March 19, 2006 - March 25, 2006 Archives

Via Red State Rabble, we learn that Judge Jones was protected by the US Marshalls back in December, after his Kitzmiller Decision pulled back the curtain from ID and identified it for the warmed over creationism that it is. The reason for that protection? Threatening emails he received following his decision about ID creationism.

More details below the fold…

Paul Nelson offers his affirmative answer here. Over at EvolutionBlog I explain in some detail why he’s totally wrong. Enjoy!

The next time ID movement makes a stink about “censorship” – their word for informed criticism – read this. Almost forty years after the Supreme Court struck down the bans on teaching evolution in public schools, this kind of thing is still shockingly common.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to read this. It will be fun to see how many times the previous law review articles by DeWolf et al. (summary: “Intelligent design is constitutional because it is revolutionary new science, not creationism!”) are contradicted by the new DI book by DeWolf et al. (which, if it follows the website, will say, “Judge Jones was irresponsible and activist for ruling on the science question!”).

Appearing in this morning’s Greenville News (SC) online opinion section:

The theory of evolution does not and cannot explain so much about the universe that we know. For instance, when and how did water evolve? How does it happen that gravity can hold us to the Earth, and at the same time allow us to step up without any trouble? How did it happen that the Earth is spinning at the exact rate that keeps us from feeling that movement?

This is your brain on creationism. Be afraid.

(Hat tip to Rodney Wilson of SCSE.)

A recent press release underlines the growing controversy about Intelligent Design theory by announcing the release of two competing books exploring the theory that the universe is the product of intelligent design by a entity known as the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”

One book, GOD SPEAKS! The Flying Spaghetti Monster in his Own Words by Jon Smith has been self published. The preview shows how the evidence strongly supports Intelligent Design. The author shows how anagrams such as “debit card - bad credit” can also be found in Genesis.

One device used by ID advocates to create the illusion of seriousness is the misrepresentation of scientific research. References to actual papers, coupled with the occasional bit of jargon, allow them to appear authoritative to lay people. But since there is nothing in the literature to aid their arguments, this appearance of authority can be obtained only by presenting a grotesque caricature of what scientists actually do.

For example, consider this blog entry from Cornelius Hunter, posted at the blog IDtheFuture.

The subject is this paper, from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled “Sodium channel genes and the evolution of diversity in communication signals of electric fishes: Convergent molecular evolution.” In it, the authors (Harold Zakon, Ying Lu, Derrick Zwickl and David Hillis) report some recent findings on the evolution of “electric organs” in certain species of fish.

An elementary school teacher in Bennett, Colorado, has been suspended for showing her class a 12-min portion of the opera Faust, according to reports in the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

Specifically, Tresa Waggoner, a first-year teacher, showed her elementary-school class a section of a video that used sock puppets to animate the opera. The video featured the soprano Joan Sutherland, whom many consider the greatest soprano of her generation. Ms. Waggoner found the 30-year-old videotape in the school library. She had invited singers from Opera Colorado to perform at the school and used the video to prepare her students. The performance was canceled, and no reason was given, according to a spokesperson from Opera Colorado.

Parents accused Ms. Waggoner of devil worship and, in at least one instance, of not being a Christian, as if not being a Christian were somehow reprehensible. In fact, Ms. Waggoner, herself an opera singer, describes herself as a Christian and has two Christian recordings among her credentials.

Ms. Waggoner, the mother of two children, was further accused of being a lesbian aiming to promote homosexuality. Ms. Wagonner says she was - get ready for this - explaining “trouser roles” in opera. (In Faust , a young man in love with Marguerite is played by a soprano.) Other parents complained that the video deals with abortion; Ms. Waggoner says flatly that they lied.

Some parents thought that the material was inappropriate for small children and were mollified when they were assured (by whom is unclear) that a similar situation would not arise. But other parents were not so easily satisfied.

Panda’s Thumb made it into the finals for “Best Blog Community” in the Koufax Awards. It would be nice if there were at least one vote registered for PT in the final round vote. And have a look at the other final round votes, too, while you are at it.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has stepped into the controversy between religious fundamentalists and scientists by saying that he does not believe that creationism - the Bible-based account of the origins of the world - should be taught in schools.

Giving his first, wide-ranging, interview at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop was emphatic in his criticism of creationism being taught in the classroom, as is happening in two city academies founded by the evangelical Christian businessman Sir Peter Vardy and several other schools.

”I think creationism is … a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories … if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there’s just been a jarring of categories … My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it,” he said.

