October 8, 2006 - October 14, 2006 Archives

As one commenter at Aetiology pointed out, support for Intelligent design/creationism is included in the Republican Party of Iowa State Platform:

3.4 We support the teaching of alternative theories on the origins of life including Darwinian Evolution, Creation Science or Intelligent Design, and that each should be given equal weight in presentation.

What I don’t know is if this is typical of other Republican platforms in other states, or how frequently each candidate uses these points in their own campaign. I’ve still not heard back either from Nussle or Culver regarding Intelligent Design, either…

Vander Plaats supports teaching intelligent design

“If we are going to teach evolution, there is another viewpoint and one that holds pretty good too (evolution) in regards to creation,” Vander Plaats said. “I think that is something that I would want to visit further along with Jim Nussle in regards to ‘Where are you at on that?’ But my viewpoint is I would like to give both of these (time in the classroom).”

For those of you unfamiliar wth Iowa politics, Jim Nussle is the Republican candidate for governor, opposed by Democrat Chet Culver. Bob Vander Plaats, as noted, is Nussle’s running mate.

(Continued at Aetiology).

World’s Smallest Genome

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It clocks in at just under 160 kilobases. To put that into perspective, the human genome is over 3 gigabases.

And it has all of 182 genes.

How small can a genome get and still run a living organism? Researchers now say that a symbiotic bacterium called Carsonella ruddii, which lives off sap-feeding insects, has taken the record for smallest genome with just 159,662 ‘letters’ (or base pairs) of DNA and 182 protein-coding genes. At one-third the size of previously found ‘minimal’ organisms, it is smaller than researchers thought they would find. […]

This is encouraging news for synthetic biologists who are hoping to make designer bacteria from scratch, which could perform useful functions such as synthesizing pharmaceuticals or fuels.

Sounds like fun. And this discovery gives us some insights into the evolution of larger, eukaryotic cells as well:

C. ruddii seems even more extreme. “Its gene inventory seems insufficient for most biological processes that appear to be essential for bacterial life,” write Atsushi Nakabachi at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Masahira Hattori at the University of Tokyo, Japan, and their colleagues. At the moment, the researchers are not sure how C. ruddii copes, although they speculate that some of the necessary genes may have been transferred over evolutionary time to the genomes of the host.

That is precisely what is thought to have happened during the evolution of the compartments called mitochondria in our own cells, which are responsible for energy production. These are believed to have once been symbionts that lost all autonomy by relinquishing most of their genes to the host (mitochondria still have their own DNA).

Andersson says that C. ruddii might be analogues of mitochondria, caught in the process of changing from separate but dependent organisms into structures that will be engulfed and incorporated into the host cells.

In spite of the fact that creationists like to bring up the hypothesized endosymbiosis of mitochondria or chloroplasts as a problem for evolution, the fact is that we find intermediates between fully autonomous prokaryotes and full endosymbionts all over nature. (My favorite example is Wolbachia.) It appears that they go through an intracellular parasitic stage and, like with many parasitic relationships, both the parasite and the host evolve to cope with each other. In the case of endosymbionts, they become increasingly more cooperative until they become inseparable.

Wins in Michigan and Ohio

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Yesterday turned out to be a pretty good day for science education.

The State Board of Education on Tuesday approved public school curriculum guidelines that support the teaching of evolution in science classes – but not intelligent design.

Intelligent design instruction could be left for other classes in Michigan schools, but it doesn’t belong in science class, according to the unanimously adopted guidelines.

”The intent of the board needs to be very clear,” said board member John Austin, an Ann Arbor Democrat. “Evolution is not under stress. It is not untested science.”


Shermer in Virginia

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Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer will be in Oakton, Virginia this Thursday, October 12, to discuss his new book Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. The talk is being cohosted by The Alliance for Science and the National Capitol Area Skeptics. Regrettably, I will be unable to attend. Having heard Shermer speak several times previously, I can say with some confidence that will be an interesting and informative talk. If you're anywhere near Oakton, I strongly encourage you to attend.

The talk will be from 7:30-9:30, but Shermer will be signing copies of his book before the talk. Click here for more information.

The Ohio BOE “Achievement” Committee Skates (again!)

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UPDATE MP3 of the Board Debate on Ohio Citizens for Science.

Promoted from the comments:

Though the Achievement Committee skated, dipped and twirled, the full Board finally took it out of the Committee’s hands. This is promoted from the comments.

At today’s board meeting, under new business:

Motion by Martha Wise, second by Rob Hovis.

RESOLVED, That the Achievement Committee of the State Board of Education, having recommended no response to Board Resolution 31 referred to it in February 2006, is hereby discharged from further consideration of Resolution 31 and anything arising therefrom, including the template for teaching controversial issues.

As new business the resolution would normally have to wait 30 days before it could be considered by the board. There was a motion to consider the resolution immediately, as an emergency measure. That passed 13-4.

The motion itself passed 14-3. Cochran, Ross and Westendorf voted No. Owens-Fink and Baker were absent.

This kills Resolution 31 and the template. It effectively answers the question whether anything should replace the deleted lesson plan, benchmark and indicator with a resounding NO.

