intelligent design.”

Buell said the word creationism was a “placeholder term.” The definition of creationism changed to include a religious context after the draft was written, so the writers changed the word, he said.

Some of you may remember the story of Chris Buttars, the Utah state legislator who submitted a bill to require the teaching of "divine design" in public school science classrooms in that state. That led to a couple of long exchanges between myself and John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute. One of my readers from Utah sent me an update on the story. It seems that Buttars has now dropped his plan because he found out that Utah public schools don't teach human evolution anyway:

The Utah lawmaker who was kicking around the idea that Utah's schools should teach the theory of "divine" or "intelligent" design alongside biological evolution is abandoning the effort.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said Thursday that after talks with the state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington, he is comfortable -- at least for now -- with what Utah classrooms are teaching.

"She assured me in a phone call and then followed up with a letter, that we should not be teaching human evolution of any kind," Buttars said Thursday.

The state's core science curricula doesn't teach the evolution of the human species as a scientific fact, Harrington said. It does, however, emphasize that biological diversity is a result of millions of years of evolution.

"Science is a way of knowing and a knowing based up on evidence," Harrington said by telephone from Cedar City Thursday. "There is not evidence yet to claim how the Earth was created and no evidence to connect the family of apes with the family of man."

Yikes. The Superintendant of Public Instruction in Utah doesn't understand the difference between a family and a genus, and thinks that there is no evidence to connect humans and apes. I suppose this might be true if one ignores the incredible genetic similarities, the shared retroviral sequences in our DNA, the well known series of paleo-species that appear in just the right temporal and anatomical sequence showing a gradual increase in brain size, bipedal adaptation, technological sophistication and cultural development leading from the late Miocene primates to modern Homo sapiens. It's one thing to say that one doesn't find such evidence compelling; to claim it doesn't exist is sheer lunacy; and to come up with an explanation for it other than evolution appears to be fantasy. My favorite quote from Buttars:

"It's not fact," Buttars said. "It's a theory. You know, the trouble with the missing link, is that it's still missing."

As a basic rule, anytime you find someone speaking about the "missing link" or using the "it's not a fact it's a theory" argument, you're dealing with someone whose understanding of evolution stopped at about the 5th grade level. Is it really too much to ask that those who want to change science education be at least minimally educated in science?

The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around the earth so thin that it cannot be seen edgewise from a spacce shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered. –E.O. Wilson The Future of Life (2002)

Bill Dembski has a post up about Roger Ebert’s review of Spielberg’s new adaptation of War of the Worlds. It’s actually Jim Emerson’s review on rogerebert.suntimes.com, but whatever. (Roger Ebert, unlike everyone else, didn’t like the movie – he let his inner scientific nit-picker take over on this one). Emerson gets in some good gratuitous jabs at ID, which Ebert himself has done in the past.

Anyhow, the movie is very much worth seeing, and the review is worth reading. As everyone knows, what dooms the aliens in The War of the Worlds is microbial disease, to which the aliens have no resistance (feel free to do the scientific nitpick on this, I would be interested in opinions). What I found striking about the conclusion of the movie (which also struck Emerson) was the voiceover by Morgan Freeman, which is basically a very strong statement of theistic evolution. I can’t find a transcript of the movie version, but here is H.G. Wells’s original version, from an online e-text of War of the Worlds:

If you will indulge a bit of self-promotion, my new column for CSICOP's Creation Watch website is now available. In it I offer some thoughts on why gradual evolution is a more plausible explanation than ID for the existence of complex biological systems. Enjoy!

The DI Spins Leonard

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A month ago I described the Bryan Leonard dissertation story, reporting that in light of several concerns raised by three senior faculty members at the Ohio State University, Leonard’s supervisor had requested a delay in Leonard’s defense. Now the Discovery Institute spin machine has ramped up its whining with this publication of a statement from the two ID creationist members of Leonard’s committee, Robert DiSilvestro and Glen Needham (hereinafter “D&N”). While one could fisk it in detail, I will here just touch on a couple of the highlights (lowlights?).

More below the fold.

Dinosaur Lungs

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bird respiration

Next time you're cutting up a fresh bird, try looking for the lungs. They're about where you'd expect them to be, but they're nestled up dorsally against the ribs and vertebrae, and they're surprisingly small. If you think about it, the the thorax of a bird is a fairly rigid box, with that large sternal keel up front and short ribs—it's a wonder that they are able to get enough air from those tiny organs with relatively little capability for expanding and contracting the chest.

How they do it is an amazing story. Birds have a radically effective respiratory system that works rather differently than ours, with multiple adaptations working together to improve their ability to take in oxygen. There is also a growing body of evidence that dinosaurs also shared many of these adaptations, tightening their link to birds and also making them potentially even more fierce—they were big, they were active, and their lungs were turbocharged.

