June 18, 2006 - June 24, 2006 Archives

In case anyone is interested, there is an interview and article with and about Ron Numbers, historian of science and author of The Creationists, available at the U of Wisconsin. He offers a fairly standard perspective on the creationism wars, one that is commonly expressed here…but I have to confess, I disliked it intensely, and think it represents much that is wrong in the usual conciliatory approach too many people favor.

(Yes! That is an invitation to argue!)

Harriet, Sweet Harriet

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The last known living acquaintance of Charles Darwin, Harriet the Galapagos Tortoise, died recently after a short illness. She was only 176. Some IDists are so desperate for good news – and evidently so superstitious – they are hopefully interpreting Harriet’s passing as an omen (see “A presage of another death?”). Others might note that the fact that Darwin’s pet tortoise was an international celebrity, whose death was widely mourned, is not exactly encouraging news for the evolution-deniers out there.

Old spiders

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Two short articles in this week's Science link the orb-weaving spiders back to a common ancestor in the Early Cretaceous, with both physical and molecular evidence. What we have is a 110-million-year-old piece of amber that preserves a piece of an orb web and some captured prey, and a new comparative study of spider silk proteins that ties together the two orb-weaving lineages, the Araneoidea and the Deinopoidea, and dates their last common ancestor to 136 million years ago.

Araneoids and Deinopoids build similar looking webs—a radial frame supporting a sticky spiral—but they differ in how they trap prey. Deinopoids spin dry fibers that they fluff into threads that adhere electrostatically to small insects; Araneoids secrete glue onto the the strand, which takes less work (no fluffing), and is much more strongly adhesive. The differences are enough to make one question whether there was a single origin of orb weavers, or whether the two groups independently stumbled on the same efficient form of architecture.

Continue reading "Old spiders" (on Pharyngula)

On Wednesday, June 14, 2006, the Episcopal News Services reported that the bishops had approved Resolution A129 Affirm Creation and Evolution. The Resolution reads as follows:

Resolved, the House of_____ concurring, That the 75th General Convention affirm that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the ancient Creeds of the Church; and be it further,

Resolved, That the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, and that an acceptance of evolution in no way diminishes the centrality of Scripture in telling the stories of the love of God for the Creation and is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith; and be it further

Resolved, That Episcopalians strongly encourage state legislatures and state and local boards of education to establish standards for science education based on the best available scientific knowledge as accepted by a consensus of the scientific community; and be it further Resolved, That Episcopal dioceses and congregation seek the assistance of scientists and science educators in understanding what constitutes reliable scientific knowledge.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar, over at Scienceblogs.com they have a weekly feature: Ask a Scienceblogger. Previous questions have included topics as diverse as “brain drain” and the future of the human race (you can view the archives here). This week’s question is one that I thought might interest folks here, as I and others regularly write about science education (and how to improve it). The question is (as noted in the title), “What makes a good science teacher?” I have my thoughts up over at Aetiology, and you can find other musings posted at this link for the next week.

Tangled Bank #56

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The Tangled Bank

While I was out playing all day yesterday, a new Tangled Bank appeared at Centrerion. I'm so late in my announcement that you've probably all read it already, but if you haven't, there's much science writing to occupy you for a while.

PZ Myers has posted a well written article on deep homologies in the pharyngeal arches which link the thyroid/parathyroid glands in humans to the gills in fish.

This is an excellent example of how science contributes to our scientific understanding. Could someone remind me: How again does Intelligent Design explain all this? ‘Poof’?…

Random Search and No Free Lunch

In his book “No Free Lunch”, Dembski argues that, based upon the No Free Lunch Theorems, finding an optimal solution via “random search” is virtually impossible because no evolutionary algorithm is superior to random search. And while various authors have shown the many problems with Dembski’s arguments, I intend to focus on a relatively small but devastating aspect of the No Free Lunch Theorems.

First I will explain what the No Free Lunch Theorems are all about, subsequently I will show how Dembski uses the No Free Lunch Theorems and finally I will show that the No Free Lunch Theorems show how a random search, perhaps counterintuitively, is actually quite effective.

