Today we buy information, we sell it, we regard it as a commodity, we value it, we send it down wires and bounce it off satellites and we know it invariably comes from intelligent agents. So what do we make of the fact that theres information in life? What do we make of the fact that DNA stores far more information in a smaller space than the most advanced supercomputer on the planet?
The latest issue of Caltechs magazine Engineering and Science1 has beautiful pictures of galaxies taken in ultraviolet by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), and in the infrared by Hubbles sister, the Spitzer Space Telescope. Combining images of the same galaxy in visible, ultraviolet and infrared is helping astronomers figure out their structure, and as D. Christopher Martin claims, the origin and evolution of galaxies and stars. Why, then, at the end of the article, does he say this?
The interesting thing is that the history we have measured completely disagrees with some of the most recent models.He had just pointed out that our early results seem to be telling us that star formation was much more vigorous in the past and that something has changed very radically about star formation since that time....
Whatever; discovery marches on. We have found many other interesting things, and we have only just begun to survey the sky. As our own team and other astronomers explore the data, we look forward to many other discoveries in the future.
1D. Christopher Martin, Galaxy Evolution: The View from the Ultraviolet, Engineering and Science (LXVII:2, 2004), pp. 8-15
We like the pictures, and we like the data, but if the model is going in the wrong direction, wed rather use a different mode of transportation more likely to arrive at the destination.Delicate Planet Dance Disturbs Theories 08/27/2004
Theorists have been thrown a curve ball with the discovery of a planet orbiting a binary star. It appears that the gravitational tug on a hypothetical dust disk would have prevented the possibility of a planet forming around one of its members, but Gamma-Cephei has one. The formation of a planet in a binary star system poses serious problems, in particular when the two stars are very close, reports the Paris Observatory. Some possible scenarios are considered, but the standard planetary formation scenario encounters here several problems. It requires very specific initial conditions in order to successfully complete, the study concludes.
The ongoing discoveries of extrasolar planets, unheard of a decade ago, are providing storytellers wonderful new challenges to practice their art. No matter the difficulty, as long as there is an audience, the show must go on.Extinctions Too Complex for Simple Stories 08/26/2004
Impact theories of extinction are fighting for their own survival. A commentary in PNAS1 warns that extinction theories are more complex than can be handled by a single event, like a meteor impact. At best, they might be invoked as the coup-de-grace in a series of situations. Hermann Pfefferkorn reveals the complexities in the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions, and says it is doubtful the extinctions can be tied to singular events. An impact could have increased the intensity of an ongoing major volcanic event, he says.
1Hermann Pfefferkorn, The complexity of mass extinction, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, August 31, 2004, vol. 101, no. 35, 12779–12780.
Scientific advance is the art of poking holes in neat, easy stories: see First Law of Scientific Progress in right column, below.Genes Fail to Reveal Evolutionary Pattern in European Mammals 08/27/2004
One would think an examination of DNA from fossils would track the animals geographical distribution as they evolved. However, a study reported in PNAS1 failed to find any correlation in European mammals after the last glaciation. Hofreiter et al. report:
Here, we analyze mtDNA sequences from cave bears, brown bears, cave hyenas, and Neandertals in Europe before the last glacial maximum and fail to detect any phylogeographic patterns similar to those observed in extant species. We suggest that at the beginning of the last glacial maximum, little phylogeographic patterns existed in European mammals over most of their geographical ranges and that current phylogeographic patterns are transient relics of the last glaciation.In other words, it may be impossible to deduce the animals geographic ranges from their assumed evolution, because Cycles of retreat of species in refugia during glacial periods followed by incomplete dispersal from one refugium into other refugia during interglacial periods is likely to be responsible for the deep genetic divergences between phylogeographic clusters of mtDNA seen today.
1Hofreiter et al., Evolution: Lack of phylogeography in European mammals before the last glaciation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0403618101, published online Aug 18, 2004.
Put on your thinking cap. Could this evidence (or lack of it) be interpreted another way? Does Darwinian theory provide any usefulness to story, other than to patch up an unmet expectation?Adult Stem Cells Might Restore Hearing 08/27/2004
A report from Marine Biological Laboratory found that adult stem cells show promise for restoring inner ear hair cells (see 08/09/2004 headline). The tests, done on mice, might lead to treatment of hearing loss and balance disorders that affect 28 million Americans.
A few days earlier, Jonathan Knight, in Nature, worried over the possibility that cloning hype will undermine research on embryonic stem cells.
While adult stem cells continue to rack up successes, can anyone point to a clear case of embryonic stem cells doing any good? If a promising technology without ethical concerns trumps a questionable one with huge ethical concerns, why is there a contest?Kin Selection and Group Selection: Survival of the Fictitious 08/26/2004
Nature1 provided another case where W. D. Hamiltons kin selection theory, which proposes that selfish genes can lead to cooperation and altruism, is wrong. Kinship does not always lead to cooperation. David C. Queller comments, a once-heretical theory [group selection] and an unconventional social organism show that the cooperation-enhancing effect of kinship is sometimes negated.
1David C. Queller, Social evolution: Kinship is relative, Nature 430, 975 - 976 (26 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430975a.
We appreciate the continuing efforts of the Darwin Party to undercut their own beliefs. It saves us a lot of work. Queller tries to claim that the case under consideration, a study of bacteria by Griffin et al., does not mean we should discard kin selection theory. He claims it has support from studies of social insects. But on what basis? He claims that both kin selection theory and group selection theory are both good for each other, to rein in each others excesses: Once, group selectionists saw cooperation everywhere but were brought down to earth by individual selectionists. Now group selection is being used, not to show the ubiquity of cooperation but to rein in theories on an important form of cooperation envisaged by individual selectionists. Pardon me, David, but two wrongs dont make a right.New Techniques Reveal Deep Sea Wonders 08/26/2004
Operation Deep Scope has a new Eye-in-the-Sea deep-sea camera system that is revealing amazing animals never before seen, says EurekAlert. A test run in the Gulf of Mexico by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute saw a fluorescent shark, a fluorescent sea anemone, a large squid and some fish that became invisible at certain angles in polarized light. The team had some close calls with sharks, and had to dodge a hurricane.
This was a positive story of discovery and adventure. Discovery and evolution-talk can be mutually exclusive. This report needed Darwinese like a fish needs a bicycle. Good work.What Would a Man Born Blind See With New Eyes? 08/26/2004
The Bible records an instance of a man born blind miraculously healed, who was immediately able to walk and recognize things. Scientists had doubted whether a blind person suddenly able to see would understand the world of vision at all, or be able to make any sense of his new sense. Then a real world case in 1959 provided an opportunity to learn, when Sidney Bradford, blind from infancy, at age 52 had an operation to restore his sight. Investigator Richard Gregory in Nature1 records the blind leading the sighted as Bradfords eyes opened to the world of vision for the first time
We found a cheerful, confident, middle-aged man who was willing to be investigated and who, so far as we could tell then or later, was truthful and honest. But an initial shock nearly made us turn back with the disappointment that this must be a put-up job, or at least a Great Mistake: he correctly read the time on the clock in the ward. Could he have guessed it? Borrowing a nurses alarm clock, we set its hands to various positions, and he told us the times it showed. Taking a large watch, which had no glass, from the top pocket of his jacket, he told its time by rapidly touching its hands, as he had done for many years. So he could see immediately, from earlier touch experience. At least for us, this was a turning point for understanding vision.Bradford also quickly learned to read and recognize objects, but had trouble initially with optical illusions and perspective. Nevertheless, his sense of touch prepared him for the visual world. Some scientists and philosophers had thought each sense acted separately, but this case showed there is cross-modal transfer between them. Another case in 2000, Mike May, mirrored the experience of Bradford. These findings were, to Gregory, an eye-opening experience of the wonders of perception.
1Richard Gregory, The blind leading the sighted, Nature 430, 836 (19 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430836a.
It becomes less an issue with these observations to consider how a blind man, miraculously healed, could have picked up his mat and walked, and made sense of the new world around him, as skeptics might complain. Of course, any Miracle Worker capable of healing the blind could also heal the complete neural sensory and interpretive apparatus along with it.Researchers Record the Hum of Cellular Motors at Work 08/25/2004
Researchers from UCLA placed a probe on a yeast cell and found that it vibrated at 1.6 kHz. Further tests showed the vibration responded to temperature and to metabolic agents. They think they have discovered the hum of cellular motors at work, reports Science News.1 By the UCLA teams calculations, writes Alexandra Goho, molecular-motor proteins inside the cell are the likely source of the rumble. Such proteins carry chemical cargo along molecular tracks called microtubules and pump nutrients in and out of cells. They translated the vibrations into a sound file you can download at the website of lead investigator James Gimzewski.
1Alexandra Goho, Rattle and Hum: Molecular machinery makes yeast cells purr, Science News, Week of Aug. 21, 2004; Vol. 166, No. 8 , p. 116.
The sound of motorized freeway traffic inside the cell: fascinating. Blobs of jello dont purr.Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week 08/24/2004
From Science@NASA comes a story about a medical doctor trying to coax adult stem cells to do DNA repair on astronauts exposed to extended periods of radiation on future trips to Mars. Struggling with the techniques, Dr. Alan Gerwitz (U of Pennsylvania) said, Its hard to beat millions of years of evolution for picking out what works, and works well.
Thank you, Dr. Gerwitz, for your charming entry. Keep up the great comedy act, and good luck on the real science, too.Interview 08/24/2004 Alister McGrath, Oxford historian and theologian, was interviewed in the Aug. 21 issue of World Magazine. McGrath thinks atheism is on the decline, and with it, Darwinism. Some of his comments have direct relevance to the reporting in these pages. Peter Cava and Susan Olasky interviewed McGrath, who claims he underwent a conversion from atheism to Christianity parallel to that of C.S. Lewis. They asked him how Christians should show the falsity of Darwinism: Should Christians declare that the prime weakness of Darwinian Christianity is not its opposition to the Bible but to the scientific evidence? He answered,
My personal belief is that the best way of criticizing atheist Darwinism is to focus on the scientific evidence, and ask whether it demands that we abandon faith in God. It clearly does not. Im very interested in this question, as I will publish a work later this year entitled Dawkins God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life which argues that the noted atheist zoologist Richard Dawkinsauthor of books such as The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Geneis actually unable to justify his atheism on the basis of the scientific evidence he offers.He was also asked, Should religious presuppositions inform scientific inquiry? He answered,
Let me mention one point here. For a Christian, there is an obvious and important connection between the doctrine of creation and scientific inquiry. As John Calvin pointed out, to study Gods creation is to appreciate the wisdom of God in greater depth. Its no accident, I believe, that the natural sciences became especially significant in Christian Europe, as there was a natural religious motivation to study nature as Gods creation. This doesnt mean for one moment that people regarded nature as God. They saw it as the work of God, which was to be honored and appreciated for that reason.And that is what our online book, The Worlds Greatest Creation Scientists, explores in depth. McGrath is the author of The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday, June 2004).
