Darwinism is an exercise in creative bookkeeping for hiding that its explanatory debts far exceed its explanatory resources. Think of the No Free Lunch principle, therefore, as an auditors tool for scrutinizing Darwinisms inflated claims and showing its debts to be in default. Fortunately, as recent corporate debacles have taught us, creative bookkeeping can at best postpone but not avoid an official declaration of bankruptcy.
To send a link to one of our stories, use our permalink feature;
paste the push pin URL into your email or website.
Do Guppies Make Good Darwinian Grandmothers? 12/31/2005
Since guppies are livebearers that provide no postnatal maternal care, Reznick et al. predicted the populations would show no differences in postreproductive lifespan--which is what they found.The article then stated that whether postreproductive lifespan can be under selection at all is an open question. But then, it said that this new study helps gain an evolutionary perspective on such matters including how they relate to humans.
What kind of reasoning says, we predict there will be no evolutionary natural selection on a process, then uses the confirmation of the prediction as evidence for evolution? You cant have it both ways. The article stated an evolutionary principle: For natural selection to shape the twilight years, postreproductive females should contribute to the fitness of their offspring or relatives. Notice that word should. If natural selection is the be-all and end-all of existence, and if nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution, and if most biologists expected there to be a granny effect, then Reznicks study amounts to falsification. Grandparents everywhere should be relieved that another evolutionary principle has been falsified, because now their self-worth does not need to be tied to their tubes.A Foxhole Anthology: News from the CrEv Trenches 12/30/2005
If Judge Jones or the NCSE thought for a minute that the Dover ruling would bring an end to the ID wars, the news media should clear up any miscalculations. Here is a clearinghouse of recent headlines:
Bluffing words, commotion, posturing, strategizing, politicking, grandstanding... science, please? None of this matters, really; Darwinism has already been falsified (see next story). Since evolution has failed in a most spectacular way, we ought to be concerned not with war but with clean-up.Thermodynamics Defeats Evolution in a Most Spectacular Way 12/30/2005
The second law of thermodynamics (2TD), what Sir Arthur Eddington called the supreme law of nature, does not permit evolution, argued Granville Sewall in The American Spectator; in fact, evolution violates it in a most spectacular way. A mathematics professor at Texas A&M University, Sewall explained that 2TD applies to much more than heat flow; it applies to every real system. He defended the second law against the standard reply, the open system argument. Not anything can happen in an open system, he explained, not even with a Darwinian mechanism; otherwise, we would expect computers, spaceships, television sets and DNA to appear just with the energy of the sun.
Sewalls lay-level article was prompted by the wars over intelligent design. He adapted it from the appendix of a book he co-authored on The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations (see end of article for reference and link). The appendix, A second look at the second law, asked, Can ANYTHING happen in an open system? and is available online at Math.tamu.edu.
The venue may have been a conservative rag, but the author knows what he is talking about. Dr. Sewall is a mathematician and author with expertise in probability and the second law of thermodynamics. He is right; tell a Darwinist about 2TD, and you will get little more than an open system brush-off. This article pulls that rug out. No more simplistic open-system answers, Darwin Party: fess up, you cannot get brains from matter in motion, open system or not. Do the math. Face the real world. Just-so storytelling cannot help in the world of hard physical science. Its the ultimate Reality Check. No federal judge can help you now. What would you have him do: declare the second law of thermodynamics unconstitutional? Rule it inadmissable because of separation of church and state? Go ahead and try. Your opponents will just appeal it to the court of last resort: the real world.Evolutionary Arms Race Is Coevolution Relentless? 12/29/2005
Camellias and the weevils that attack their seeds seem locked in conflict. The thicker a camellia grows its protective woody covering around its seeds, the longer the feeding tube on some weevil to break through and devour. John R. Thompson talked about such coevolutionary arms races in Current Biology1 and asked whether such wars can go on forever, leading to increased exaggeration of traits.
The answer is, apparently, there are limits. Traits vary in a mosaic pattern across populations. Not all camellias are infested by beetles with the longest boring tools. As with any war, there are hotspots and coldspots. The dynamics of arms races seem to buffer both species against extremes.