Continue reading Dinosaur lungs (on Pharyngula)

Darwin on the argument from Ignorance

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Charles Darwin, seems to have “predicted” Intelligent Design’s, vacuous approaches to science when he commented:

Darwin Wrote:

Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation” or “unity of design,” etc., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject the theory

But it deserves especial notice that the more important objections relate to questions on which we are confessedly ignorant; nor do we know how ignorant we are. We do not know all the possible transitional gradations between the simplest and the most perfect organs; it cannot be pretended that we know all the varied means of Distribution during the long lapse of years, or that we know how imperfect is the Geological Record. Serious as these several objections are, in my judgment they are by no means sufficient to overthrow the theory of descent with subsequent modification.


And especially relevant were his words about ignorance which describe ID so accurately.

Darwin Wrote:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science”

Descent of Man


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Since this is the Panda's Thumb, it's only appropriate to throw in a photo of the baby pandas just born at the Washington Zoo. All together now…

baby pandas

Awwwwww, how cute!

(via Majikthise)

Another old, but still relevant, quote…

And thus, a true Theory is a Fact; a Fact is a familiar Theory. That which is a Fact under one aspect, is a Theory under another. The most recondite Theories when firmly established are Facts: the simplest Facts involve something of the nature of Theory. –William Whewell Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (2nd ed, 1847)

The more things change…

“What men of science want is only a fair day’s wages for more than a fair day’s work; and most of us, I suspect, would be well content if, for our days and nights of unremitting toil, we could secure the pay which a first-class Treasury clerk earns without any obviously trying strain upon his faculties.” –Thomas Henry Huxley Administrative Nihilism (1871)

The L.A. Times had this excellent article on ID the other day. In short, if we are all the product of intelligent design, why is the result so imperfect? (Hat tip: Noodle Food.)

Yes, I actually am going to try to get a quote up every day. I’m also going to try to keep them at least moderately relevant to this blog’s topic. Some will be short and sweet, and some will be accompanied by commentary. Today’s is one of the commentary ones.

It has now been shown, though most briefly and imperfectly, how the law that “Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species,” connects together and renders intelligible a vast number of independent and hitherto unexplained facts. The natural system of arrangement of organic beings, their geographical distribution, their geological sequence, the phaenomena of representative and substituted groups in all their modifications, and the most singular peculiarites of anatomical structure, are all explained and illustrated by it, in perfect accordance with the vast mass of facts which the researches of modern naturalists have brought together, and, it is believed, not materially opposed to any of them. It also claims a superiority over previous hypotheses, on the ground that it not merely explains, but necessitates what exists. Granted the law, and many of the most important facts in Nature could not have been otherwise, but are almost as necessary deductions from it, as are the elliptic orbits of the planets from the law of gravitation. –Alfred Russel Wallace ON THE LAW WHICH HAS REGULATED THE INTRODUCTION OF NEW SPECIES (1855)

Commentary on the flipside.

Carl Zimmer: Tangling the tree

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Carl Zimmer on “The Loom” describes recent work on the phylogenetic tree. Researchers have looked at vertical and horizontal transmission of genetic information in various bacteria.

I would like to focus on a particular aspect of the findings, namely the [u]scale free[/u] nature of the horizontal gene transfer networks. People may remember the scale free networks in RNA for instance and how such networks have some very important properties. Scale free networks can be explained through the simple process of duplication and preferential attachment. In this case, the researchers showed that the horizontal ‘vines’ of the tree form scale free networks.

So what?

Hi all. I recently accompanied Dr. Tara Smith to the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) meeting down in Atlanta, GA. What a blast that was, though I was unable to make it over to Cobb County, where I hear they have some kind of famous sticker store! Anyway, Atlanta was fun too, though I have to say their bamboo still doesn’t compare to Manhattan.

A million million spermatozoa All of them alive; Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah Dare hope to survive.

And among that billion minus one Might have chanced to be Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne– But the One was Me.

–Aldous Huxley

The San Francisco Chronicle had an opinion essay from New Scientist editor James Randerson yesterday. See “80 years later, Scopes trial debate still alive“. Yesterday, notably, was the 80th Anniversiary of the Scopes Trial, which still informs discussion of all modern battles over evolution education – and rightly so in my opinion. The modern situation cannot be understood without William Jennings Bryan and his 1921-1925 anti-evolution crusade. You think “theory, not fact” policies are new? Well, Bryan got his crusade going a few years before the 1925 Scopes Trial. The first antievolution law was passed in Oklahoma in 1923, followed by Bryan’s home state of Florida. 1924 was a legislative off-year, but in the Scopes era some states took nonlegislative actions. According to Ed Larson, Trial and Error (2003, p. 75):

Supplementing this legislative activity, some state and local educational boards took the initiative in moving against evolutionary teaching. A year before the Scopes trial, the state Board of Education in California had directed teachers to present Darwinism “as a theory only”….

(Other action was subsequently taken by the North Carolina Board of Education, the Texas Textbook Commission (sound familiar?), and the Louisiana Superintendent of Education.)

NPR’s On the Media did a story, “Evolving Coverage” yesterday on the Scopes media coverage – one interesting factoid is that they rolled wire all the way down to Dayton to pipe the audio out to national radio stations. And All Things Considered has a timeline, photo series, and story collection on Scopes then and now.

The Tangled Bank

…this Wednesday, at TechnoGypsy. Send those links to science writing to kmenard, pzmyers, or host@tangledbank.net.

Table of geologic time


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