Its good to see Christian thinkers with the caliber of C.S. Lewis still roaming the halls of Oxford. McGrath explores the history of atheism and suggests it flourished in France (1780s) and Germany (1840s) largely as a liberation movement against a corrupt and oppressive institutionalized church. But it ended up being just as oppressive as what it sought to overthrow, as the 20th century illustrated. Now, it is in retreat, he claims. What is on the rise, however, is Islam, and the Christian response will be very different. Christians will need to befriend Muslims, correct misunderstandings about the gospel, and show the power of the gospel to liberate them.Dont Read Face of Molecular Clock at Face Value 08/24/2004
A press release from PLoS Biology says the so-called molecular clock (the idea that genes mutate at a steady rate) is not so dependable after all. Mutations tend to cluster around microsatellites in the genome, biasing the arrangement of genetic changes. The claim is based on the work of Edward Vowles and William Amos, who found that the clock is anything but constant. Instead, a mutation in one spot in the genome affects the chance of getting another mutation nearby.
The finding disputes evolution, but the article claims that mutations are the raw material for evolution. It also repeats the myth that the genome is mostly filled with apparently meaningless nonsense. Any evidence? Nope. Any assumptions? Yep. Junk DNA? See 06/03/2004 headline.Antarctica Hit by Catastrophic Meteors, Researchers Claim 08/23/2004
A story in BBC News claims that multiple impact sites have been found under Antarctic ice covering an area 1300 by 2400 miles, with one impact making a hole in the ice 200 miles across. The estimated date of these impacts (around 780,000 years ago) creates a problem, however:
The research suggests that an asteroid the size of the one blamed for killing off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago could have struck Earth relatively recently.If such a destructive impact killed off dinosaurs, how could the humans and other mammals survived? A suggestion was quickly forthcoming: But the impacts would have occurred during an ice age, so even tidal waves would have been weakened by the stabilising effect of icebergs on the ocean.
For an ad hoc just-so story to explain away evidence against a popular theory, this one takes the cake. These theorists seem to have been hit with a rock on the head.Biblical History Artifacts Falling Prey to Looters 08/23/2004
The plunder of antiquities in Iraq and Israel continues, forever diminishing the ability of archaeologists to recreate the Biblical past, say Newsweek reporters Melinda Liu and Christopher Dickey in MSNBC News. Neither the new government in Iraq nor coalition troops are able to guard the many sites at which looters, in full daylight, dig up treasures thousands of years old to sell to collectors. Even if recovered, items have limited value without the context in which they were found. With no solution in sight, the article ends on an apocalyptic note:
For believers contemplating the rise of the looters, lines from the Revelation of Saint John the Divine may come to mind: Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen. For archeologists, for the faithful, for all of us, the loss of this past impoverishes the future. Ripping artifacts from their contexts takes away the last chance we have to know those civilizationsfrom the world of Abraham to that of Nebuchadnezzarthat gave us our own.In Iraq, many of the looters are poor people just trying to support their families. The little they get is multiplied once the artifacts reach the antiquities market, where some may end up on a collectors mantle. In Israel, ongoing violence often makes archaeological work impossible, despite a rising tide of funds for Bible-related projects.
Where is Indiana Jones when we need him? This article raises awareness of a very real problem that demands action. But who is at fault? The political bias of the writers is hardly veiled. In Israel, much care is taken to preserve the slightest trace that might reveal literal truths about the mystical teachings of scripture, they say; much care is taken by whom? Why not identify the good guys? It is not the Palestinians who cast precious artifacts down the Kidron Valley and try to destroy evidences that might support Israels history in the land (see this Jerusalem Post article, for instance). What mystical teachings of Scripture do they have in mind, as contrasted with literal truths that an archaeologist might discover? An artifact is literal, but its interpretation requires a philosophy of history that can have many political, moral and theological components. They seem unaware that their philosophy colors their own interpretation of the Genesis account: thus they call the Temptation and the Fall myths.Land Dinosaurs Buried with Fish 08/22/2004
Since dinosaurs are icons of evolutionary TV shows and even childrens cartoons about prehistoric evolving life, it may come as a surprise to some that evolutionists do not own the dinosaurs; even the name dinosaur was invented by a creationist, Richard Owen. Last month, a creationist dinosaur dig in Montana1 was a monstrous success. Joe Taylor and a group of Christian fossil hunters at a Fossil Camp sponsored by Otis Kline found more than the usual bones of triceratops, hadrosaurs, and velociraptors. They were looking for what the matrix reloaded:
As always, we are very interested in how the bones are laying and what else is buried with them, and there was a lot of good news for creationism in that regard. On our T-rex site a few miles away, we found petrified figs, crocodile teeth, water turtles, fish bones, closed clams and a log jam of trees mixed in with 18 broken T-rex teeth. There were also a half dozen velociraptor teeth and numerous fish teeth, but very few leaves. At the triceratops site there were lots of plants mixed in with the clay layers above and in with the bones.Taylor and his team confirmed that the bones were buried in a current flowing southeast.
[John MacKay, Australian creationist] uncovered layers of plants well above our layer as well as at least 12 feet below it. In almost every case, the twigs and plants were orientated southeast. He also pointed out that, due to the fact that we found plant material stuck to the surface of the bone, our triceratops illium (about 3-feet long) was probably from an animal that already become a skeleton rather than being buried alive.A strange assortment of plant material was found buried together, plants that could not have grown in the same climate: figs, sequoias, willows and horsetails. The clay also contained bits of amber, which signifies that the trees were buried quickly, preserving the sap still oozing from their freshly broken trunks. To the team, the evidence of diverse plants, land animals and marine animals buried together in the same deposit all strongly suggest a terrific, wide-ranging catastrophe and rapid burial. Taylor, a fossil hunter with many years experience, says this is not a local anomaly: I can testify that the same phenomenon is typical over several surrounding states, he says.
1From an August email newsletter distributed by Joe Taylor. His website is www.mtblanco.com.
Do you remember movies or TV shows on dinosaurs showing triceratops and velociraptors running around with clams and fish? The context of these bones is just as important as the bones. The depth of these layers, and the diverse contents, spread over multiple states, cannot be explained by some local flood or slow, gradual process. The catastrophe that buried these animals ripped the flesh off the bones and ground plant material into them. Why dont you hear about these things from the major media? Is it because the findings dont fit their favorite just-so story? If you dont agree with Joe Taylors interpretation, get out there and dig.Watch This Space: What, and When, Was the Ediacaran Biota? 08/19/2004
Evolutionary paleontologists are understandably very interested in the Ediacaran period (recently added to the geologic column) because, to them, it incorporates the most ancient complex organisms on Earth. As classified, this Precambrian period (dated 580 to 543 million years old) precedes the Cambrian explosion by some 20 million years, yet remains one of the greatest enigmata within evolutionary paleobiology.2 The type section for which it is named, discovered in 1946, is in the Flinders Ranges, Australia. Paleontologists had classified several species from the original Australian deposits and others in England and Russia. Some thought their frond-like shapes indicated they were possible ancestors of sea pens or even jellyfish, that arose later in the Cambrian.
A new sample of exquisitely-preserved Ediacaran fossils was uncovered in Newfoundland, and reported by Guy M. Narbonne in the Aug. 20 issue of Science.1 Martin Brasier and Jonathan Antcliffe analyze the samples in the same issue2, but feel the time has come to raise difficult questions about the methodology used to analyze Ediacaran fossils. They take issue with classification by analogy, the idea that because some of the fossils resemble sea pens, they are related by evolution. An alternative view is likely:
Paleontologists eagerly sought relationships between Ediacaran fossils and living seapens and worms, jellyfish and crabs. This great ancestral view has held sway for almost 40 years, but a growing number of paleontologists argue that Ediacaran creatures were not ancestral to Cambrian life at all. They suggest that members of the Ediacara biota were uniquely fashioned beasts that met their doom at the end of the Precambrian.Narbonne seems perplexed just how to classify these animals. It is difficult to relate rangeomorphs [a clade of Ediacaran animals] to any modern group of macroscopic organisms, and they appear to represent a forgotten architecture and construction that characterized early stages in the terminal Neoproterozoic evolution of complex multicellular life, they conclude their paper. Brasier and Antcliffe also take issue with the practice of classifying forms into different species without considering the possibility they may be stages of development of a single species:
Our concern is that the current Ediacaran species concept is no longer tenable. It is based on a typological approach using type specimens rather than populations, and on an analog approach that compares fossil morphologies with modern organisms according to assumed similarities. But these similarities could well have evolved independently. This approach is therefore unsound for deciphering long-extinct groups and, unlike cladistics, is an insecure basis for classification. We need quantitative studies of fossil populations, with analysis of morphological gradients [i.e., transitional forms--ed.] in the same geological successions and bedding planes, as well as detailed analyses of growth programs (morphospace), life history (ontogeny), and evolutionary history (phylogeny). It is premature to put forth any evolutionary history for fossils whose diagnosis has been conceived without reference to a postulated growth program observed through successive stages of ontogeny. Without such reference, both the taxonomic pattern and the evolutionary processes responsible for it will remain obscure.They point out several differences between Ediacaran animals and living sea pens and corals. They note also that many of these alleged species overlap each other in the strata. Reading the history of Ediacara is like reading hieroglyphics, they say, but a Rosetta stone is lacking. The only way they can fit an evolutionary account to the data is to suggest that speciation occurred by heterochrony: i.e., architectural novelty arose through accentuation of adult or juvenile growth stages. For his part, Narbonne simply assumes that ancestors for the Cambrian explosion existed in the Ediacaran period, but it wasnt these creatures: It is probable that the Ediacara biota included stem groups for the Cambrian explosion of animals, but there are no obvious analogs for rangeomorph architecture and construction among modern taxa.
1Guy M. Narbonne, Modular Construction of Early Ediacaran Complex Life Forms, Science, Vol 305, Issue 5687, 1141-1144, 20 August 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1099727].
