May 28, 2006 - June 3, 2006 Archives

Golden Oldies: Transitional Fossils

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With the recent find of various additional transitional fossils, it may be relevant to revisit a ‘golden oldie’ written by Wesley Elsberry title Missing links still missing!? Talkorigins Post of the Month: February 1998. Although, given the number of transitional fossils, I doubt that many creationists feel brave enough to still make the argument that such transitionals are lacking.

Based on the arguments by Darwin, Elsberry derives an estimate for the expected number of transitional fossils:

Elsberry Wrote:

Let’s derive an expectation of ratio of transitional to non-transitional fossils from what Darwin actually said, shall we? Darwin stated that natural selection would work intermittently, and often only at long intervals.

On the other hand, I do believe that natural selection will always act very slowly, often only at long intervals of time, and generally on only a very few of the inhabitants of the same region at the same time. (CR Darwin, Origin of Species, 1st ed., p.153)

In Creationism by Any Other Name, Charles G. Lambdin reviews the Privileged Planet film and describes it as ‘a contemporary classic of pseudoscience’.

I have written many postings on the Privileged Planet. Lambdin is similarly not very impressed by the correlation of ‘one’ or coincidences argued to be ‘evidence for design’.

Lambdin Wrote:

The thesis of The Privileged Planet is no different than the classic case of Presidential coincidences: Abraham Lincoln was elected to congress in 1846. John F. Kennedy was elected to congress in 1946. Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Kennedy in 1960. Both of their last names have seven letters. Both of their wives experienced the loss of child in the White House. Both were shot in the head on a Friday. Both were assassinated by Southerners and succeeded by Southerners. Lincoln was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, who was born in 1808. Kennedy was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, who was born in 1908. Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, has 15 letters in his name. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, has 15 letters in his name. Both assassins were known by three names. Booth was born in 1839, Oswald in 1939. As I am unable to imagine otherwise, these coincidences are too great to have occurred due to chance alone, so there must be some Intelligent Assassin behind it. Thus runs the reasoning throughout The Privileged Planet.

Since Evolgen recognizes the importance of evo-devo, I'll return the favor: bioinformatics is going to be critical to the evo-devo research program, which to date has emphasized the "devo" part with much work on model systems, but is going to put increasing demands on comparative molecular information from genomics and bioinformatics to fulfill the promise of the "evo" part. I'm sitting on a plane flying east, and to pass the time I've been reading a very nice review of the concept of modularity in evo-devo by Paula Mabee (also a fish developmental biologist, and also working in a small college in a small town in the midwest…but rather deservedly better known than yours truly). In addition to summarizing the importance of the concept of modularity to evolution and development, the paper also does something I always appreciate: it summarizes the key questions that the modern evo-devo research program is working to answer.

Continue reading "Modules and the promise of the evo-devo research program" (on Pharyngula)

Casey Luskin, over at the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, has taken the time to redefine creationism for us:

Despite Holden’s editorializing, ID is not creationism because creationism always postulates a supernatural creator, and/or is focused on proving some religious scripture. But intelligent design does neither.

I’d like to thank Mr. Luskin for taking the time to clarify that point. I’ll try to remember to keep in mind the non-religious nature of the Discovery Institute in the future.

Oh, and by the way, Casey, whatever happened to that old logo you folks had? It was a lot cooler looking than the new one. I’ve got a copy, in case you lost it:

Lawyer who helped win Dover case dies

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Lawyer who helped win Dover case dies

Joseph M. Farber was committed to civil liberties, an associate said.

Jun 1, 2006 — Joseph M. Farber, 34, of Narberth, who was a member of the team of lawyers who won a court decision barring the teaching of intelligent design, died of a brain tumor May 22 at home.

It can’t be said often enough that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Moving from physical characteristics–color, bone shape, the form of bacterial cells–to genetic characteristics in order to classify organisms–and infer phylogenies–was a giant advance. That the molecular characteristics confirmed what was known using physical characteristics was a breakthrough, and allowed for more sophisticated analyses of organisms that don’t have bones or other easily-observable physical features that allow for simple classification into groups: microbes. I’ve previously pointed out the utility of phylogenetic analysis in tracking the spread of pathogens. A new study on the origin and evolution of HIV employs a similar approach in order to elucidate the history of the virus in Africa.

