November 13, 2005 - November 19, 2005 Archives

Vatican official refutes intelligent design

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The Seattle PI reports that Rev. George Coyne, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, has observed the obvious namely that “Intelligent design isn’t science even though it pretends to be,…”

While the Catholic church obviously supports ‘intelligent design’, it also seems to realize that ‘Intelligent Design’ is scientifically vacuous.

Hmm, this sounds familiar…

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I just stumbled on an interesting old article in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (The ASA is the long-established organization of scientists who are evangelical Christians. The membership ranges from young-earth creationism to theistic evolution).

The article is creationist Nell Segraves’s contribution to a five-person response to the question, “Biblical Creation: Should It Be Taught in the Public Schools as a Mandated Subject Alongside Evolution?” Segraves replied:

Biblical Creation: Should It Be Taught in the Public Schools as a Mandated Subject Alongside Evolution?

From: JASA 33 (December 1981): 231-235

(A public discussion on May 14, 1980 sponsored by the Community Services Office, San Diego Community College, and the Biology Department of San Diego Mesa College.)

Nell Segraves

Nell Segraves is a co-founder and an administrative assistant at the Creation Science Research Center. She has been involved in the evaluation of science, social science and health textbooks for approximately eighteen years.

Those of us involved in the Creationist Movement are not attempting to legislate biblical creation into science classrooms. Biblical creation is a belief that we hold, but we are no more advocating our belief in the Scriptures as a science subject than is the humanist advocating atheism as a subject for classroom discussion in science. The Creation Science Research Center is not attempting to introduce to public schools Bible stories or Bible verses. Neither are the other established responsible Creationist organizations. What we are advocating, rather, is the introduction into the science classroom of scientific data which are currently being excluded…namely, scientific data which conflict with the evolutionary theories of origin, and which are needed for the critical evaluation of evolutionary theories as science.

Yep, all we want to do is just teach the “scientific data which are currently being excluded” and “conflict with the evolutionary theories of origin”, and do some “critical evaluation”! It seems like I’ve heard that before, somewhere.

From London comes the astonishing news that the unmistakable image of Charles Darwin has appeared in the bottom of a postdoc’s frying pan. Scientists around the world1 are puzzled about the possible mechanism that might have resulted in the 19th century naturalist’s portrait being deposited on the suface of a cooking utensil.

In one attempted application of the Explanatory FilterTM it was found that the probability of this occurance is less than that of fairy circles appearing to form a mole on the face on Mars2. (This is, coincidentally, precisely equal to the probability that Nicholas Caputo would have hit David Berlinski if he had fired an arrow at Albert Einstein’s door during a total solar eclipse.)


Scientists say that the object’s being specified is beyond doubt. An anonymous fellow of an anonymous Intelligent Design PR firm, when asked on background and off the record, responded that “Objectively, we can only conclude that the image was designed by an intelligence3, perhaps by means of infinite wavelength radiation emanating from the stove of the discoverer’s flat.”

It has not yet been ascertained whether the pan’s dicoverer was cooking spaghetti at the time the image appeared.

The owner and discoverer of the miraculous pan has opened bidding for the object on ebay. All proceeds from the sale will benefit the American Civil Liberties Union, which conserves the civic values – including freedom of religion supported by the separation of church and state – of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.

1One in London, one in Princeton. 2Work not shown. 3Maybe supernatural, maybe not.

[Comments have been closed for this thread. Please continue the conversation at After the Bar Closes.]

A new fossil mosasaur, one of a group of non-dinosaurian reptiles that return to marine existence, has been found by an amateur fossil hunter (see? Science can be done by non-professionals) near Dallas Texas, appropriately called Dallasaurus turneri after the location and discoverer Van Turner who found it 16 years ago.

This fossil is interesting because it is one of your classical “missing links”. Mosasaurs, which ended up 40 feet long (12m) at the end of the Cretaceous when they and dinosaurs and a whole lot of other life went extinct from a bolide impact, evolved fins from their limbs, and many of the primitive mosasaurs had partial limbs/fins.

D turneri, however, has the complete set of limbs it shared with its reptilian ancestors and cousins. This is interesting for mosasaur specialists of course, but it also allows me an opportunity to talk about two often-misunderstood terms in evolution - “missing link” and “primitive”.

Continue reading “The Mosasaur and the missing link” on Evolving Thoughts

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I hate to divert attention from the fascinating serious discussion (for the most part) taking place in response to my last post, The fundamental (and wrong) religious argument of the IDists in Kansas, but you all really should take a look at the new website (Motto: “Welcome to Kansas, please set your watch back 100 years.”)

