July 8, 2007 - July 14, 2007 Archives

Gordy Slack was on the radio in the Bay Area yesterday and the show is now online. I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet but I’m sure it was good, since Gordy is quite a thoughtful guy. Gordy is also doing a reading at Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave. SF, CA, on Monday, 7/16. 7:00 pm – I might go myself if I get the chance…

Fri, Jul 13, 2007 – 10:00 AM Author Gordy Slack Listen (RealMedia stream) Download (MP3)

(Windows: right-click and choose “Save Target As.” Mac: hold Ctrl, click link, and choose “Save As.”)

The show welcomes author Gordy Slack for a conversation focusing on his book, “The Battle over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design and a School Board in Dover, PA.

Host: Dave Iverson

Guests: Gordy Slack , author of “The Battle over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design and a School Board in Dover, PA.”

Professor Steve Steve, how could you?


He will be going into rehab, and promises never to do it again.

(via Zeno)

Today’s Denver Post and Colorado Daily have articles on the threats made to the CU Boulder faculty. The perpetrator has been identified as one Michael Korn, a former Messianic Jew who has converted to Christianity. And he’s been up to this for awhile it seems.


If you've been reading that fascinating graphic novel, Y: The Last Man(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), you know the premise: a mysterious disease has swept over the planet and bloodily killed every male mammal except two, a human named Yorick and a monkey named Ampersand. Substantial parts of it are biologically nearly impossible: the wide cross-species susceptibility, the near instantaneous lethality, and the simultaneity of its effect everywhere (there are also all kinds of weird correlations with other sort of magical putative causes, which may be red herrings). On the other hand, the sociological part of the story seems very plausible. There is no feminist utopia, the world goes on in a traumatized and rather complicated way, and the reactions everywhere vary from crazed euphoria to a more common despair. One thing that isn't at all implausible, and actually has been observed, is a plague that selectively exterminates males.

Continue reading "Evolution of a sex ratio observed" (on Pharyngula)

And they say evolution isn’t predictable. Ever since ID went down in flames in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, creationism watchers have predicted that creationism would evolve yet again, this time into something called “critical analysis of evolution” or “teach the [made-up] controversy”. For the last month or two I have been warning about the Discovery Institute’s new crypto-creationist textbook, which is sneakily entitled Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism (yes, take a good hard look at the spiffy website). The book is clearly another shot at the Of Pandas and People strategy, namely, “when a court case goes against you, change the label and try again.”

We already knew that the first official big promotional conference for Explore Evolution was going to be at an event for teachers held at Biola University. (Formerly known as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, the only institute in the U.S. that has graduate courses in “intelligent design”, and pretty literally the place that put the fundamentals in fundamentalism. Oh yes, how could anyone ever think that Explore Evolution is crypto-ID/creationism?)

Now it looks like the Discovery Institute has engineered a cover story in World Magazine, a leading conservative evangelical magazine. The magazine has an interview with Behe about his new book, but more importantly has a story about a plan to insert Explore Evolution into a public school in Tacoma, Washington:

Over on UD, Paul Nelson claims that he is representing the “Darwinian tree of life” position correctly when he asserts that the tree must trace to a single cell, not just a single species:

From NOVA Upcoming Summer & Fall 2007 Programming:

NOVA shows on PBS on Tuesdays @ 8 pm ET/PT (check local listings):

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial (w.t.) November 13, 2007 at 8 pm ET check local listings

One of the latest battles in the war over evolution took place in a tiny town in eastern Pennsylvania called Dover. In 2004, the local school board ordered science teachers to read a statement to their high school biology students. The statement suggested that there is an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution called intelligent design, the idea that life is too complex to have evolved naturally and therefore had to have been designed by an intelligent agent. The science teachers refused to comply with the order, and alarmed parents filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the school board of violating the separation of church and state. Suddenly, the small town of Dover was torn apart by controversy, pitting neighbor against neighbor. NOVA captures the emotional conflict in interviews with the townspeople, scientists and lawyers who participated in the historic six-week trial, Kitzmiller, et. al. v. Dover School District, et. al., which was closely watched by the world’s media. With recreations based on court transcripts, NOVA presents the arguments by lawyers and expert witnesses in riveting detail and provides an eye-opening crash course on questions such as “What is evolution?” and “Does intelligent design qualify as science?” For years to come, the lessons from Dover will continue to have a profound impact on how science is viewed in our society and how to teach it the classroom.

Produced by NOVA WGBH Science Unit and Vulcan Productions, Inc. Additional production by The Big Table Film Company.


Sometimes, I confess, this whole common descent thing gets in the way and is really annoying. What we've learned over the years is that the evolution of life on earth is constrained by historical factors at every turn; every animal bears this wonderfully powerful toolbox of common developmental genes, inherited from pre-Cambrian ancestors, and it's getting rather predictable that every time you open up some fundamental aspect of developmental pattern formation in a zebrafish, for instance, it is a modified echo of something we also see in a fruit fly. Sometimes you just want to see what evolution would do with a completely different starting point — if you could, as SJ Gould suggested, rewind the tape of life and let it play forward again, and see what novelties arose.