(Continued at Aetiology).

Robert Camp in Can Intelligent Design be considered scientific in the same way that SETI is? delivers a fatal blow to the specious claims by Intelligent Design supporters that SETI uses the ‘explanatory filter’ proposed by Dembski to detect ‘design’. In fact, in order to detect design, these sciences all use additional information such as means, motives, and opportunities to reach their conclusions. Since ID wants to avoid dealing with motives, pathways, methods at all cost, ID will remain scientifically devoid of content.

In the next few weeks I intend to show various approaches and arguments which all reach the same conclusion.

Let’s start with Dembski’s claim about Intelligent Design

Dembski Wrote:

To say intelligent causes are empirically detectable is to say there exist well-defined methods that, based on observable features of the world, can reliably distinguish intelligent causes from undirected natural causes. Many special sciences have already developed such methods for drawing this distinction — notably forensic science, cryptography, archeology, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Essential to all these methods is the ability to eliminate chance and necessity.2

Dembski, William. 2003. “Intelligent Design.

Several others have already pointed out the problems with Dembski’s claim but Camp’s analysis is quite excellent and timely as it helps understand why ID id doomed to remain scientifically vacuous.

Here’s a pretty cool example of how isolated environments lead to the evolution of new species. The more isolated, the more unique:

Prehistoric ecosystem found in Israeli cave

Israeli scientists said on Wednesday they had discovered a prehistoric ecosystem dating back millions of years.

The discovery was made in a cave near the central Israeli city of Ramle during rock drilling at a quarry. Scientists were called in and soon found eight previously unknown species of crustaceans and invertebrates similar to scorpions.

”Until now eight species of animals were found in the cave, all of them unknown to science,” said Dr Hanan Dimantman, a biologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. […]

The cave was completely sealed off from the world, including from water and nutrients seeping through rock crevices above. Scientists who discovered the cave believe it has been intact for millions of years.

”Every species we examined had no eyes which means they lost their sight due to evolution,” said Dimantman.

The cave is an “island” of sorts, and like islands out in the ocean, it has unique species that can be found nowhere else. Isolated populations that have their gene pools cut-off from their parent populations tend to speciate rather quickly.

Intelligent Design Lacks Fertility

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Various terms have been used to describe the simple observation that ID is scientifically vacuous, and devoid of content.

In the meantime, we work with the premise that the Darwinian model is the best model for apprehending evolutionary biology. We believe the Darwinian model has proved itself the most fertile. It leads to new knowledge, which demonstrates its fertility. The difficulty with the Intelligent Design and Creationist models is that they lack fertility. They fail to produce progressive research programs. In a scientific sense, they cannot produce testable models. We believe that the dialogue with theology must take place with the best of science, not with a substitute that is a philosophical position and not science at all.

Martinez Hewlett and Ted Peters, Who Sets the Evolution Agenda?Theology and Science, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2006, pp. 1-3

In a previous post, I presented an example of one of the questions that evolutionary biologists face. In this example, I described three populations of closely related insects, presented a few details about their distribution, and gave the results for some laboratory-based breeding studies that were conducted with these populations some years back. I then asked people to guess how many species the three populations were divided into by scientists. Their answers, and some questions, can be found in comment threads both at The Panda’s Thumb and at The Questionable Authority.

If you look at the answers that people have given, you will see that all three possible choices (1 species, 2 species, and 3 species) have received some votes. The most popular answer is that there are 2 species, with populations A and B being put together as a single species, and population C being given status as a separate species. The people who have chosen this option focused on the obvious differences in fertility for the crosses involving population C. The person who voted for three species did so based on the high likelihood that all three populations are on separate evolutionary tracks. The people who voted for a single species did so based on the fact that, despite the male sterility, population C is still interfertile with populations A and B. Several people also asked for more information. I’ll try to satisfy some of those requests in this post.