Collectively, these studies suggest that coevolution is a pervasive process that continually reshapes interspecific interactions across broad geographic areas. And that has important implications for our understanding of the role of coevolution in fields ranging from epidemiology to conservation biology. Many diseases, for example malaria, vary geographically both in parasite virulence and host resistance, potentially creating regions of coevolutionary hotspots and coldspots. The spread of introduced species seems be creating new geographic mosaics of coevolution as some species become invasive and coevolve with native species in different ways in different regions or drive rapid evolution in native species, sometimes in less than a hundred years or so. The results for Japanese camellia and camellia weevils reinforce the developing view that interactions coevolve as a geographic mosaic across landscapes, and it is often difficult for one partner to get ahead of the other (or others) everywhere. (Emphasis added.)
1John R. Thompson, Coevolution: The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolutionary Arms Races, Current Biology, Volume 15, Issue 24, 24 December 2005, pages R992-R994, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2005.11.046.
This appears to provide more slippage on the evolutionary treadmill (see 03/17/2003 entry). Though the word evolution is involved, dont be confused; this has nothing to do with macroevolution, like bacteria evolving into people. Coevolution leads to exaggerated traits between two interacting species, like the beaks of hummingbirds and the flowers they pollinate. As with all other observed forms of microevolution, including Darwins famous finches, it involves the modification of existing traits not the origin of new ones.Echoes of Historic Supernovae Observed 12/29/2005
Astronomers using telescopes at the Cerro-Tololo observatory in Chile were able to detect the faint light echoes of supernovae (see EurekAlert, Space.com and original paper in Nature1). They found three light echoes for six of the smallest previously-catalogued supernova remnants (SNR) in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small irregular galaxy visible from the southern hemisphere. Assuming the shock wave moves out less than 10,000 km/sec, and calibrating against the echoes from the known 18-year old remnant of SN1987A, they estimated the ages of two of them at 410 and 610 years. They believe surveys could uncover many more, now that they know what to look for. The light echoes provide a method for fixing the ages of supernova remnants.
1Armin Rest et al., Light echoes from ancient supernovae in the Large Magellanic Cloud, Nature 438, 1132-1134 (22 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04365.
Its interesting that there are no supernova remnants claimed to be tens or hundreds of thousands of years old or older. One of the most distended SNR's in our galaxy, the Veil Nebula, is believed to be only 5,000 years old (see 02/16/2001). Even so, all things being equal, the light from such an event would be expected to take some 160,000 years to arrive at earth. Why are there no older remnants reported? Is the same true for novae? Here is a good research project for someone who likes to catalog things and think about their implications.Astronomers See Poison Around Star, Think Life 12/29/2005
The Spitzer Space Telescope discovered acetylene and hydrogen cyanide, two deadly gases, around a star. Some astronomers got all excited and thought of the birth of life. The title of a press release from Jet Propulsion Laboratory read, Partial ingredients for DNA and protein found around star. The two carbon-containing substances were found in the dust disk of star IRS 46 in Ophiucus by the Spitzer infrared instrument. This was the only one of 100 similar stars that contained the signature of these molecules in its surrounding disk. The press release explained the significance:
Here on Earth, the molecules are believed to have arrived billions of years ago, possibly via comets or comet dust that rained down from the sky. Acetylene and hydrogen cyanide link up together in the presence of water to form some of the chemical units of lifes most essential compounds, DNA and protein. These chemical units are several of the 20 amino acids that make up protein and one of the four chemical bases that make up DNA.The implication is that this star might be in the beginning stages of a chemical evolution process, assumed to be similar to what they believe led to life on earth. Another team member explained, This infant system might look a lot like ours did billions of years ago, before life arose on Earth.
Evolutionists and astrobiologists like to call anyone who questions their views people of faith. You have just seen one of their stories use the words believed, thought to be, possibly and might. OK students, what are the observations? 100 stars with dust disks, and only one with two poisonous substances in their spectra. Another observation is that these substances, if mixed on earth in a test tube by intelligent chemists, who have provided an appropriate surface in the presence of water, at the right temperature and concentration, will form some amino acids and one purine that is part of one DNA base. Does the word life jump out of these observations? If not, where is your faith?Bombardier of the Sea 12/28/2005
Creationists have made much of the bombardier beetle (#1, #2) whose firing chambers would explode if the timing and mixture of ingredients did not work perfectly together. Now, here is a similar case in the lowly sea slug. EurekAlert described research by Georgia State University scientists, who found that the sea slug Aplysia mixes three inert ingredients to produce a sticky secretion, dyed purple, for defense:
Aplysia packages these innocuous precursors separately and then releases them simultaneously into its mantle cavity at the precise time when they are needed, explained [Charles] Derby. This mechanism insures the secretions potency against attacking predators to enable sea slugs to escape. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)The secretion seems to contain a healing compound. The antimicrobial property probably evolved to work against predators, said Derby. But it might also function as an antimicrobial salve for Aplysias own wounds.