The debate over creationism or its slightly more sophisticated offshoot, so-called “intelligent design” (ID) which argues that creation is so complex that an intelligent - religious - force must have directed it, has provoked divisions in Britain but nothing like the vehemence or politicisation of the debate in the US. There, under pressure from the religious right, some states are considering giving ID equal prominence to Darwinism, the generally scientifically accepted account of the evolution of species. Most scientists believe that ID is little more than an attempt to smuggle fundamentalist Christianity into science teaching.

States from Ohio to California are considering placing ID it on the curriculum, with President George Bush telling reporters last August that “both sides ought to be properly taught … so people can understand what the debate is about.” The archbishop’s remarks place him firmly on the side of science.

The ABC is head of the Anglican Church which is the world’s 3rd largest Christian denomination. The cre/ID response, if there is one, is guaranteed to be fun. They will claim either that he lacks faith, that he doesn’t understand science like they do (as apparently over 90% of the world’s scientists don’t understand it like they do), or perhaps they’ll go full throttle and declare him non-Christian. For the Discovery Institute folks, I’m putting my money on option two. For Answers in Genesis and other YEC outfits, I’m going with three.

Remember how, according to the ID movement, “methodological naturalism” was supposed to be a Darwinist/atheist conspiracy to arbitrarily exclude ID? Well, let’s have a look at who coined the term. Ronald Numbers, one of the leading experts on the history of creationism, writes,

The phrase “methodological naturalism” seems to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it at a conference in 1983 in a paper subsequently published as “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 15(1986), 388-396. De Vries distinguished between what he called “methodological naturalism,” a disciplinary method that says nothing about God’s existence, and “metaphysical naturalism,” which “denies the existence of a transcendent God.”

(p. 320 of: Ronald L. Numbers, 2003. “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs.” In: When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, pp. 265-285.)

A few additional points worth noting here:

fly_eye_tease.jpg

What has always attracted me to developmental biology is the ability to see the unfolding of pattern—simplicity becomes complexity in a process made up of small steps, comprehensible physical and chemical interactions that build a series of states leading to a mostly robust conclusion. It's a bit like Conway's Game of Life in reverse, where we see the patterns and can manipulate them to some degree, but we don't know the underlying rules, and that's our job—to puzzle out how it all works.

compoundeye.jpg

Another fascinating aspect of development is that all the intricate, precise steps are carried out without agency: everything is explained and explainable in terms of local, autonomous interactions. Genes are switched on in response to activation by proteins not conscious action, domains of expression are refined without an interfering hand nudging them along towards a defined goal. It's teleonomy, not teleology. We see gorgeously regular structures like the insect compound eye to the right arise out of a smear of cells, and there is no magic involved—it's wonderfully empowering. We don't throw up our hands and declare a miracle, but instead science gives us the tools to look deeper and work out (with much effort, admittedly) how seeming miracles occur.

One more compelling aspect of development: it's reliable, but not rigid. Rather than being simply deterministic, development is built up on stochastic processes—ultimately, it's all chemistry, and cells changing their states are simply ping-ponging through a field of potential interactions to arrive at an equilibrium state probabilistically. When I'd peel open a grasshopper embryo and look at its ganglia, I'd have an excellent idea of what cells I'd find there, and what they'd be doing…but the fine details would vary every time. I can watch a string of neural crest cells in a zebrafish crawl out of the dorsal midline and stream over generally predictable paths to their destinations, but the actions of an individual melanocyte, for instance, are variable and beautiful to see. We developmental biologists get the best of all situations, a generally predictable pattern coupled to and generated by diversity and variation.

One of the best known examples of chance and regularity in development is the compound eye of insects, shown above, which is as lovely and crystalline as a snowflake, yet is visibly assembled from an apparently homogenous field of cells in the embryo. And looking closer, we discover a combination of very tight precision sprinkled with random variation.

Continue reading "Chance and regularity in the development of the fly eye" (on Pharyngula)

Evolution for Kids

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Please don’t tell anyone, but I bought my granddaughter, Alex, a new book for her tenth birthday. Her birthday is in April, so that gave me plenty of time to read the book - and what a splendid book it is!

The book in question is Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas, by Kristan Lawson (Chicago Review Press, 2003, 144 pp., $16.95).

It is a well-formatted book, printed in two colors. The bulk of the printing is brown, so the wonderful old photographs and engravings appear almost sepia. The 21 activities are printed on a light-green background. At least few of the activities could well inspire science fair projects among the 9-and-up set for whom the book is intended.

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