Read More (at The Questionable Authority):

One of the questions asked in the comments of the previous post in this series is quite pointed, and very much on topic for this discussion, so I’m going to take a minute or two to answer it. I’ll give the answer to the example in another post, that will shortly follow this one. Karl asked:

So why are you asking that question? How is “species” defined. Does it really have a definition? Does it matter? Isn’t “species” just a modern reaction to the biblical term “kinds”

Now that I’ve taken a few minutes to think about it, I’m starting to remember why I was dodging that question. I could write a long, rambling discourse on the topic, but in all honesty the best I can do for a definition of “species” is to paraphrase Justice Stewart’s concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio: I might not ever be able to intelligently define the term, but I know it when I see it.

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):

The Nelson/Miller Saga Continues


For those interested in the Paul Nelson/Keith Miller situation, Dr. Nelson has responded to my accusations on my blog and I have answered them. He seems to believe, falsely, that he did not misrepresent MIller’s views, yet he says he’s now going to apologize anyway. Disingenuous apologies are no more interesting than disingenuous arguments. I think he knows he’s caught, but simply can’t admit it. For more information, see the follow up post at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Comments may be left there.

C9: Misuse of an inductive argument by the assertion of no false positives. also CI111.1 Specified complexity is a reliable criterion for detecting design. from the index of creationist claims by Mark Isaak

Hat tip to Wesley Elsberry

Dembski Wrote:

Biologists worry about attributing something to design (here identified with creation) only to have it overturned later; this widespread and legitimate concern has prevented them from using intelligent design as a valid scientific explanation.

Though perhaps justified in the past, this worry is no longer tenable. There now exists a rigorous criterion—complexity-specification—for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones.

Wiliam Dembski: Science and Design 1998 First Things 86 (October 1998): 21-27.

Compare this with

In 2003, Micah Sparacio collected a set of common criticisms of Dembski’s Specified Complexity. Since the initial collection of criticisms, little seems to have happened to address the various criticisms raised. I have collected ones which I find particularly of interest as they shown the various and many problems with the concept of specified complexity. Especially C11 seems applicable to my argument that CSI is merely a unncessary complex way of stating that we do not understand yet how something with a function in biology may have arisen.

This is a work in progress, as I will be linking the claims to other relevant materials.

Science Teachers Confront Intelligent Design by Gloria Hillard (Download MP3)

In classrooms across the country, science teachers are increasingly finding themselves on the front lines of the decades-long evolution wars, pitting accepted scientific explanations against biblical-based challengers. So when some 15,000 science teachers convened for their annual conference recently, many attended workshops designed to help them deal with the issue.

Evolution Resources at the National Science Teachers Association

Paul Nelson’s Outrageous Lie


There is a long history of creationist misrepresentation of the views of scientists, going back to the time of Darwin himself. As the creationist movement has grown and gone through its various phases over the last century, such misrepresentations have been a powerful weapon in their arsenal. In the 20 years or so I’ve been involved in this dispute, I’ve seen it time and time again. Why is this the case? I have always suspected that it’s because they know that they can get away with it. The chances that their largely uneducated audience is actually familiar with the work of the scientists they refer to is slim, the chances that they will go and look up their work and compare it to the way it’s being characterized by the creationists even slimmer.

But during my involvement in this dispute, I’ve also often said that there are at least some creationists who didn’t do that sort of thing. I’ve defended, for example, Kurt Wise, Art Chadwick, Paul Nelson and a few others as being honest men, even genuine scholars, who do not do the sort of straw man caricaturing that so many of their colleagues do when presenting the work and thinking of scientists. And while I still have no reason to think otherwise of the first two, I can tell you that the third one, Paul Nelson, has now been caught in what I can only describe as one of the more outrageous misrepresentations - oh hell, let’s call it what it is, a baldfaced lie - I’ve ever seen. And the person whose views he distorted, Keith Miller, is one of the truly nice guys in the business. And to make matters even worse for Nelson, he’s also a fellow Christian. As we will see, this takes “bearing false witness” to a whole new level.

Continue Reading at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Comments may be left there.

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