The evolutionary mythoid contributes nothing of substance to this story. On grounds of intellectual honesty and scientific integrity, we need to call Darwinists on the carpet for simply claiming evolution blindly made irreducibly complex systems without telling us how. This is more of the BAD strategy (bluffing assertions of dogmatism) that lets Darwinians escape while secreting a sticky dyed goo that obscures understanding.Historic Scopes Trial Photos Uncovered 12/28/2005
Dozens of photos of the 1925 Scopes Trial, never before published, were uncovered in Smithsonian archives by independent historian Marcel C. LaFollette, reported Science News.1 One photo shows the famous scene of Clarence Darrow interrogating William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand; another shows a close up of John Scopes. LaFollette is writing a new book on the Scopes Trial based on the photographs. They were taken by Watson Davis, managing editor at the time of Science Service, the publisher of what is now Science News.
The article by Ivars Peterson states that Science Service was a help to Darrow and was helped by the trial in fact, the trial launched it to prominence:
The Scopes trial was important to Science Service financially. Newspapers paid for articles from the trial, and these funds helped support the struggling organization.
1Ivars Peterson, Archival Science: Rediscovered photos provide a look inside the 1925 Scopes evolution trial, Science News, Week of Dec. 24, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 26/27 , p. 408.
Its important to know about the Scopes Trial because so much political hay was made out of it. The hay machine grinds on to this day. Maybe Science Service provided the eminent rhetorician Dudley Field Malone (see loaded words in the Baloney Detector), or the scholarly scientist Maynard Metcalf (see equivocation), or the logician Horatio Hockett Newman (see either-or fallacy). Maybe Watson Davis helped provide boilerplate for The New Republic (see fear-mongering). The reporting about evolution in Science News hasnt changed much. In this same issue, Bruce Bower, in an attempt at being funny, wrote a scathing satire against intelligent design, so biased and full of his own hot air it is not even remotely credible or amusing.Abortion Pill Can Kill 12/28/2005
An ugly secret has come out of the abortion drug mifepristone known as RU486. It can kill normal, healthy women, and its approval by the FDA involved procedural violations that overlooked known safety concerns at the time. Source: Annals of Pharmacotherapy news release (see also EurekAlert). The research paper by Margaret M. Gary, MD and Donna J. Harrison, MD1 examined 607 cases from the FDAs Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS):
RESULTS: The most frequent AERs were hemorrhage (n = 237) and infection (66). Hemorrhages included 1 fatal, 42 life threatening, and 168 serious cases; 68 required transfusions. Infections included 7 cases of septic shock (3 fatal, 4 life threatening) and 43 cases requiring parenteral antibiotics. Surgical interventions were required in 513 cases (235 emergent, 278 nonemergent). Emergent cases included 17 ectopic pregnancies (11 ruptured). Second trimester viability was documented in 22 cases (9 lost to follow-up, 13 documented fetal outcome). Of the 13 documented cases, 9 were terminated without comment on fetal morphology, 1 was enrolled in fetal registry, and 3 fetuses were diagnosed with serious malformations, suggesting a malformation rate of 23%.The authors suggest these may be just the tip of the iceberg due to reluctance of institutions to report adverse effects. They concluded, AERs relied upon by the FDA to monitor mifepristones postmarketing safety are grossly deficient due to extremely poor quality.
1Margaret M Gary and Donna J Harrison, Analysis of Severe Adverse Events Related to the Use of Mifepristone as an Abortifacient, The Annals of Pharmacotherapy, Published Online, 27 December 2005, www.theannals.com, DOI 10.1345/aph.1G481.
The power of advocacy to trump ethics and safety has been seen in this case and in the recent stem cell flap. How many anxious women have been reassured by abortion providers that RU486 is a safe and private way to end an unwanted pregnancy? Why have not these reports caused the FDA to pull this dangerous drug from the market? When desire runs science, watch out. That would never happen with a materialist wanting to remove God from science now, would it?Health from Unlikely Sources: Poison and Scum 12/27/2005
Everything in moderation, health professionals remind us during the holidays. Some things, however, none of us would have wanted at all till scientists found there was treasure in them.