Take the worm. We take the generic worm for granted in biology: it's a bilaterally symmetric muscular tube with a hydrostatic skeleton which propels itself through a medium with sinuous undulations, and with most of its sense organs concentrated in the forward end. The last common ancestor of all bilaterian animals was a worm, and we can see that ancestry in the organization of most animals today, even when it is obscured by odd little geegaws, like limbs and armor and regional specializations and various dangly spiky jointed bits. You'll even see the argument made that that worm is the best of all possible simple forms, so it isn't just an accident of history, it's a morphological optimum.

But what if we could rewind the tape of life a little bit, to the first worms? Is it possible there are other ways such an animal could have been built? It seems nature may have carried out this little experiment for us, and we have an example of a reinvented worm, one not constructed by common descent from that initial triumphal exemplar in the pre-Cambrian — an alternative worm.

Continue reading "Reinventing the worm" (on Pharyngula)

I apologize to James Hall for using his phrase in describing what Robert Crowther, and other Intelligent Design proponents, seem to be involved in when they are objecting to the simple fact that Intelligent Design is a straightforward argument from ignorance.

The problem is that ID proponents have used equivocating language which has led to much confusion amongst its followers. I cannot blame Crowther for taking serious the claims of his DI fellows, but merely claiming that ID is not an argument from ignorance is merely begging the question.

While it is relatively straightforward to reach the conclusion that ID is an argument from ignorance, it does require some careful analysis of how various terminologies are being used by ID proponents.

My colleague, Michael Grant of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, was one of the victims of the recent harassment, reported by Steve Reuland here. Professor Grant tells me that he has “been receiving these histrionic emails and books and packages for a year; he even comes into my office when I’m not here. He started with me and Jeff Mitton [chair of EEB] but expanded to the rest of the department and may have crossed a legal line with the rest. I have a huge stack of emails and packages and even a big fat paperback book from him.” I think that, by legal line, he means the threatening tone of the last e-mail below.

“Among other things,” writes Professor Grant, “he identifies me as a ‘child molester’ for teaching evolution and threatens to get me fired plus he threatens legal action on that front. In the most recent communications, he writes words many of my colleagues consider death threats.”

Update, 13 July 2007, 3.55 MDT. The Colorado Daily has released the name of the alleged perpetrator here .

His full name is Michael Philip Korn. He sometimes goes by his Hebrew name, Menachem (not Menacher). He lives in Nederland, a small mountain community west of Boulder. His Web site is http://www.jesusoverisrael.blogspot.com/, but it has not been updated in months. He says about himself,

I was born in America, moved to Israel after graduating from Harvard, enlisted in the Ba’al Teshuva movement, and joined a Messianic Chassidic cult (Breslov) from 1990-1999. Through the help of South African missionaries, I came to see that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and Saviour of the World. I was baptized in a natural spring in the Israeli Galilee outside of the famous mystical city of Safed on 20 June 2000, and now I seek to introduce Jewish people to Jesus Christ, their Messiah whom they don’t yet know.

Michael Philip Korn is also cited at Southern Exposure here.

Further, as Steve Reuland notes, the story has been reported in the Denver Post as well as the Colorado Daily. The Associated Press has also picked up the story, as has Salon. You may find an earlier Panda’s Thumb report with comments here.

The affair is cited at Red State Rabble here.

It looks like somebody either never heard of Dover, or refused to learn from their lesson. It seems the local ID supporters of Chesterfield County aren’t happy:

So far, the official actions of the CCSB have been limited to issuing a rather vague and confusing statement. ID proponents had hoped to influence the selection of science textbooks, but they started their campaign too late, and the CCSB approved the selection of standard biology texts. But there is still much concern about the situation in Chesterfield. ID supporters, backed by a local conservative group called the Family Foundation, are energetic and well-organized, as evidenced by their ability to deliver a petition with more than 1,100 people who questioned the use of “evolution-only” science texts.

Energetic and well-organized supporters of pseudoscience… sounds like a one-way ticket to another budget-busting, unwinnable multimillion dollar lawsuit. Virginia, you can do better than these guys.

The Alliance for Science has the full story. If you are a Virginia resident and want to get involved, please contact them. Also, visit the link to learn much more about the story, and also about Shawn Smith’s blog that tracks the Intelligent Design Creationism movement in Chesterfield County. Let’s keep sound science in Virginia science classes and get the jump on things before they can stir up trouble.

Crossposted at Neurotopia

It was only a matter of time. The creationists, frustrated at continued legal losses and the complete lack of respect they receive from scientists, have finally past the threshold from trying to distort science in schools to attacking science in a more direct fashion. Today’s Denver Post contains a very short piece about an unnamed “religious group” leaving threatening packages at the CU Boulder ecology and evolutionary biology department, just up the road from where I work. (I’m a little disappointed that our campus didn’t receive this honor – but then again I could do without security crawling all over the place, making sure we have our ID badges displayed properly, etc.)