2Martin Brasier and Jonathan Antcliffe, Paleobology: Decoding the Ediacaran Enigma, Science, Vol 305, Issue 5687, 1115-1117, 20 August 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1102673].
Yes, it is time to ask difficult questions. They just admitted that these fossils appear suddenly, then disappear, with no clear relationship to the Cambrian fossils that followed. As such, they are no help to explaining the Cambrian explosion. They already had complexity, forming leaf-like fronds with three levels of fractal patterning. Yes, we agree; they appear to be uniquely fashioned groups. One sentence demands another look: We need quantitative studies of fossil populations, with analysis of morphological gradients in the same geological successions and bedding planes, as well as detailed analyses of growth programs (morphospace), life history (ontogeny), and evolutionary history (phylogeny). In plain English, this means: we cant tell an evolutionary story if we have no transitional forms to connect the dots.Newton Believed in Absolute Truth 08/19/2004
One would think by now everything written by or about Isaac Newton has been printed. Not so; Nature1 reports August 19 that a commentary on the Apocalypse (Revelation) by Newton was published for the first time just last month by The Newton Project online. Newtons commentary holds radical views that the Pope was the personification of the Antichrist, and other statements probably unpopular in his day. The article confirms that Newtons religious writings constitute more than half of his entire written work. More interesting, the article delves into his unified belief in science and the Bible:
In the past, many thought that Newton pursued religion only in his spare time, or that the majority of his religious work had been copied from others. But [Robert] Iliffe [science historian at Oxford] claims that these writings show his theological work was carefully planned and often related to his work in mathematics and physics. For example, he sets up his text on the Apocalypse with mathematical formalism, outlining rules, definitions and a proof of his beliefs.
1Geoff Brumfiel, Newtons religious screeds get online airing, Nature 430, 819 (19 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430819a.
Newton was not always the most exemplary Christian, and some of his theological beliefs bordered on the fringes of orthodoxy. Nevertheless, no one can question that his worldview treated science and theology as highest priorities in the search for truth. Unlike a majority of moderns, Newton believed in the existence of absolutes. Specifically, he believed that the true and living God revealed Himself in the holy Scriptures even more clearly than in His works in nature, and therefore the Scriptures are more worthy of serious and systematic investigation than anything in nature. This is clear from the volume of systematic study he gave the Bible compared to science, as this article affirms (contrary to previous speculations that tried to minimize the emphasis this eminent scientist and thinker gave to his religious writings.) Can anyone claim that such a worldview is scary stuff in its implications for science (see yesterdays headline), when you have the greatest scientist in history steadfastly affirming his belief in the Biblical account of creation?British Cave Art Wins Admiration 08/18/2004
The British are overtaking the French in the ancient cave art competition; National Geographic News reports that English caves may hold the most elaborate Ice Age cave-art ceiling ever discovered. Thought to be 12,000 to 13,000 years old based on radiocarbon results and stylistic comparison. There was some surprise that the art could have survived so long: Some experts have argued that cave paintings are quickly degraded in the damp British climate.
Never any indication that cave people were dumb. Always an indication that humans had a human nature. The dates and phylogenies are modern myths woven around scattered, silent artifacts. When the observations continue to defy the expectations, the mythmakers ought to seriously reconsider their assumptions; either that, or get out of science, and try matching the the skills of their ancestors.Germs and Venoms Can Heal 08/19/2004
Three recent stories indicate that nasty things can be good, under the right circumstances:
These stories indicate that biological compounds and organisms are not evil in themselves, but cause either suffering or healing depending on context. They raise the possibility that, under different conditions, the toxins in nature might have had beneficial applications. Even cells have built-in poisons called caspases that are part of the natural process of recycling. Since most of us operate in the context of predation and defense in this era, watch your step anyway.School Science Tyranny Tries to Scare Off Lecture Critical of Darwinism 08/18/2004
Is a high school campus an open marketplace of ideas and a guarantor of free speech? Look at this story in Agape Press about the troubles a high school student endured trying to get Michael Behe to speak at an after-school lecture this past February. Though an optional event not during normal operating hours, and sponsored by a student group, not the school itself, the idea ran afoul of the science faculty even though Samuel Chen planned it according to standard procedure.
Once word got out of the upcoming event, Chen found himself the target of Darwinist teachers who used intimidation, rules changes, backroom dealing, scare tactics, venue swapping and demands for rebuttal to try to halt or undercut the lecture. Six months of controversy later, the lecture finally occurred and was successful, but the conflict intimidated many of the students who watched on the sidelines. Chen described the atmosphere on campus:
I feel that theres a dictatorship on academic freedom in our public schools now. I refer to evolution education as a tyranny .... You cant challenge it in our schools. Kids have been thrown out of class for challenging it.... Some of the students who support me are afraid to speak out, especially because they saw how the science department reacted.Chen felt the long struggle to get the lecture approved took a toll on his health, but was worth it. Some students were beginning to question evolution for the first time.
What are they afraid of? If evolution is so obvious, so well supported by the facts, why not let both sides present their evidence and teach the students how to evaluate claims with critical thinking skills? Why did one teacher call intelligent design scary stuff? These are all signs of a weak position. Whats scary stuff is terrorism, not open examination of the facts. A few more brave students like Samuel Chen, willing to stand in the path of the tanks, may demonstrate to the world that a dogmatic view that relies on intimidation is not worth believing.Humans Lose Some, Win Some in Animal Olympics 08/17/2004
Imagine humans competing in Olympic events with animals. Astrobiology Magazine predicts we would lose many events, but excel in others: In most cases of physical competition, the animals beat us at our own games, says the websites staff writer, Dr. David Noever.
This otherwise fun article is marred by several uninformed, ridiculous Darwinian assumptions. Dr. Noever should know ever so painfully that every one of his evolutionary pronouncements is questionable at best, outright false at worst; yet he spouts them with the glibness of a politician. Here are quotes numbered for comments afterwards.Earths Ugly Sister Cant Get a Date 08/16/2004Got your baloney detector handy? Lets examine his evolutionary assertions.
Venus is the subject of an interview with David Grinspoon of NASAs Exobiology Research Program in Astrobiology Magazine, and admits that the entire surface of our hellishly hot sister planet looks young. It appears the globe was resurfaced almost simultaneously in the relatively recent past. Grinspoon relives the surprises from the Magellan mission:
Weve begun to understand the story of its surface evolution largely due to the Magellan mission in the 1990s. The biggest surprise of Magellan was that the surface seems like its all the same age. Thats what Im calling the second great transition [the first being the loss of its water]. Something changed on Venus 600 or 700 million years ago to make the surface all the same age.Grinspoon discusses possible ways to explain such a catastrophic event on a planet similar in size to the Earth. Did it start with water like Earth, then dry up? Did the drying bring plate tectonics to a grinding halt? Was the global volcanism a last belch of activity? Or is the resurfacing periodic? Nobody knows. He talks about models he and other planetary scientists use to characterize what might have happened. Putting dates to these models is imprecise, to say the least:
Weve been taking a look at the models that have been done of the runaway greenhouse and the moist greenhouse to try to understand the time scale for the loss of the oceans. The first thing you realize when you look at these models is that it has not been done in a very sophisticated way. Not because the people that have done it are unsophisticated Jim Kasting is the best in the business, and his models are state of the art. But the state of the art is not that good.Venus, it could be said, is trying out a lot of blind dates.
Whenever you listen to the just-so stories of the evolutionists (planetary or biological), always watch for the data. Watch for something that was observed or measured in some way. The radar scans from Magellan revealed a terrain remarkably uniform around the entire globe, with lava flows everywhere and few craters. Its paucity of terrestrial diversity is very unlike the Earth, with its rich array of mountains, oceans, moving continents, rivers, weather systems, canyons and dynamic landscapes.Plants Found Two Miles Under Greenland Ice 08/16/2004
According to a press release from University of Colorado,1 remnants of pine needles, bark and grass have been pulled up in an ice core from two miles under the Greenland ice sheet, between the bottom of the ice sheet and bedrock. This is the first time plant material has been found under the Greenland ice, the report says.
The suspected plant material under about 10,400 feet of ice indicates the Greenland Ice Sheet formed very fast, said NGRIP project leader Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, a professor at the University of Copenhagens Niels Bohr Institute. There is a big possibility that this material is several million years old from a time when trees covered Greenland, she said.
The plant remains held in the researchers fingers are the scientific facts. The deduction that trees covered Greenland sometime in the past is logical. The millions-of-years scenario is storytelling. But what amazing facts: how did pine trees grow in a place now seen as one of the biggest deep freezers on Earth? How did the remains survive decay if the climate change was not extremely rapid? This is one of many indicators of a past temperate climate in northern latitudes that changed suddenly; remember the redwoods under the Arctic? (see 03/22/2002 headline).SETI Ponders the Silence 08/13/2004
Since no clear signals from space aliens have yet arrived in 40 years of looking, SETI thinkers are asking why. Theyre coming up with a variety of explanations. Here are three possibilities from recent articles.
Welcome to the SETI Bizarre (intentional spelling), where a rainbow of imaginative speculations is colorfully displayed and dished out on the cheap. The Bizarre is popular because of all the free advertising provided by the gullible media. Isnt science thrilling? Too bad those church-going fundamentalist types operate only on faith.Dragonfly Inspires Hi-Tech Hovercraft for Mars 08/13/2004
Exclusive Dragonflies possess not only compound eyes like other insects, but additional simple eyes called ocelli (sing., ocellum) with full-field retinas like mammalian eyes. These function as a horizon sensor/attitude reference system, according to an engineer trying to copy it. In an engineering project supported by the military and aerospace, Dr. Jaavan Chahla and an Australian team have built mechanical ocelli that allow small drone planes and helicopters to mimic the dragonflys ability to achieve low-altitude flight without hitting obstacles. In a presentation at JPL August 13, he showed film clips of flight tests that apply the dragonflys processing of optical flow, the information that comes from a shifting angles of light as you move. Since this is not dependent on heavy inertial guidance systems, magnetic compasses or other flight technologies, it permits the development of low-mass flight hardware suitable for Mars, which has no useful magnetic field.
Commenting on the dragonflys abilities, Chahla stated that it (and other insects) are able to process huge amounts of data with 8-19 millisecond response a volume of data man-made sensors have trouble managing. Yet they do it with a tiny brain with 0.01% the neurons in a human brain. All insects rely on optical flow sensing, he said. Its a useful sense, because as a passive response system, it does not depend on echoes or transmissions, as with radar, and also is independent of wind motion. Another inherent problem with horizon sensors is failure when the sun falls into the field of view. The dragonfly has overcome this failure mode using multispectral processing in the green and UV bands.