For a start, read the first page of the “Kansas Teachers Guide to Intelligent Design”, a parody of a introductory letter by Kansas state Board member Connie Morris.

Here’s the text, but you really need to download the real thing to get the full flavor of this:

Carl Zimmer's new book, Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), is available, and he has a summary of its contents at The Loom. This should be excellent—Zimmer has a real knack for writing about the evidence for a general audience without diminishing it—and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. More accessible descriptions about what we know and how we know it are exactly what we need to get out to the public!

Video time capsule

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I first ran across the thylacine (aka “Tasmanian tiger” or “Tasmanian wolf”) when I was preparing to teach a summer course on vertebrate zoology for a local Catholic college during grad school. While I’d had a decent amount of organismal biology and zoology as a college undergrad, I was a bit rusty from a few years of only studying organisms lacking nuclei, so I was looking for a quick refresher as well as some interesting topics for final paper assignments for the course. Just announced around that time was a “breakthrough” in the attempt to clone the thylacine, so I introduced that to the class in a discussion of the effects of geographic isolation, and had a nice discussion of both the molecular techniques and the ethics of a Jurassic Park-type scenario.

(Continue reading at Aetiology)

Tangled Bank #41

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cichlid jaws

When we look at the face of another person, we can recognize specific features that have familial resemblances. In my family, for instance, I can recognize a "Myers nose" that my grandmother and my father and some of my siblings and kids have, and it's different than my wife's or my mother's nose. These are subtle differences in shape—a bit of a curve, a knob, a seam—and their inheritance suggests that these differences are specified somehow in the DNA. If you think about it, though…how can whether the profile of a nose is straight or curved be encoded in a linear stretch of nucleotides? The complicated answer is that it isn't—morphology is a consequence of epigenetic interactions during development—but we know that the alleles present in the genome do contribute in some significant way to three-dimensional form. How?

We don't know all the details. This is one of those huge research problems that has gaping holes, full of promise and interest, where we don't understand exactly how all the pieces fit together. However, here's an important point that is relevant to other, larger issues in evolution: even where we lack full information about mechanisms, we can roughly perceive the shape of the answer, and that helps us rule out many alternative explanations and guides us in the general direction of a more complete understanding.

People's noses are a difficult subject for research; we don't get to define human crosses, people tend to be a little snippy about telling them who to breed with and taking their genes apart, and humans are awfully slow to breed. Fish are better experimental animals, much more pliable and faster and more prolific in their breeding. Some fish, such as the African cichlids, also have highly diverse populations and species with easily recognized and often quite dramatic morphological differences—and we can explore how those differences are generated by genetic and molecular differences in development. In particular, we can start to figure out how fish jaws are shaped by developmental processes.

Continue reading "Evolution of the cichlid mandible" (on Pharyngula)

Remember Steve Fuller who was a defense expert witness in the Kitzmiller trial? Steve Miller is also on the editorial board of the SciPolicy Journal.

His colleagues have filed an Amicus Curiae or Friends of the Courts, brief:

There is a logical fallacy in mandating the inclusion of intelligent design since it provides neither scientific explanation nor empirical evidence of the actual existence of a designer, but through fiat simply asserts that a designer must exist to explain the gap in knowledge. Stripped of its intellectual facade the announcement is nothing but a transparent effort to engraft religious dogma onto the classroom examination of scientific theory.

Steve Abrams in the Hot Zone

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Just when I thought I’d seen it all, Red State Rabble notes that Kansas Board of Education chairman Steve Abrams has just published an op-ed entitled “Science standards aren’t about religion” in the Wichita Eagle. I can’t tell if it is the same op-ed that Abrams said in an interview yesterday he was sending to “newspapers across the state, as well as CNN, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post,” but it probably is.

To begin, Abrams declares that the changes to the Kansas science standards are not about religion, and then promptly makes it extremely clear that they actually are. Specifically, Abrams makes it clear that this really is about good old-fashioned creationism, when he writes this:

Resistance to antibiotics has been a concern of scientists almost since their widespread use began. In a 1945 interview with the New York Times, Alexander Fleming himself warned that the misuse of penicillin could lead to selection of resistant forms of bacteria, and indeed, he’d already derived such strains in the lab by varying doses of penicillin the bacteria were subjected to. A short 5 years later, several hospitals had reported that a majority of their Staph isolates were, as predicted, resistant to penicillin. This decline in effectiveness has led to a search for new sources and kinds of antimicrobial agents. One strategy involves going back to a decades-old approach researched by Soviet scientists: phage therapy. Here, they pit one microbe directly against another, using viruses called bacteriophage to infect, and kill, pathogenic bacteria. Vincent Fischetti at Rockefeller University has used this successfully to kill anthrax, Streptococcus pyogenes, and others. Another novel source of antibiotics has come from our own innate immune system, one of our initial defenses against microbial invaders.