A little while ago Sitemeter recorded PT’s three millionth visit. We are seeing a bit of a fall-off in traffic since the Kitzmiller v. DASD case time, as are many sites that deal with the creation/evolution issue. KvD was an extraordinary spur to interest, which makes it all the more important to raise awareness afterward.

Following the Scopes trial in 1925, popular belief held that the antievolutionists had suffered a defeat and were in retrenchment. This was not so. In the next few years, over twenty other states passedproposed legislation similar to Tennessee’s Butler Act, with the effectintent of banning the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools in those states.(*) Two states, Mississippi and Arkansas, actually passed the antievolution measures, making the intent take the force of law.

We need to keep in mind that the anti-science threat has not been rendered impotent by the outcome of the KvD trial. The contributors to PT will continue to keep you informed of developments as we see the new strategies for opposing effective instruction in evolutionary biology emerge.

(*)Thanks to Nick Matzke for pointing out my error of recall concerning proposed and passed.

Argento v. Coulter

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York Daily Record columnist Mike Argento, who some say is H.L. Mencken reincarnate, takes on Ann Coulter here.

The BBC is reporting that a Cardiff University study is revising the numbers of pandas left in the wild upward – and it all has to do with panda poo.

“A panda can defecate 40 times a day so there’s loads of poo to find,” said Prof Bruford.

”They also secrete a mural layer which gives an insight into the cells in their guts and we can extract their DNA from it.

”When we found the same profile in a number of different locations at different times, it showed how mobile the pandas are,” he said.

The good news is that there are apparently more pandas left to leave those poo samples behind than was previously known. But who knew that it could be so dangerous to hunt the wild panda poo?

“The mountains are an absolutely wonderful place but it can be cold and difficult in winter.

”Our PhD student nearly fell off a cliff trying to gather samples, he was having to hike up 2,500 metres.”

Oh, those ubiquitous, anonymous, and expendable Ph.D. students! Where would science be without them?


They've elected a new presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. You have to look at her biography to see why I'm even mentioning a new religious leader:

As a scientist and an Episcopalian, I cherish the prayer that follows a baptism, that the newly baptized may receive "the gift of joy and wonder in all God's works." I spent the early years of my adulthood as an oceanographer, studying squid and octopuses, including their evolutionary relationships. I have always found that God's creation is "strange and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139). ...

The vast preponderance of scientific evidence, including geology, paleontology, archaeology, genetics and natural history, indicates that Darwin was in large part correct in his original hypothesis.

I simply find it a rejection of the goodness of God's gifts to say that all of this evidence is to be refused because it does not seem to accord with a literal reading of one of the stories in Genesis. Making any kind of faith decision is based on accumulating the best evidence one can find what one's senses and reason indicate, what the rest of the community has believed over time, and what the community judges most accurate today.

It's a good thing that article is loaded with Bible quotes and other religious nonsense, or I'd be tempted to become an Episcopalian. Oh, well, even with all the wacky mythological stuff, she still looks like one of the good ones. Congratulations, Dr Jefferts Schori! While I'm not about to join a church, you do exhibit the kind of sensible perspective on the real world I'd like to see much, much more of in religious leaders…although, looking at the comments here, some Christianists are less than thrilled with the election of a rationalist to head a church, while others seem to be enthusiastic.

(via Kynos)

Dr. Reed and I are at the University of Washington, Seattle this week attending the Summer Institute in Statistical Genetics.

Anybody got suggestions for what we can do with our down time? We are staying on campus and don’t have a car.

Random Nonsense

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Over at Uncommon Descent William Dembski is linking to the random mutation site with approval. Claiming to be a “ Darwinian Evolution Experiment”, all it is is a simple random mutation generator. To be “Darwinian”, a system has to have selection as well. No selection, as in this case, well, it’s a waste of space. So why is Dembski linking to a site that he knows is a attacking a strawman version of evolution? Maybe its a bit of street theatre to distract people from the fact that he is happy with Ann Coulters appalling book, you know, the one where she falsley accuses honest scientists of fraud?