Insects also have rapid ability to self-bootstrap or respond quickly to new information, for instance when released into the open from a dark enclosure. This has been a challenge for humans to emulate. Another challenge has been hovering in place. Optical flow sensing is easier in a moving environment, but more difficult when the horizon is stationary. Chahla showed a film clip of a dragonfly hovering next to a blade of grass moving in the wind. The dragonflys motion tracked the movement of the grass almost instantaneously. Having worked with model helicopters, Chahla seemed particularly impressed with that ability.
An abstract of an earlier paper by Chahla et al. is available on Journal of Robotic Systems. A diagram (PDF format) of a dragonfly head with ocelli can be found at University of California Press.
The simplest, ordinary things in the garden or out on a nature walk are really extraordinary when you look at them in detail. No one respects natures abilities more than a human engineer who has tried to figure it out and reverse engineer them. When our brightest designers can barely keep up with the observed specifications in the insect world, are we to honestly believe that blind, undirected natural laws achieved these natural abilities without a Designing intelligence?The Evolution of Drunkenness 08/12/2004
No kidding; an evolutionist is trying to figure out why humans evolved into the stoned age. What Would Darwin Say About Drinking? reads the title of an article on WineSpectator.com: Some Scientists Believe Humans Evolved to Enjoy Alcohol. Reporter Jacob Gaffney proposes the strange idea that survival of the fittest produced alcoholics: your desire to drink could be the result of an evolutionary hangover.
The subject generated enough interest to be the focus of a symposium at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biologys conference earlier this year, the article says. Robert Dudley, a professor at UC Berkeley (where else) and colleagues are exploring the possible evolutionary origins of drinking, hoping to shed light on the relationships between humans, alcohol and health. Gaffney quipped, This Darwinian approach to medical science has fermented debate in the research community. Is that a euphemism for sending scientific discussion reeling in a drunken stupor?
The tale has some missing links, one being that no primate in the wild is known to get drunk, though there are anecdotal reports of some birds and wart hogs becoming inebriated from overripe fruit. There are still gaps in the hypothesis, admitted Doug Levey (U of Florida), speaker at a symposium on the subject, such as how one makes the leap from low-level consumption of ethanol in wild fruits to the drinking habits of modern society to full-fledged alcoholism. Not everyone is impressed with Dudleys line of argument. Katharine Milton, a Berkeley primatologist, doesnt think drunkenness provided any evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. You cant afford to have even a mild sense of euphoria when you are a primate, because you will get eaten or fall out of a tree and onto your head.
This is cartoon material and calls for a contest. Send in your joke or caption to CEH Feedback.* Should we have titled this The Evolution of Drunkenness, or the other way around? Dar-wine must be popular in the Berserkeley faculty lounges. So what would Charlie say about drinking, then? Probably, Nobody knows how dry I am. If these scientists want to test their hypothesis, undoubtedly they will find plenty of willing experimental subjects in the campus zoo, otherwise known as the dormitory.Mars Update: Woeful Lack of Lakes
Spirits seem low since last weeks Science results from Mars (see 08/06/04 headline). Mark Lemmon seems disappointed that the Mars Exploration Rover teams have not found evidence for lakes or seas; only thick dust that coats everything and clogs up the equipment. Although the rovers uncovered the presence of small amounts of water in rock samples, no large lakebeds have yet to be found, Lemmon says, according to a news brief on EurekAlert.
Next headline on: Mars
1Katharina Lodders, Jupiter Formed With More Tar than Ice, Astrophysical Journal 611:587-597, 2004 August 10.
This sounds like a pretty drastic revision to textbook models of planet formation and dating, so well have to wait and see if she garners support for the idea that Brer Jupiter is a giant tar-baby. The textbook artists already are reduced to drawing toys (see 08/06/2004 headline). Now do they need to draw Uncle Remus folk tales? If so, the results will be no less plausible than todays naturalistic just-so stories of planetary evolution.Editorial: Kerrys Stem Cell Sales Campaign
In an editorial on The Weekly Standard, Eric Cohen accuses US presidential candidate John Kerry of misguided zealotry in his advocacy of embryonic stem cell research. He offers no serious discussion of the ethical dilemmas involved in destroying nascent human lifejust assertions that the ethical issues will be resolved somehow, Cohen asserts. Yet Kerry provides no specifics on what moral compass might guide the scientists if any.
Cohen accuses Kerry of demagoguery in bating listeners with empty promises of health panaceas, while glossing over major ethical issues: stem cells have become a political religion, with scientists as the persecuted saviors, he quips. Kerry teases listeners with emotional lines like stem cells have the power to slow the loss of a grandmothers memory, in spite of no clinical trials or evidence. This begs the question whether stem cell research would do any good. Advance sales advertising with such a dubious track record amounts to propaganda with ominous moral possibilities. Cohen lists a few potential abominations that might spring from similar rationalizing, such as growing fetuses for spare parts, or implanting human embryos into animals. Then he challenges, Is there anything a civilized people should refuse to doeven if it might advance medicine in the future? On that question, Kerry is strangely silent. Its unconscionable that embryonic stem cells should get all the publicity when adult and umbilical stem cells, which overcome the ethical objections, already show results, as (for example) this article on EurekAlert illustrates.
LifeNews.com also claims that Kerry is wrong to say that President Bush banned stem cell funding. The administration set restrictions and guidelines, but It is a completely false statement to call it a ban, according to Senator Sam Brownback. Chuck Colson agrees in his daily BreakPoint commentary: it is a half truth to call it a ban, he says. But the race to open Pandoras box has already begun: BBC News reports that the UK has given a go-ahead for therapeutic cloning for the first time. Other countries will surely desire to catch up. Maybe it is too late for Peter Pike in OpinionEditorials.com to ask, do the ends justify the means?
Next headline on: Politics and Ethics
T. Rex: I Was a Teenage Monster 08/11/2004
From the two competing hypotheses of tyrannosaurid phylogeny it is most parsimonious to conclude that T. rex acquired the majority of its giant proportions after diverging from the common ancestor of itself and D. torosus, a species with an optimized body mass of about 1,800 kg. Direct comparison between the tyrannosaurid growth curves shows that the transition to the exponential and stationary phases of development occurred about 2-4 years later in T. rex (Fig. 2). However, such temporal post-displacement had little to do with the evolution of its gigantism because the exponential stage, during which most body size is accrued, was not extended beyond the ancestral, 4-year condition observed in other tyrannosaurids. Rather, the key developmental modification that propelled T. rex to giant proportions was primarily through evolutionary acceleration in the exponential stage growth rate and the transition zones bounding it. This is reflected in the regions of maximal slope on the growth curves depicted in Fig. 2 and holds true regardless of which evolutionary hypothesis is correct and how the maximum growth rates are optimized....Since T. rex seems to stand on its own two feet phylogenetically, the study ends on a question instead of a definitive answer: How other dinosaurs attained gigantism within their respective sub-clades will serve as an interesting line of inquiry in the future. Does the same pattern of acceleratory growth seen here characterize the means by which all or most members of the Dinosauria attained great size?
The study might help the next Jurassic Park movie. The researchers suggest that T. rex teens might have been able to run. After reaching 1000 kg, they probably were too heavy to chase down a jeep.
1Erickson et al., Gigantism and comparative life-history parameters of tyrannosaurid dinosaurs, Nature 430, 772 - 775 (12 August 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02699.
Well leave the teenage monster jokes to the imagination of our readers. Notice in passing how the popular-level reports of this paper all talk about how these studies are going to help us understand dinosaur evolution: such as, With the life history parameters, we can better understand T. rex evolution, biology, biomechanics and population dynamics. Three out of four, maybe, but what evolution? The paper looked for it and didnt find it. Give us some evidence, not empty promises. Were getting frustrated with the ubiquitous unresolved plots in the endless soap opera, Charlies Angles.ATP Synthase: Another Unexpected Case of Fine Tuning 08/10/2004
ATP synthase, the miniature rotary motor that powers our cells, has been a subject of great interest since the elucidation of its rotary function won three scientists a Nobel prize in 1997. As an example of a precision-crafted, true electric rotary motor in living systems (another being the larger bacterial flagellum), it also provides a classic case study in intelligent design vs. evolution. It has been the subject of frequent updates in these pages (start at 02/13/2004 and work backwards). Now, another discovery about this ATP-synthesizing engine has revealed a deeper level of fine tuning. Japanese scientists publishing in PNAS1 found a precision coupling between two components that was unexpected, yet apparently essential.
For review, recall that ATP synthase has two functional domains, named F0 and F1. The F1 part that actually synthesizes ATP from ADP + P is now fairly well understood. It is composed of three pairs of lobes that spring-load ATP with every 120o turn of the camshaft, each pair of lobes either loading, catalyzing or ejecting an ATP molecule. The F0 domain, however, has been harder to study. Scientists knew it looks like a carousel of identical proteins, labeled c subunits. Linked to it is a camshaft, named the gamma subunit, that drives the synthesis of ATP in F1. Scientists knew the F0 carousel runs on protons delivered by a gumball-like mechanism named the a subunit (see 12/22/2003 headline). But up till now, they were not sure how many c subunits comprised the carousel or even if the number mattered. Some studies had hinted that the F0 motor contained anywhere from 8 to 13 c subunits, depending on the species. Now, the team of Mitome et al. found the answer: it is 10, and it must be 10 and only 10. Other numbers dont work. Thats strange. It means that F0 needs 10 protons per revolution, but F1 produces 3 ATP per revolution. The ratio 10:3 is not an integer. How can that be?
The scientists arrived at the number 10 by customizing F0 rings with fixed numbers of c subunits, 2 through 14. Then they linked them to the F1 domains and watched how much ATP was synthesized. Results were obtained for only c=2, 5, and 10, which is interesting, considering that 2 and 5 are factors of 10. The c=2 and c=5 cases produced a little ATP, and c=10 produced the maximum. All the other numbers produced none. The team deduced, therefore, that 10 (or one of its factors) is essential to match the proton-loading mechanism of the a subunit.