The remainder of my original post is below the fold, but it’s moot now. The Disco Institute took it in the teeth yet again. As one of our people remarked leaving the meeting, “This is the first time in years that the Disco Institute doesn’t have its hooks in the Ohio State BOE.”

Today the magazine The Lutheran has made its interview with Judge Jones freely available on its website. October’s cover story is on science and religion, and includes a series of stories on the Lutheran perspective on the evolution/creationism issue. My parents get The Lutheran, so now my strange job has landed in their mailbox. There is no escape!

The Jones interview is notable for including some details on Jones’s experience in becoming a judge – quite an involved process – and on his religious upbringing, which has not been treated in depth elsewhere. We also get some more on his views on the relationship between the judiciary and politics, which Jones has made into a bit of a personal quest following the post-decision claim that Jones had “stabbed in the back” his political allies.

Reference: Mark A. Staples (2006). “‘Not science’: Judge John E. Jones: Lutheran tells about his history-making, intelligent design decision.” The Lutheran, October 2006.

Ohio BoE still stalling

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The word out of Ohio today is that the Ohio Board of Education is still stalling on its prior commitment to have an up-or-down vote on a “replacement policy” for the ill-fated “Critical Analysis of Evolution” benchmark and lesson plan which were defeated back in February. This is in marked contrast to a recent report in the press in which a board member claimed the debate template was “dead”.

Several people have suggested that I factor out body size to produce a chart just showing the relative increase in brain size over time. This is not as simple to do as it sounds, because most of the fossil skulls are not found with bodies, and vice versa [1]. So even if I had the paper with the body size data (De Miguel and Henneberg (1999). “Variation in hominid body size estimates: Do we know how big our ancestors were?” Perspectives in Human Biology, 4(1), pp. 65-80), one could not just do a regression. So we have to improvise.


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Coming on the heels of the newly formed Scientists and Engineers for America, those of us in Colorado have a new organization to help fight the good fight, Colorado Evolution Response Team, or CERT. Friday’s online edition of the Denver Post has an article about the organization:

Finally, scientists are fighting mad.

In a state where public educators are afraid to put the word “evolution” in science aptitude tests and where the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor thinks biblical creationism counts as science, the Colorado Evolution Response Team has its work cut out.

CERT, as the new group refers to itself, seems ready for the fight.

”There is a cultural attack against science,” said David Pollock, a genetic researcher at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. “The president taking intelligent-design propaganda as gospel is not good.”

Neither is having a lieutenant governor who wants creationism taught in schools. […]

They won’t have to look far. Last summer, a member of the Colorado Board of Education called evolution “one of those loaded phrases.” So Colorado doesn’t print the word in statewide science aptitude tests. Instead, kids see the less controversial term “adaptation.”

”They’re trying to avoid controversy,” not teach science, said James DeGregori, a CU cancer biologist. “That’s exactly what this organization (CERT) should respond to.”

Scientists “profess evolution as the foundation of the biosciences,” said Kieft, a Christian who squares his scholarship with his faith. “If you test students on biology, you have to deal with it.”

By not doing so, added Pollock, you are “erasing a portion of human knowledge that is critical. You’re crippling people.”

You also force the creation of groups like CERT, which is independent of, but akin to, another new organization, Scientists and Engineers for America. SEA is a national group dealing with national issues. Pollock belongs to both. They are part of a movement by scientists to reclaim their disciplines from religion and politics. CERT was the brainchild of DeGregori, honed with Pollock and Kieft. […]

”They’re taking religious beliefs and pretending they can make them science,” School of Mines physicist Matt Young said of folks who think creationism constitutes science. “I hope that CERT will be able to support teachers and parents in situations where science is being distorted.”

If you are from Colorado, especially if you are in the sciences, please consider joining CERT. The website still needs some tweaking, so you might want to bookmark it and then check back later once more formal means of joining or donating are available.

Full disclosure: One of the scientists quoted in the Post article, David Pollock, is my PI. Two of the others, DiGregory and Kieft, are both faculty in my department. (Don’t I work in a cool place?) And the fourth, Matt Young, is just some old nobody who I’ve never heard of, but strangely enough, he’s listed as a PT contributor.

Sometimes a plan just comes together beautifully. I'm flying off to London tomorrow, and on the day I get back to Morris, I'm supposed to lead a class discussion on the final chapters of this book we've been reading, Endless Forms Most Beautiful. I will at that point have a skull full of jet-lagged, exhausted mush, and I just know it's going to be a painful struggle. Now into my lap falls a wonderful gift.

There was a review in the NY Review of Books that said wonderful things about Carroll's work, and in particular about the revolutionary nature of evo-devo. This prompted Jason Hodin, an evo-devo researcher himself (whose work I've mentioned before) to write a rebuttal and send it off to NYRB…which they chose not to publish. So he sent it to me, with permission to post it.

(If Pharyngula is going to be second choice to the NY Review of Books, I'm not going to complain.)

Anyway, I'm almost as guilty as Carroll of hawking the wares of the evo-devo bandwagon and traveling roadshow, so this is a welcome balancing corrective. The complete text is below the fold.

Continue reading "Evo-devo is not the whole of biology" (on Pharyngula)

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