If you want to see a real Darwinian Evolution Experiment pop over to Zachriel’s Word Mutagenation and Phrasenation pages, where mutation and selection is used. Not only only do you get to evolve plain English words and phrases (the thing that the random mutation site claims you can’t do), you get to look at the code and see how it is done! Extra cool. If you are hankering for an old style Dawkins Weasel program, I maintain an archive here.

The following posting is based on a response I provided to Allen MacNeill on his excellent blogsite. In addition to much needed checking of grammar and spelling, I also have added additional content and/or revised the argument for clarity.

Avid readers of Pandasthumb may remember that Allen MacNeill is a Cornell professor who will be teaching an Intelligent Design course this summer. The course in question is: BioEE 467/B&Soc 447/Hist 415/S&TS 447: Seminar in History of Biology, and has a blogsite. The first class will start June 27, 2006.

In the posting, to which I responded, Allen shows the many problems in one of Salvador Cordova’s postings. Sal is an avid ID activist and defender of Dembski and his postings can be ‘admired’ at Uncommon Descent. Sal stated that ““There are many designed features in biology that make no sense in terms of natural selection but make complete sense in terms of design.””

As Allen shows, this is a very flawed statement. In my response I make an attempt to explain in straightforward terms why Intelligent Design’s approach is flawed and makes ID scientifically vacuous or in other words, void of content.

PvM Wrote:

Excellent points Allen. ID proponents seem to be quick to claim that science is using ID’s approach to detect design but on closer scrutiny these claims fall apart quickly.

ID is inherently a claim based on ignorance (elimination) and while it uses some ‘fancy sounding’ terms like complex specified information, the terms are used in a manner which conflates ID’s terminology with how science uses such terminology.

Ann Coulter: Clueless

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Ann Coulter is a “provocative” American conservative columnist (more what we Australians would call a “Shock Jock”) who has written a book titled “Godless: the Church of Liberalism”. Four of her chapters (8-11) are on evolution. Now, we know Coulter is going to be provocative, and no-one expects these chapters to follow the guidelines of the Journal of Molecular Evolution, but within the limitations of a popular book by someone who is not a biologist, how does she handle evolution?

Badly; really, really badly. As PZ Myers has just posted, she basically repeats every Creationist canard ever produced (she does the no transitional fossils argument on page 216), and even some that the creationists themselves have since abandoned such as the tautology argument (page 199). What she doesn’t get wrong is badly misrepresented. Behe, Dembski and Berlinksi are thanked fulsomely for their help with the evolution section (see Acknowledgments, page 303); they should hang their heads in shame.

I've now read all of the science-related (that's applying the term "related" very generously) stuff in Ann Coulter's awful, ghastly, ignorant book, Godless, and it's a bit overwhelming. This far right-wing political pundit with no knowledge of science at all has written a lengthy tract that is wall-to-wall error: To cover it all would require a sentence-by-sentence dissection that would generate another book, ten times longer than Coulter's, all merely to point out that her book is pure garbage. So I'm stumped. I'm not interested in writing such a lengthy rebuttal, and I'm sure this is exactly what Coulter is counting on—tell enough lazy lies, and no one in the world will have time enough to correct them conscientiously. She's a shameless fraud.

What to do? Well, we can't take apart the whole thing, but what we can do is focus on individual claims and show that Coulter is outrageously wrong—that she has written things that indicate an utter lack of knowledge of the subject. Some of us at the Panda's Thumb are going to be doing just that—look there later for more—and what I'm going to do here is address one very broad claim that Coulter has made repeatedly, and that is also common to many creationists.

That claim is that there is no evidence for evolution. I know, to anybody who has even a passing acquaintance with biology, that sounds like a ridiculous statement, like declaring that people can live on nothing but air and sunlight, or that yeti are transdimensional UFO pilots. Yet Coulter baldly makes the absurd claim that "There's no physical evidence for [evolution]", and insists in chapter 8 of her new book that there is "no proof in the scientist's laboratory or the fossil record." This is like standing outside in a drenching rainstorm and declaring that there is no evidence that you are getting wet.

Continue reading "Ann Coulter: No evidence for evolution?" (on Pharyngula))

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