The scientists also measured the proton flow through their custom carousels when disengaged from F1 and found, again, that 10 was the only number that worked. Without 10 c subunits, no protons flowed. Divide a circle of 360o by 10, and you get a 36o angle per c subunit during a complete revolution of the F0 motor. The F1 domain, by contrast, produces ATP for each 120o turn, or 3 ATP per complete revolution. The scientists seemed surprised that the proton-ATP ratio, one of the most important parameters in bioenergetics, is not an integer. Its as if three protons are sufficient to generate an ATP sometimes and four other times, because one cannot have a third of a proton. Wouldnt it be more logical if the number of c subunits was a multiple of three, say 6, 9, or 12? With c=9, for instance, the camshaft angle would regularly line up with the F1 lobes every 3 protons, yielding one ATP every time, nice and neat. The fact that it does not means that the coupling between F0 and F1 is not strict, as with toothed gears, but permissive as if the two domains rotate according to their own structural needs, and are coupled together by a adaptor mechanism that has some degree of freedom to either twist or slip.
The scientists ruled out slippage. They knew that the camshaft can only produce an ATP in the F1 domain when it is lined up perfectly at the 120o steps. Instead, they found that there is enough elastic flexibility in the camshaft to permit twist up to 40o during its rotation. This flexibility allows the two domains to work separately, each according to its optimum configuration, with the twisting camshaft able to rock back and forth a little to give the F1 lobes time to complete their work. In scientific lingo, The flexibility of gamma allows both the F0-gamma and F1-gamma interfaces at the free-energy minima to stay in conformations adequate for the proton transport in F0 and the catalysis in F1 despite the step-size mismatch, providing sufficient time for those events to take place.
One more thing. There isnt much tolerance for error in this system. The team found that a single point mutation at a spot named E56 in the c subunit was enough to quench all proton flow and all ATP synthesis: This result provides evidence that each of all 10 E56 in the c-ring is indispensable. Also, the quantity of 10 subunits in the c-ring is critical, because 8, 9, 11, 12 and other numbers did not fit the gumball proton-delivery system of the a subunit: Thus, the proton transport through F0 requires very strict arrangement of contact surface between F0-a and F0-c in the F0 assembly and even a rotary displacement as tiny as 3.3o (360o / 10 360o / 11) seems to be enough to disable a proton transfer between them.
The team made their measurements on ATP synthase motors from a species of thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria. They feel they have found a coupling strategy in living systems that could demonstrate a general principle: Here, we report the permissive nature of the coupling between proton transport and ATP synthesis of F0-F1, but such nature of the coupling can be general among other biological motor systems to connect critical well tuned microscopic events in the large domain motions.
1Mitome et al., Thermophilic ATP synthase has a decamer c-ring: Indication of noninteger 10:3 H+/ATP ratio and permissive elastic coupling, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0403545101, published online 8/09/04.
This discovery reveals a deeper level of design even more difficult to explain by evolution. (As expected, these authors make no reference to evolution in their paper.) A simple, easy-to-fathom machine would use the integer ratio; 3 protons yields one ATP. The 10:3 ratio, puzzling at first, actually shows superior engineering. It enables two disparate components with different operational requirements to be coupled together for the maximum efficiency of each. In software, it would be like the driver that allows a device to work with any operating system. In hardware, it would be like a tractor with a power-takeoff adapter that allows the engine to operate an attachment running at a different RPM.A Martian Crust: Was It Alive? 08/09/2004
David McKay, the father of the Martian meteorite that started feverish debates about life on Mars in 1996, is at it again. Now he thinks a mat of crusty soil was made by microbes, according to Space.Com.
In spite of the salty, acidic soil (see 08/06/04 headline), Gilbert Levin, also interviewed by Space.Com, thinks life on Mars is likely.
Give it up, David. There are more honest ways to get funding for new NASA missions than hyping the meagerest of circumstantial evidence while ignoring the problems. Mars has all the conditions for life: water, energy, and organic substances, McKay pointed out. One thing thou lackest: information. From whence cometh information, if not from intelligent design? That doth make all the difference between mat and Matt.Inner Ear Hairs Provide Optimum Sensitivity 08/09/2004
The inner ear cochlea is lined with hair cells that transduce mechanical vibrations into electrical signals for the auditory nerve. European scientists publishing in PNAS1 measured the sensitivity of inner ear hair cells to mechanical motion, and considering the noise caused by thermal motion, calculated that the ear operates at the optimum level.
The ear relies on nonlinear amplification to enhance its sensitivity and frequency selectivity to oscillatory mechanical stimuli.... We find that the magnitude of the fluctuations resulting from the active processes that mediate mechanical amplification remains just below that of thermal fluctuations. Fluctuations destroy the phase coherence of spontaneous oscillations and restrict the bundles sensitivity as well as frequency selectivity to small oscillatory stimuli. We show, however, that a hair bundle studied experimentally operates near an optimum of mechanosensitivity in our state diagram.
1Nadrowski et al., Active hair-bundle motility harnesses noise to operate near an optimum of mechanosensitivity, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0403020101, publ. online 8/9/04.
Was this optimum found by trial and error? Did all the individuals below optimum die until perfection was reached? Imagine a sound engineer designing the perfectly sensitive receiver electronically. Now imagine him making it work throughout a double-flipping dive into an Olympic pool without an interruption of response or sensitivity.Toy Model of Planetary Migration Partially Explains Neptune, but Not Uranus 08/06/2004
When we last saw Hal Levison (Southwest Research Institute), the genius-at-work was going crazy in fairyland over the difficulties of explaining Uranus and Neptune (see 05/30/2002 headline). Hes been recovering sanity slowly; he thinks he has a working hypothesis for why Neptune stopped migrating at 30 AU (astronomical unit = sun-earth distance). Uranus, though, is still enough to drive a sane man nuts.
Levison concluded last time that the two blue water giants could not have formed where they are; the protoplanetary disk would have been too sparse.  This fact and observations of Jupiter-class extrasolar planets orbiting very close in has raised consciousness of the need to consider a wild and crazy idea: planetary migration.
Classical (i.e., simplistic) nebular/planetesimal hypotheses considered primarily orbital motion, the around-the-racetrack vector. These days, planetary physicists have to add the radial vector, the inward vs. outward component. They suspect a planet forms at one radius, then somehow moves closer in or farther out from the parent star. There are some physical laws to support these notions: gravitational interactions between two large bodies can perturb orbits, gas drag and disk instabilities can cause angular momentum exchange, and asymmetric collisions with minor bodies can produce net motions in certain directions. But migration has multiplied the complexities of explaining planets from a rotating disk. Even a three-body problem is notoriously difficult to solve, to say nothing of one involving billions of objects ranging from dust particles to gas giants. Of necessity, planetary scientists use models to simulate what might have happened. Typically, when the simulation solves one condition, others fly off the chart. Then there is always the tedious necessity of having to match ones pet idealized model against the hard, cold realities of the observed planets. Planetary migration models are new; how are they coming along?
Despite the importance of planetary migration, he says, not much work has been done up to now to study the migration process per se. In a new paper in the August issue of Icarus,1 Levison and two colleagues try a back-of-the-envelope analytic theory for migration in planetesimal disks, which they describe as an intuitive, easy to understand toy model, intended to be a guide for interpreting the range of behaviors observed in our numerical simulations. It must be a tinker toy model. The authors tinker with pirouettes around Jupiter, square dances with Kuiper Belt Objects and other fancy footwork, with some hand waving along the way. One excerpt:
We have not been able to identify any dynamical reason for why, in some cases, Neptune sometimes reverses direction. Thus, we believe it is a matter of chance. If so, this whole effect may be the result of the fact that our simulations contain a relatively small number of massive bodies compared to the real early Solar System. Perhaps an ideal system with a nearly infinite number of planetesimals with infinitesimal mass would behave differently. We will address this issue again in future work....They get Neptune all the way out to 120 AU, but then the simulation reveals a runaway inward migration, so they try various ways to get it to stop at its observed radial distance without ejecting out all the KBOs and comets in the process. Phrases like not obvious or not clear exactly how and we cannot rule out the possibility season the entree. After examining many scenarios, they decide Therefore, we believe that the current location of Neptune and the mass deficiency of the Kuiper belt imply that the proto-planetary disk possessed an edge at about 30 AU, which is where Neptune stalled out in its migration.
Uranus, however, is the stick in the mud that puts the simulation in doubt. Clearly, explaining planets from a rotating work is, at best, a work in progress:
So far in this paper, we have focused on the evolution of Neptune. Unfortunately, we find that we have a significant problem with Uranus. In all simulations starting from a compact planetary configuration where Neptune is initially inside 20 AU, Uranus always stopped well before its current location at ~19 AU. This is because in these cases the planetesimals scattered by Neptune interact with Saturn almost at the same time as they interact with Uranus, so that Uranus effectively sees only a small portion of the total disks mass. This may indicate that Uranus and Neptune formed at 17-18 and 23-25 AU, respectively (see Hahn and Malhotra, 1999), despite of the apparent difficulty of accreting planets at large heliocentric distances (Levison and Stewart, 2001 and Thommes et al., 2003). Alternatively, it may indicate that the migration process was triggered by some instability in the originally compact planetary system, something similar to what was proposed by Thommes et al. (1999). This will be the subject of future investigations.Till next time, happy travails.
1Gomes, Morbidelli and Levison, Planetary migration in a planetesimal disk: why did Neptune stop at 30 AU?, Icarus, Volume 170, Issue 2, August 2004, Pages 492-507; doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2004.03.011.
The word planet is from the Greek root for wanderer because, to the ancients, the planets in their orbits appeared to wander against the fixed stars in mysterious ways. Keplers and Newtons laws only temporarily removed the mystery: once again, the planets wander in mysterious ways. At least now we know the lyrics to the music of the spheres: The Happy Wanderer. I love to go a-wandering along the radial track / And as I go, I love to fling the KBOs out back.Cell Nucleus Complexity Baffles Evolutionists 08/06/2004
In her inimitable way, Science reporter Elizabeth Pennisi has once again portrayed a scientific controversy undergoing active ferment. This time its about the evolutionary origin of cell nuclei, which she terms specialized, DNA-filled command centers.1 At the conclusion, she gives prominence to a provocative, but circumstantial and controversial suggestion that viruses taught cells how to wrap their DNA in double membranes with controlled access. Since the idea presupposes that viruses preceded all three domains of life prokarya, eukarya and archaea If this is true, then we are all basically descended from viruses, as a believer puts it. The idea is unpalatable to some. I do not believe [it], a German molecular biologist retorts. The idea of the viruses inventing [eukaryotic cells] from scratch is hard for me to conceive.