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Bestill your beating hearts, Darwin fans, for yet more Darwin texts are free online. Many have long known and loved the website The writings of Charles Darwin on the web run by John van Wyhe, at the British Library, which has virtually all of Darwin’s published books and articles online (yes, Virginia, Darwin wrote over 100 articles in addition to all his books). And, less well known but very useful, all the volumes of The Correspondance of Charles Darwin are searchable at Google Print.

Now, as reviewed by Niles Eldredge in PLoS Biology [1], we have online Darwin’s early notebooks – the “Red” and “Transmutation” notebooks – and manuscripts: the 1842 Sketch, the 1844 Essay, and the massive unpublished book for which Origin of Species was the “abstract”, Natural Selection. The website is The Darwin Digital Library of Evolution at the American Natural History Museum (

1. Eldredge, N. 2005. “Darwin’s Other Books: ‘Red’ and ‘Transmutation’ Notebooks, ‘Sketch,’ ‘Essay,’ and Natural Selection.” Public Library of Science: Biology, 3(11): e382. November 15, 2005.

PS: Hmm, the PLoS: Biology article says that the “Red” and “Transmutation” notebooks are online at the website, but I can’t find them. Post a think if you find them.

On a local discussion forum in Lawrence, Kansas today, a poster named “Conservativeman” wrote a nice succinct summary of the main arguments presented by the Intelligent Design advocates (IDists) at the Kansas “science” hearings last May, and of those arguments incessantly put forth by ID leader John Calvert.

It may be that I am being too repetitious in my posts here at the Panda’s thumb, making the same points over and over. However, I think these points may become critical in case the Kansas situation goes to court, so for me I think it’s worth my while (if not the readers) to try to get as clear of an understanding of the fundamental religious argument that is being made by the IDists in Kansas.

Conservativeman wrote,

The problem is that an “Evolution Only,” policy is not really scientific or constitutional. It is not scientific because it is officially biased rather than scientifically objective. Because it is biased, it is not religiously neutral. Evolution Only effectively requires our children to “know” that we come from a natural rather than an intelligent cause, that we are occurrences and not designs, and that we naturally arise without purpose from a purposeless process. It effectively teaches that no rational evidentiary basis exists for theistic beliefs. Evolution Only converts these scientific claims into dogmas that are the fundamental tenets of non-theistic religions and that directly contradict the fundamental tenets of theistic religions. Accordingly, in my opinion, Evolution Only is not “secular” or neutral. Rather it is an ideology that directly conflicts with the First Amendment rights of parents and students.

This argument is quite wrong in a number of fundamental and important ways – ways that may eventually be settled in a court case. I’d like to respond to these points a few lines at a time.

The Kansas Board of Education has rewritten the science standards so that they may include the supernatural. That’s OK with me, as long as they play fair: Scientists must now be allowed to investigate the supernatural, including the truth claims of religion, and their judgements must be taken seriously. Science is, after all, our most successful enterprise (especially if we count medicine and sanitation), and we should be allowed to apply the principles of science to religion or anything else that makes objective claims. I say, Bring science into the churches!


It's official. Flying Spaghetti Monsterism has now produced more original peer-reviewed research than "intelligent design" (aka "creintelligent designationism"). Don't believe me? Well, look at these:

Audoly, B., and S. Neukirch. 2005. "Fragmentation of rods by cascading cracks: Why spaghetti does not break in half." Physical Review Letters 85 (Aug. 26): 095505.

Gladden, J.R., N.Z. Handzy, A. Belmonte, and E. Villermaux. 2005. "Dynamic buckling and fragmentation in brittle rods." Physical Review Letters 94 (Jan. 28): 035503.

How bent spaghetti break

Dynamic Buckling and Breaking of Thin Rods

Hat-tip to Peter Weiss of Science News, in his online article "That's the Way the Spaghetti Crumbles," Science News, 168(20), p. 315 (Nov. 12, 2005).