The messages included the name of a religious-themed group and addressed the debate between evolution and creationism, CU police Cmdr. Brad Wiesley said. Wiesley would not identify the group named because police are still investigating.

“There were no overt threats to anybody specifically by name,” Wiesley said. “It basically said anybody who doesn’t believe in our religious belief is wrong and should be taken care of.”

The first threat was e-mailed to the labs - part of CU’s ecology and evolutionary biology department housed in the Ramaley Biology building - on Friday. Wiesley said Monday that morning staff members found envelopes with the threatening documents slipped under the lab doors.

Unfortunately, the article is short on details. More about this as it develops. Update: In what should come as a surprise to no one, Rob Crowther of the Discovery Institute, on the basis of no evidence at all, implies that the biologists who received these threats lied to the police about them. He also has a hard time with basic reading comprehension:

But where’s the evidence that the perps are actually creationists, or religious at all?

Read the second sentence of the article (i.e. the first sentence I quoted above). The policeman investigating this incident informed the Post that the group is “religiously-themed” and that they made references to creationism. Then again, maybe Crowther thinks the police are lying too. It gets worse:

As one colleague pointed out, that is hardly the way religious believers refer to their own belief system. Rarely do Christian groups refer to their own “religious beliefs” — it is mainly secularists who refer to beliefs with the modifier “religious.”

Except the person who used the modifier “religious” was the policeman, not the perpetrators. We do not know at this point what exactly the perpetrators said. We don’t even know for sure that they’re Christian (methinks Rob doth protest too much…)

We now have a draft of the sea anemone genome, and it is revealing tantalizing details of metazoan evolution. The subject is the starlet anemone, Nematostella vectensis, a beautiful little animal that is also an up-and-coming star of developmental biology research.

(click for larger image)

Nematostella development. a. unfertilized egg (~200 micron diameter) with sperm head; b. early cleavage stage; c. blastula; d. gastrula; e. planula; f. juvenile polyp; g. adult stained with DAPI to show nematocysts with a zoom in on the tentacle in the inset; h, i. confocal images of a tentacle bud stage and a gastrula respectively showing nuclei (red) and actin (green); j. a gastrula showing snail mRNA(purple) in the endoderm and forkhead mRNA (red) in the pharynx and endoderm; k. a gastrula showing Anthox8 mRNA expression; l. an adult Nematostella.

A most important reason for this work is that the anemone Nematostella is a distant relative of many of the animals that have already been sequenced, and so provides an essential perspective on the evolutionary changes that we observe in those other organisms. Comparison of its genome with that of other metazoans is helping us decipher the likely genetic organization of the last common ancestor of all animals.

Continue reading "Common elements of eumetazoan gene organization in an anemone" (on Pharyngula)

The Alliance for Science, a wonderful group of which I am a member, has a link about a survey that examines public perception of the new Creation Museum. Having recently visited the Propoganda Ministry Museum myself, I was very underwhelmed. I will report my experiences there in a future post replete with pictures over at Neurotopia. I feel bad because I haven’t been keeping up on the evolution/science activism side of my life for a very long time now, aside from this post and pushing the Alliance for Science’s Evolution Essay Contest, I have done very little this year to even address the issue. Might have something to do with my dad dying and whatnot, I’m not sure.

The interesting part of the survey is that “white evangelicals” or “fundamentalists” weren’t particularly approving of the intellectual travesty Museum either. Maybe there is hope for America after all. Or, maybe the “Museum” really is such a shoddy, transparent attempt at evangelizing that nobody is fooled.

Do stop by and check it out.

First Calvert now Luskin?

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I have always found it fascinating how ID proponents try to avoid dealing with the real issues and instead focus on strawmen. For instance, Calvert and now Luskin are obsessed with the idea that:

Darwinian logic often contends that because a given proportion of ID proponents are creationists, ID must therefore be creationism. It’s a twist on the genetic fallacy, one I like to call the Darwinist “Genesis Genetic Argument.” As noted, it implies that each any and every argument made by a creationist must be equivalent to arguing for full-blooded creationism.

Much is wrong with this claim. If it were only so simple.

Dembski, quoting Moorad Alexanian:

Dembski Wrote:

One can similarly say of Darwinian Theory of evolution, “I see evolutionary theory as not a theory–only a set of curious conjectures in search of a theory. True, it has great explanatory power, but a viable theory must have more than that. It must make predictions which can be falsified or confirmed.”

I am glad that at least Dembski is accepting the explanatory power of evolutionary theory, so now the question is merely, does evolutionary theory make predictions which can be falsified or confirmed.

However, a more urgent issue has been raised, namely, ID not only lacks explanatory power but also fails to make any non-trivial predictions.

We all remember Dembski’s admission that

As for your example, I’m not going to take the bait. You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots. True, there may be dots to be connected. But there may also be fundamental discontinuities, and with IC systems that is what ID is discovering.”

Nuff said

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