Pennisi treats the new viral theory as tentative at best. Whats more revealing in her article are the problems with previously-popular ideas, and why. According to her, the key insight at a meeting in France last month on the subject was: They had underestimated the complexity of the eukaryotic cells 1.5-billion-year-old precursor. The data presented indicated that this ancestral cell had more genes, more structures, and more diverse biochemical processes than previously imagined. For a glimpse why, look at Pennisis brief description of the nucleus:
Each nucleus in a eukaryotic cell consists of a double lipid-based membrane punctuated by thousands of sophisticated protein complexes called nuclear pores, which control molecular traffic in and out of the organelle. Inside, polymerases and other specialized enzymes transfer DNAs protein-coding message to RNA. Other proteins modify the strands of RNA to ensure that they bring an accurate message to the ribosomes outside the nucleus. The nucleus also contains a nucleolus, a tightly packed jumble of RNA and proteins that are modified and shipped out of the nucleus to build ribosomes.Eukaryotes are distinguished from bacteria by their double-membrane nuclei. The nuclear distinction between prokaryotes and eukaryotes shaped early speculation about the development of complex life, Pennisi says about ideas floating around up to the 1970s. Some thought eukaryotes were evolved prokaryotes, and others thought prokaryotes were degenerate eukaryotes. But then Carl Woese created new woes by identifying bacteria-like cells that were distinct from both prokaryotes and eukaryotes: so different, in fact, to warrant classification in their own domain archaea. Others soon were surprised to find that eukaryotes appeared to have genes from both bacteria and archaea.
So another story was born, the endosymbiont or merger hypothesis. This proposed that eukaryotes arose from the ancient symbiotic partnership between bacteria and archaea. That theory came under fire from the discovery of faint but distinct nuclei in an unusual group of bacteria, named planctomycetes, that live in soil and fresh water. Some of these planctomycetes have organelles and double-membraned sacs of DNA and RNA. According to a critic of the merger model, these observations turn the dogma that prokaryotes have no internal membranes upside down Now, it seems no one is sure which way is up.
Theres more to cause vertigo for evolutionists: the complexity of the nuclear pore complexes (NPCs). Explaining these structures has always posed a sticking point for nuclear evolution. For one thing, without pores, the nucleus cant function. But for another thing, Pennisi continues, the same planctomycetes, and possibly some other archaea and prokaryotes, apparently possess structures resembling these complex traffic-control gates. Bacteria with nuclear pores and internal membranes, features typically considered eukaryote-specific, suggest that the nucleus was born much earlier than traditionally thought.
For some, that leaves as the leading contender the controversial theory that viruses first invented the nucleus. This, however, only pushes the complexity of nuclei and their pores farther back in time, and foists a huge design problem on earths most primitive biological entities. That is why the molecular biologist quoted earlier cant believe that simple viruses created such complex structures from scratch. Pennisi shares a few speculations, based on circumstantial evidence, how it might have happened. But when she ends by pushing the answer to the future, it underscores the fact that no current theory accounts for the origin of the nucleus:
Did a virus provide the first nucleus? Or was it something an early bacterial cell evolved, either on its own or in partnership with an archaeum? To resolve the origin of the nucleus, evolutionary biologists are exploring new techniques that enable them to determine relationships of microorganisms that go much further back in time....The biologists in France argued and discussed many ideas. But when it came to accounting for how the nucleus was born, Pennisi admits, no single hypothesis bubbled to the top. She quotes French molecular biologist Patrick Forterre who said, Its like a puzzle. People try to put all the pieces together, but we dont know who is right or if there is still some crucial piece of information missing.
1Elizabeth Pennisi, Evolutionary Biology: The Birth of the Nucleus, Science, Vol 305, Issue 5685, 766-768, 6 August 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5685.766].
The crucial piece of missing information is information itself. Information: DNA, logic, codes, controlled access, complex systems of integrated parts: these are all indicators of intelligent design. This would be obvious if the biologists at that meeting would only think outside the Darwinian box in which they have imprisoned themselves. Look at what contortions they have to go through to account for such biological complexity by chance. As usual, the answer is somewhere out there in the future. Also as usual, the same trend is seen here as in everything else in biology, and even in paleontology and cosmology: more complexity, further back toward the beginning.Kansas Elects Two ID-Friendly School Board Members 08/06/2004
According to John Calvert writing for Access Research Network, Kansans defeated two pro-evolution candidates for the state school board, electing instead Kathy Martin and Steve Abrams who both oppose the evolution-only policy.
Martin won against Bruce Wyatt, an incumbent who based his entire campaign on the need to keep intelligent design or creation out of the classroom. Apparently voters tired of Wyatts one-issue campaign and took more of a liking to Kathy Martin, an experienced school teacher who tried to keep the campaign focused on the needs of students instead of letting it get bogged down over the E word.
Despite her efforts, Wyatt and the media kept returning to the evolution vs. intelligent design issue, reminding everyone what a horrible decision the school board made in 1999 when they downplayed evolution. The strategy apparently backfired. Calvert feels the vote is significant because it also reflects a defeat of the media that seemed to try their best to hinder the election of Martin and Abrams.
Darwin Party hacks should realize that the public may tire of their tirades, and demand that their board stop the haggling and focus on educating their kids to read and write and learn to become productive members of society. But the new board members had better get their armor on; round two of the Kansas Ooze-slinging Attack Campaign will begin as soon as they give any faint hint of a suggestion of opening minds to doubts about Charlie darling.Mars Science Results Fleshed Out, but the Spirit Is Weak 08/06/2004
The first detailed science results from the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit have been published in eleven papers in the Aug. 6 issue of Science.1 Highlights include: the Gusev Crater shows no sign of lake sedimentary deposits, but rather is composed of volcanic ash with some windblown dust. Lacustrine (lakebed) deposits, if any, must be buried deep underneath the current volcanic sediments. Rocks are olivine-rich basalts which would have degraded in the presence of standing water (see 01/22/2004), and they show no signs have having been transported by water through Ma'adim Vallis, the valley that looked from orbit like a flood channel leading into the crater. The high concentration of sulfates indicates that sulfuric acid prevented the formation of carbonates and influenced the climate of Mars.
The technical details are fascinating as usual, but lacking is any enthusiasm over the possibility of finding life. Any past water would have been as acidic as gastric juices, says Richard Kerr: The emerging picture is of a salt-laden, often corroded planet that had standing water early in its history. Volcanic emanations made that water acidic enough to leach salt from the rock and lay it down in thick beds, and water beneath the surface seems to have altered rock as well. Most of the planet is now covered by weathering products of yellow-brown dust or rock rinds. Spirits age is showing as it struggles over the hill (Columbia Hills, that is). Is the spirit of the investigators also waning from excess acid?
1Overview by Richard A. Kerr: Rainbow of Martian Minerals Paints Picture of Degradation, Science, Vol 305, Issue 5685, 770-771, 6 August 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5685.770].
Scientists must be disappointed after high hopes that Gusev Crater was an ancient lake. It sure looked like one from orbit, inlet channel and all (see 06/21/2002 headline). Now, Mars does not sound like a beachfront resort you would want to visit, even if you could stand the smell. Kerr was surprisingly silent about the usual high-priority subject of looking for signs of life (see 06/23/2003 headline). In fact, none of the 11 papers even discussed the habitability of the planet, let alone the presence of present or past life. The descriptions in these papers do not portray Mars as a suitable place to cook primordial soup. How could life have emerged from a salty acid bath? Its astronomically improbable under ideal conditions (see online book), but salt is a poison to hopeful molecules. No less than the journal Astrobiology said that even a weak salt solution prevents membranes from forming and RNA from polymerizing (see 09/17/2002 headline).Science Journal Takes Political Sides 08/05/2004
It might seem unusual or even improper for a science journal to encourage its readers to vote for a particular presidential candidate, especially for voters in a different country than its publishers domicile. Nature Aug. 5 contained two such articles that could hardly be defended as non-partisan. An editorial1 said in ostensibly neutral terms, Researchers should seize an opportunity to make their voices heard, whatever their political persuasion, but made it abundantly clear what that persuasion should be. The Bush administration has been heavily criticized in scientific quarters, it says, and reports on the Union of Concerned Scientists claiming that Bush has been guilty of the politicization of science. Kerry, however is not so criticized; the editorial quotes a group of scientists that claims John Kerry will restore science to its appropriate place in government and bring it back into the White House. Though trying to appear neutral, the editorial seems clearly tilted left.
That leftward stance is reinforced by a news article in the same issue2 that gives prominent coverage to Nobel laureates who are campaigning for Kerry. It has nothing positive to say about Bush: just allegations, criticisms and the anger of certain scientists, with no opportunity for rebuttal. It mentions nothing about Bushs space initiatives for NASA or any other accomplishments. Kerry, in contrast, is cast in an entirely positive light: for instance, Already, science has taken an unusually high profile in the Kerry campaign. Kerrys wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, mentioned the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini mission to Saturn in her speech at the Democratic National Convention last week.
Science has been a little more nonpartisan lately. Last week it gave Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham3 an uncontested column on Bushs Climate Policy, and this week, it presented a more balanced view of the election campaign as it pertains to science: David Malakoff4 presented both sides of the controversy over stem cell research. Nevertheless, conservatives will find evidence of bias in certain statements, such as the prominence given to Matthew Nisbet (Ohio State) commenting on Kerrys making stem cell research a campaign issue. Malakoff quotes Nisbet: It allowed Kerry to highlight a major policy difference between the candidates on a health issue that is relevant to millions of Americans, he says. It also allowed him to reinforce reservations that undecided voters may already have about Bush being an ideologue who doesnt listen to experts who hold other views. These charges are only weakly rebutted in Malakoffs article.
1Editorial, On the campaign trail, Nature 430, 593 (05 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430593a.
2Geoff Brumfiel and Emma Marris, Nobel laureates spearhead effort to put Kerry in the White House, Nature 430, 595 (05 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430595a.
3Spencer Abraham, The Bush Administrations Approach to Climate Change, Science, Vol 305, Issue 5684, 616-617, 30 July 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1098630].
4David Malakoff, The Calculus of Making Stem Cells a Campaign Issue, Science, Vol 305, Issue 5685, 760, 6 August 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5685.760].