Update: November 15, 2005. The Templeton Foundation has issued a statement objecting to the implication that they have ever been a supporter of ID. The statement makes it clear that they do not support ID, and that on those occasions where foundation money went to ID supporters, it was for purposes other than supporting ID research. The statement begins:

Today the WSJ ran a front page story mentioning the John Templeton Foundation in a way suggesting that the Foundation has been a concerted patron and sponsor of the so-called Intelligent Design (“ID”) position (such as is associated with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and the writers Philip Johnson, William Dembski, Michael Behe and others). This is false information. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The John Templeton Foundation has provided tens of millions of dollars in support to research academics who are critical of the anti-evolution ID position. Any careful and factual analysis of actual events will find that the John Templeton Foundation has been in fact the chief sponsor of university courses, lectures and academic research which variously have argued against the anti-evolution “ID” position. It is scandalous for a distinguished paper to misinform the public in this way.

In light of this, I apologize for suggesting that the Foundation was losing faith in ID, when it seems, in fact, they never had any faith in it to begin with. I still regard it as significant, however, that a foundation dedicated to bridging the gap between science and religion would wish to distance itself, with considerable passion, from ID.

The website of the Beaver County Times and Allegheny Times is reporting that Senator Rick Santorum has reversed his position on teaching ID in science classes:

U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum said Saturday that he doesn't believe that intelligent design belongs in the science classroom.

Santorum's comments to The Times are a shift from his position of several years ago, when he wrote in a Washington Times editorial that intelligent design is a “legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in the classroom.”

But on Saturday, the Republican said that, “Science leads you where it leads you.”

And later:

Though Santorum said he believes that intelligent design is “a legitimate issue,” he doesn't believe it should be taught in the classroom, adding that he had concerns about some parts of the theory.

Santorum is one of the most conservative Senators around, and he is a darling of the Religious Right. Consequently, this flip-flop is highly significant. I provide some further commentary here.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article on ID in college classrooms today.

AMES, Iowa – With a magician’s flourish, Thomas Ingebritsen pulled six mousetraps from a shopping bag and handed them out to students in his “God and Science” seminar. At his instruction, they removed one component – either the spring, hammer or holding bar – from each mousetrap. They then tested the traps, which all failed to snap.

“Is the mousetrap irreducibly complex?” the Iowa State University molecular biologist asked the class.

“Yes, definitely,” said Jason Mueller, a junior biochemistry major wearing a cross around his neck.

That’s the answer Mr. Ingebritsen was looking for. He was using the mousetrap to support the antievolution doctrine known as intelligent design. Like a mousetrap, the associate professor suggested, living cells are “irreducibly complex” – they can’t fulfill their functions without all of their parts. Hence, they could not have evolved bit by bit through natural selection but must have been devised by a creator. “This is the closest to a science class on campus where anybody’s going to talk about intelligent design,” the fatherly looking associate professor told his class. “At least for now.”

Overshadowed by attacks on evolution in high-school science curricula, intelligent design is gaining a precarious and hotly contested foothold in American higher education. Intelligent-design courses have cropped up at the state universities of Minnesota, Georgia and New Mexico, as well as Iowa State, and at private institutions such as Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon. Most of the courses, like Mr. Ingebritsen’s, are small seminars that don’t count for science credit. Many colleges have also hosted lectures by advocates of the doctrine.

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

Lecture Planned on Intelligent Design

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Despite the complaints by ID proponents that Intelligent Design is not about religion or faith, they seem to have a hard time convincing even their fellow creationists.

In Lecture Planned on Intelligent Design we read the following

In the current controversy between scientific proponents and religious opponents of evolution, Hugh Ross concedes that scientists have a valid point.

“The most ubiquitous complaint from scientists is that evolution-bashers don’t have the courage to say what their model of the origin of life is. Frankly, I have to agree. All they’re doing is making negative arguments,” Ross said from his office in California. “We don’t critique the evolution model, we present our model.”

It only gets better:

After the Bar Closes

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Some of you may not know this, but the Panda’s Thumb does have a forum on After the Bar Closes.

For those of you missing the Bathroom Wall, you can post your pearls on the forum.

Bongo for Bird Biogeography

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Check out this: “Backtracking Birds Show Islands are not Evolutionary Dead End” on the blog A Scientific Life (or Scientist, Interrupted), aka The post reports on a paper on bird biogeography published in Nature, “Single origin of a pan-Pacific bird group and upstream colonization of Australasia.” The main point of the paper is that the biogeogaphy of a group of pacific island monarchs is not a simple matter of flow from the continental source to the island sink; instead, there has been some back-and-forth over the last few million years.

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