We predicted last year that a survey would find academic scientists to be predominantly liberal Democrats (see 09/22/2003 editorial), and now we have evidence right from Natures editorial page: it says plainly, In the current polarized political climate, it is hardly surprising that some scientists should swing behind Kerry in this way the research community traditionally votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Let no one conclude that this means smart people vote Democrat. These are the ones that brought us sunbathing fish evolving into humans, remember? (see 08/03/2004 headline). No; rather, it means two things: the (1) Darwin Party that rules Big Science and the journals cannot tolerate anyone who believes in God and absolute moral standards, and (2) Big Science needs its entitlements to keep its Starving Storytellers welfare state going (see 12/22/2003 commentary). From day one, Nature was a mouthpiece for Charlie Darwins musketeers (see 03/04/2004 commentary). Since Darwin described himself as liberal or radical (see 02/13/2004 headline), it is not surprising his mouthpiece continues to be a propaganda machine for political liberalism as well as the moral relativism that fits leftist ideology and Darwinian theory like hand and glove (see 06/28/2004, 06/07/2004, 06/03/2004 and 05/17/2004 headlines, for instance).So Is Archaeopteryx a Transitional Form, Or Not? 08/05/2004
An international team set out to determine if the skull features of Archaeopteryx, the famous fossil bird, indicated whether it was capable of flight. The answer reported in Nature1 was affirmative:
Here we show the reconstruction of the braincase from which we derived endocasts of the brain and inner ear. These suggest that Archaeopteryx closely resembled modern birds in the dominance of the sense of vision and in the possession of expanded auditory and spatial sensory perception in the ear. We conclude that Archaeopteryx had acquired the derived neurological and structural adaptations necessary for flight. An enlarged forebrain suggests that it had also developed enhanced somatosensory integration with these special senses demanded by a lifestyle involving flying ability.Everything they measured was within the range of characteristics for modern flying birds. For instance, they say: Birds with the same body mass as Archaeopteryx have from one-third (for example, galliforms and columbiforms) to five times (for example, psittaciforms and passeriforms) bigger brains. However, the brain of Archaeopteryx is about three times the volume of those of non-avian reptiles of equivalent size. The scientists say nothing about transitional forms, and only make this one indeterminate statement about evolution: it has remained contentious whether brain size increase was tied to the evolution of flight, arboreality, or other environmental influences, hardly an affirmation that birds evolved from reptiles.
A very different conclusion was reached by reviewer Lawrence Witmer (Ohio U), who calls Archaeopteryx the near perfect transitional form. Since Darwins Origin of Species was published, he says, it has been a compelling example in the case for evolution. Witmer understands that the requirements for flight are pretty demanding: But flight isnt just about wings, rudders and flaps, he says; Its also about the pilot and on-board computer, and those are the missing elements that this new study provides for Archaeopteryx. Nevertheless, he concludes, This latest in a long line of papers on Archaeopteryx affirms the iconic status of this fossil (i.e., as a classic transitional form between reptiles and birds).
See also the MSNBC and National Geographic slants on this story.
1Patricio Domínguez Alonso et al., The avian nature of the brain and inner ear of Archaeopteryx, Nature 430, 666 - 669 (05 August 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02706.
2Lawrence M. Witmer, Palaeontology: Inside the oldest bird brain, Nature 430, 619 - 620 (05 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430619a.
A more shameless example of spin doctoring by a Darwin Party hack could hardly be found. The evidence showed that Archaeopteryx not only had the wings of a bird, but it had the skull of a bird, the eyes of a bird, and the pilot and onboard computer of a bird. And he has the audacity to say this confirms it as a near-perfect transitional form between reptiles and birds! Speaking of icons, Witmer needs to read ch. 6 of Icons of Evolution, where Jonathan Wells puts this fossil in its place. (Click here and here for summaries of his arguments; TrueOrigin has an article by Ashby Camp on Archaeopteryx and the supposed evolution of birds from reptiles.)The Darwin Wars: New Book Reopens Old Scars 08/05/2004
In the late 1970s, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould reopened an episodic war between Darwinists over the question whether evolution is gradual or jerky with their theory of punctuated equilibria. Even though both sides presented an evolution-as-fact face to the public, the bitterness of the attacks between the orthodox gradualists like Richard Dawkins and the punctuationists provided endless fodder for creationist sound bites. Gould is now gone, but Eldredge continues to rankle his foes, as can be seen in a review of his new book Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene (W.W. Norton, 2004) by Robert Foley (U. of Cambridge, UK) published in the Aug. 5 issue of Nature.1 Gradualism is not the issue of this book; instead, Eldredge attacks another major evolutionary bastion: the selfish gene hypothesis and its promoters, the evolutionary psychologists and ultradarwinists who reduce everything in life to sex. First, Foleys synopsis:
Eldredges argument is straightforward. Sex for most animals, including or even especially humans, does not happen very often. Most of life is filled with growing up, finding enough to eat and avoiding predators. Sex is only occasionally interspersed among these activities I leave it to other readers to quantify this, as I suspect there must be considerable variation. Indeed, this is one of Eldredges main points: there are some individuals and were talking about humans here who never have sex. What follows from this, Eldredge argues, is that because sex is relatively rare, it must, in evolutionary terms, be relatively unimportant.This otherwise straightforward argument has drastic ramifications for neodarwinism, apparently, because Foley considers Eldredges views too extreme. Though he acknowledges his foe to be an invertebrate palaeontologist and one of the major figures in the macroevolutionary debates of the 1970s and 1980s, he can hardly restrain his indignation that Eldredge would try to tear down the whole edifice of reproduction-driven neodarwinian behavioural and evolutionary ecology. Eldredge admits as much; according to the blurbs, the book aims to shatter myths, recast darwinism and fundamentally change the way we understand our own evolution. This is too much for Foley: If Eldredges explicit idea is correct, then anyone reading this book should emerge completely purged of the orthodox model of evolution as a process of enhancing reproductive success. Not unexpectedly, Foley believes Eldredge has failed miserably, and is nearly blind:
Is this the end for those Eldredge portrays as the ultradarwinists notably Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, all evolutionary psychologists and probably most behavioural ecologists? Has Eldredge demolished gene-centred evolutionary theory? Hardly. The logical error in Eldredges argument is so breathtakingly obvious that one can only wonder how he has missed it. Reproductive success is not just about having sex. Take virtually any animal, and certainly it may spend relatively little time actually copulating, but what Eldredge isolates as the economic sphere is clearly not independent of sex and reproduction. How an organism grows with males of many species being larger than females, for example is not an isolated biological phenomenon, but represents an individual (through its genes) positioning itself to compete well in the reproductive arena. Its social behaviour, being competitive or cooperative, and its feeding ecology are all part of its reproductive strategy and hence are selected not just for their own efficiency, but for the extent to which they contribute to reproductive success. Countless studies across vast numbers of species have shown how patterns of economic behaviour are related to reproductive strategies and success.So Foley seems to be saying, it is all about sex. Economic behaviors (foraging, feeding, staying healthy) all have sexual reproduction as the bottom line and ultimate strategic purpose. Does Eldredges antipathy to gene-centric evolution have a deeper philosophical motivation? Foley notes that Eldredge wants to avoid the dark chapters of Darwinian history:
Humans are the central concern for Eldredge. It is to his credit that his primary argument is not that selfish-gene models do not apply to humans because they are different, but that selfish-gene models do not work for any organisms, and therefore apply even less to humans. Ultimately, as the final chapters make clear, this book sees in classic neodarwinism the dangers of biological determinism, and views evolutionary psychology in particular as the modern version of the older threats of social darwinism and eugenics.Balderdash, Foley thinks: the evidence Eldredge cites is anecdotal and hardly constitute[s] serious scientific study. (Presumably, this means that sex is the be-all and end-all for human evolution, too; life is not just for living). Its in the final paragraphs that Foleys venom is barely diluted:
It may seem harsh to criticize so heavily a book written in such an extraordinarily popular and friendly manner this is not a scientific monograph, after all. However, the claims made here are so strong, so polemical and so tilted towards making reproductive fitness seem like an irrelevance in the evolutionary process that it would be inappropriate not to point out the extent to which a naive reader might be misled. There are many oversimplifications and difficulties with the strongly adaptive models of human evolution constructed by evolutionary psychologists and behavioural ecologists, but Eldredges approach is too extreme to bring these out in any way that might usefully influence future developments.No fear, Foley says; this book may irritate but not convert.
If you are in the mood for some relentless Dawkins-bashing, or want a rush of arguments against biological determinism, then you might enjoy it. But if you are a neodarwinian in search of a road-to-Damascus experience, this is not the place to find it. And if you are a neodarwinian not looking for such an experience, you had better avoid this book, as its superficiality, inconsistency and misleading logic will only irritate. On the other hand, you need not have any fear of having your evolutionary world turned upside-down. I closed the book with a sigh of relief.Pretty harsh words against an invertebrate palaeontologist and one of the major figures in the macroevolutionary debates of the 1970s and 1980s.
1Robert Foley, Sex under pressure, Nature 430, 613 - 614 (05 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430613a.
Dawkins-bashing is the same kind of entertainment as professional wrestling; the body-slams look fierce but the outcome is rigged, and you know that even if one lug seems to be getting the upper hand, the other lug might make a surprise comeback. You probably didnt expect to be seeing such a bitter slugfest in the pages of Nature. This was as fun as watching Osama and Saddam gas each other. Too bad for the Darwin Party the brawl was visible to the creationists.Book Review 08/04/2004
In his daily Breakpoint commentary, Chuck Colson briefly reviews William Dembskis new book Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing. Colson was especially taken by the interchange between David Berlinski and the pro-Darwinists. It led him to think, Suffice it to say, after reading this chapter, and better yet this book, youll realize that Darwinism is in for a grilling like none it has experienced before. And its about time. He also mentions this unusual factoid from another chapter:
Another new name is Edward Sisson, an attorney who used to direct avant-garde theater. His chapter sheds some much needed light on the Scopes trial. For example, did you know that the very textbook from which Scopes taught advocated eugenics and promoted racism? Indeed, it divided humanity into five races and ranked them in terms of superiority, concluding with the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America. This is the book Darwinists insist Scopes had a right to teach?
Next headline on: Darwinism
Does Evolution Evolve?
Whether evolvability is selectable has been a difficult question to answer, primarily because observations in evolutionary biology tend to be correlative in nature and difficult on which to make mechanistic conclusions. Therefore, we consider here the dynamics of evolvability in a well defined theoretical model of protein evolution. Within this model of protein structure and function, we have a fixed population of proteins, which we take to be 1,000. We have a microscopic selection criterion, which we take to be the folding and binding of a protein to a substrate. And we have a means of inducing constant, random environmental change.They claim the model shows that evolvability is a function of environmental change; the more dynamic the environment, the more evolvable the protein. This, they emphasize, is their important finding. Its kind of like physics:
An analogy with thermodynamics illuminates the issue: How is free energy minimized in a physical system of particles despite the difficulty in defining the entropy of a given configuration of the particles? An ensemble of particle configurations allows the definition of free energy and the approach to thermodynamic equilibrium just as a population of evolving organisms allows the definition of and selection for evolvability.They seem to be viewing individual organisms as molecules, and treating Darwinian selection as a force acting on the ensemble a form of group selection (see 05/31/2004 headline for opposing view). Is there any evidence in nature for their position? They point to a few possibilities:
Many observations within evolutionary biology, heretofore considered evolutionary happenstance or accidents, are explained by selection for evolvability. For example, the vertebrate immune system shows that the variable environment of antigens has provided selective pressure for the use of adaptable codons and low-fidelity polymerases during somatic hypermutation. A similar driving force for biased codon usage as a result of productively high mutation rates is observed in the hemagglutinin protein of influenza A. Selection for evolvability explains the prevalence of transposons among bacteria and recombination among higher organisms.Is this concept useful? The authors feel that therapeutics also confer selective pressure on the evolvability of pathogens, and that this driving force for antigenic drift should be considered in drug- and vaccine-design efforts.
The believe their model shows that The rates at which the various events within the hierarchy of evolutionary moves occur are not random or arbitrary but are selected by Darwinian evolution. Sensibly, rapid or extreme environmental change leads to selection for greater evolvability. This selection is not forbidden by causality and is strongest on the largest-scale moves within the mutational hierarchy.
One of their concluding statements summarizes their view into a pithy sound bite: Not only has life evolved, but life has evolved to evolve.
1David J. Earl and Michael W. Deem, Evolvability is a selectable trait, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0404656101.
It must get boring at the Darwin Party storytelling banquets (see 12/22/2003 commentary), so every once in awhile someone has to come up with a new plot to argue about. To these guys, proteins in a test tube are a microcosm of caribou in the tundra or humans in Manhattan. This paper might suggest a short story or novel on whether New Yorkers are evolving evolvability in response to terrorist attacks. If so, terrorism might be a good thing; it makes the species more adaptable to sudden change.Worms Didnt Evolve for 520 Million Years 08/03/2004
J.Y. Chen and team in China have found another Cambrian fossil that exhibits zero evolution for nearly the entire history of life. The abstract from the Royal Society Proceedings: Biological Sciences1 reports the discovery of three kinds of sipunculan worm near the base of the Cambrian, which all have striking similarities to modern sipunculans. These animals, also called peanut worms, have a sausage-shaped body with a slender retractable introvert and a wider trunk, and possess complex and distinctive features, both external (e.g. perioral crown of tentacles, and hooks, papillae and wrinkle rings on the body surface) and internal (U-shaped gut, and the anus opening near the introvert-trunk junction). (See Reefkeeping.com for photo and diagram). The discoverers conclude, This study suggests that most typical features of extant sipunculans have undergone only limited changes since the Early Cambrian, thus indicating a possible evolutionary stasis over the past 520 Myr [millions of years].
1Di-Ying Huang, Jun-Yuan Chen, Jean Vannier and J.I. Saiz Salinas, Early Cambrian sipunculan worms from southwest China, Royal Society Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Volume 271, Number 1549 - August 22, 2004, 1671 - 1676; ISSN: 0962-8452 (Paper) 1471-2954 (Online); DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2774.
Theres a pattern here, but you have to take off the Darwin glasses to see it. Darwin glasses cause an optical distortion of vertical parallel lines, making their bottoms appear to converge and connect. Hard-core Darwinists cannot see without their glasses on. When pressed to explain how parallel lines could meet, they invoke non-Euclidean biology across parallel universes (see 07/27/2004 headline). With their glasses on, its obvious anyway and in no need of explanation.Fish Evolved by Sunbathing 08/03/2004
A new slant on how the first land creatures evolved is found in New Scientist: sunbathing fish received more energy, and this made them better predators. In all seriousness, James Randerson writes,
Our distant fishy ancestors first hauled themselves on to land in order to warm up in the Sun. So claims a team that says basking would have provided an energy boost that made the fish more agile in the water, improving their chances of snaring prey. It was also an evolutionary milestone that heralded the rise of all land vertebrates, including us.Jennifer Clack, Ms. tetrapod evolution (see 08/09/2003 and 07/03/2002 headlines), is apparently a convert to this suggestion. Presumably the new fad of sun-worshipping started a land rush, and all the fish tried to get the best spots on the beach. Our ancestors were the ones that remembered to pack the umbrellas and sunscreen.
Does anyone need better evidence that Darwinism is not so much a scientific theory as the eternal quest for a good story? (See 12/22/2003 headline). The best candidates are those that lend themselves to cartoons by Johnny Hart and Gary Larson. How the destructive energy of raw sunlight was able to generate lungs and legs and other specialized organs for land habitation is inconsequential, as long as the plot has possibilities for visualization. Write here with your suggested caption:Editorial 08/03/2004
Rodney Stark (Baylor University) has written an article very critical of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and the other early promoters of evolution, and their modern counterparts, in American Enterprise Online. Stark claims that Darwin never proved his central thesis, the origin of species, and was well aware of the problems in his thesis even while he promoted it. It succeeded in spite of the problems because of propaganda tactics used by the early Darwinians. They used evolutionary theory to bolster their atheism by promoting the science vs. religion stereotype. The Huxley vs. Wilberforce debate in which Darwins bulldog Thomas Huxley supposedly trounced Wilberforce is also shown to be a myth. Yet it has served as a warmed-over symbol of scientific progress over obscurantism for over a hundred years, even though Wilberforces trenchant criticisms of Darwins theory had Darwin himself backpedaling on some of his views.
At the end of Starks editorial, there is a short interview with Freeman Dyson, who makes startling comments about the fine-tuning of the universe being almost miraculous. He reinforces his well-known quote, as we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known that we were coming. He denies that this was just a playful suggestion, and agrees it expresses religious sentiments.
Well worth reading; take a moment to check this one out. It unmasks the smear tactics of the Darwin Party, their attempts to silence the opposition, and the fear of insiders to cross them. Stark quotes Everett Olson who admits that there is a generally silent group of biologists who tend to disagree with much of the current thought about evolution, but who remain silent for fear of censure. If so, how long can that silence be enforced? If the occasion arose for them to feel free to speak their minds, would Darwinism be poised for a monumental collapse?Hire a Gopher to Rototill Your Land 08/02/2004
We may holler at them when they dig up our lawns and gardens, but pocket gophers are an important part of the ecosystem, say Jim Reichman and Eric Seabloom in a UC Santa Barbara press release. They change the nutrient availability for plants, among many things:
They act like little rototillers, loosening and aerating the soil. They loosen the soil and the speed at which plants decompose, causing higher production of plants, and they may be important to the biodiversity of plants. They definitely have an important effect.Its surprising anything would want to live underground, since it is costly; burrowing through the soil costs 360 to 3,400 times as much energy as walking the same distance on the surface. Nevertheless, they are well adapted for their role in the underground economy. Good eyesight is not important in their usual dark surroundings, but they compensate for this with other, well-developed senses, such as large whiskers, which are sensitive to movement and help them in dark tunnels. They have powerful claws and teeth for digging. They are vegetarian, or herbivores, surviving mostly on roots, the press release explains. Their diet of roots significantly impacts plants, but has an overall beneficial effect on the landscape:
Excavation behavior, which involves construction of long burrows by displacing soil into mounds on the surface, generates major impacts on the physical environment, said Reichman. These produce a complex mosaic of nutrients and soil conditions that results in vertical mixing (through burrow collapse and moving deep soil to the surface) and horizontal patchiness (in relation to the hollow burrows, refilled burrows, surrounding soil matrix and surface mounds).For these reasons, gophers are the ecosystem engineers of the landscape. The authors suggest that our attempts at cultivation and pest control has led to deterioration of the soil and detrimental impacts on native plants. Its another reason to allow restoration of native grasslands where possible.
A place for everything, and everything in its place in Gods country. Each player has the equipment and the skills to do its job. The payroll operates automatically, and the system as a whole enjoys the fringe benefits. The little rototillers seem to enjoy their way of life (including making humans stomp their feet).Our Solar System Is a Rare Gem 08/01/2004
As if in time for the upcoming film release of The Privileged Planet (see 06/24/2004 headline), Philip Ball wrote a line for Nature Science Update that would have dismayed Carl Sagan and a host of SETI researchers: Earth-like planets may be more rare than thought... In cosmic terms, our solar system could be special after all. The opinion is coming from research on extrasolar planets that suggests they were formed by a different process than what formed ours. If that is so, according to Martin Beer, our solar system may be highly unusual and there wont necessarily be lots of other Earths up there. Ball comments,
Ever since Copernicus displaced the Earth from the centre of the Universe, astronomers have tended to assume that there is nothing special about our place in the cosmos. But apparently our planetary system might not be so normal after all. Is it just chance that makes Jupiter different from other extrasolar planets? Beer and his colleagues suspect not.Ball suggests that our solar system was formed by accretion of planetesimals, whereas the extrasolar planets seen so far were formed by a rapid disk instability process. The observations show 110 Jupiter-class objects with wildly eccentric orbits or orbits too close to the star; in either case, rocky planets in the habitable zone could not exist. In contrast, our Jupiter is far from the sun, and both Earth and Jupiter have nearly circular orbits. More observations will be required to discern whether there really are two methods for making solar systems, and for determining how unusual we really are.
An article on Astrobiology Magazine makes a similar statement. On the evidence to date, our solar system could be fundamentally different from the majority of planetary systems around stars because it formed in a different way. If that is the case, Earth-like planets will be very rare. Space.Com has a similar report.
It was common for magazine and newspaper articles in the Sagan era to claim as matters of fact, We are nothing special, and to drone in weary prose set to timeless Vangelis music about how we are lost in space, drifting aimlessly on a tiny speck of insignificant dust in a vast, uncaring universe. The data so far are not supporting that point of view. Also, to set the record straight, Copernicus did not displace Earth from the center of the universe, because medieval cosmologists never put it there to begin with (see 06/24/2004 headline).