Botulinum toxin (botox), for instance, is one of the deadliest of biological poisons, but by now everyone knows it is being put to good use in cosmetic surgery. A news release on EurekAlert announced that botox is useful for more than just ironing wrinkles. In addition to treating excessive sweating or reducing skin wrinkles, it is also a highly effective natural substance that normalizes muscle activity and can be used to reduce pain and itch. Doctors keep finding new uses for botox at both ends of the digestive tract.
Another article on EurekAlert announced a promising substance in pond scum that might lead to a treatment for Alzheimers disease. A substance in Nostoc, a cyanobacterium, shows potent activity as a cholinesterase inhibitor. If so, it might help slow the degradation of mental and memory functions in those suffering from the degenerative disease.
Science should not only help us understand the natural world, but find ways to improve the human condition. Sir Francis Bacon echoed Jesus teaching that a tree is known by its fruit. A good science will produce good fruit: in the case of science, increased health and prosperity for humans in ways that improve the environment (compare with the fruit of Darwinism: see 11/30/2005). We should look at the world like a treasure hunt, the way George Washington Carver did. Things that seem dangerous, ugly or boring sometimes prove to contain hidden treasures.How Blind Cave Fish Lose Color 12/26/2005
A study on cave fish revealed that several populations can have mutations to the same gene. A gene that produces melanin, named Oca2, was found to be mutated in two separate populations of cave fish, resulting in albinism. This same gene can produce albinism in humans.
The replicated experiment is a powerful tool for experimental science, but typically unavailable in the study of evolution. Cave adaptations have evolved in many species independently, however, and each cave species can be considered a replicate of the same evolutionary experiment that asks how species change in perpetual darkness. A frequent outcome is that the species lose pigmentation or become albino. Cavefish, therefore, are a rich source for the examination of the evolutionary process. (Emphasis added.)It was surprising to the multidisciplinary team why this gene, and not others that can also produce albinism, was implicated. One possibility, suggested by the researchers, is that it is a large gene presenting a big target for mutations, and it seems to have no other functions besides helping to make melanin, the press release on EurekAlert states. Therefore, it doesnt diminish other aspects of fitness when it is mutated.
Here is a situation where evolutionary theory is compatible with intelligent design or creationism. Its not a case of evolution in the sense of new functional information being added; its a case of function being lost. How this loss of information affects an organism is interesting, and it is worthwhile question to ask why two cave fish populations would get the same mutation to the same gene. If one assumes that the fish began with fully-operational Oca2 genes (as in creation/design), then it follows that a reproducing population of fish with mutations in that gene will lead to a population of albinos, if the benefit of having color no longer matters in the cave environment. This is downward evolution, not upward evolution. The story differs from the just-so storytelling of Darwinian theory, because we have plenty of empirical evidence that mutations lead to loss of function, but no evidence that mutations can produce new function. Darwinists try to call this evolution (in the sense of change over time), but it doesnt do anything to help Charlies story that fish evolved from pre-fish, or ultimately, from one-celled organisms. Creationists could just as well study loss mutations to investigate the extent of genetic load (deterioration) over time since the original perfect creation; convergent devolution, therefore, is non-controversial, but convergent evolution is what lacks empirical support.How Apemen Learned to Give Christmas Presents 12/25/2005
For your Christmas amusement, some scientists think they have solved the evolution of gift giving. In an announcement on EurekAlert called Why we give: New study finds evidence of generosity among our early human ancestors, the introduction states, A groundbreaking new study examines the origins of holiday giving and finds that our early human ancestors were frequently altruistic. How could Michael Gurvin (UC Santa Barbara) figure this out, without human ancestors to observe or ask? For his paper in the upcoming Feb. 2006 edition of Current Anthropology, he studied food exchanges in two small-scale, non-market societies a classic context for understanding the evolution of conditional cooperation in humans. He found that altruism is costly without some kind of payback, but he also found that close kin and neighbors unable to produce much food sometimes receive more than they give.
On the media front, the Science Channel has been airing a series called The Rise of Man during Christmas week. Producers seem to be getting more bold with skin. One episode showed tribes of completely nude Homo erectus humans in various stages of increasing enlightenment (these are played by actors, you know, with some creative facial makeup, but otherwise anatomically correct human bodies). Another showed a newly-evolved Homo sapiens tribe watching the effects of lightning in fear and awe. A delirious female falls to the ground in some kind of trance, jerking and babbling uncontrollably as the others look on with stupefied expressions. The narrator explains: and thus begins a new chapter in the rise of human consciousness: religion.
Cavorting in the wilderness with incomprehensible grunts how did it come to this. (Were not talking about the actors in The Rise of Man; were describing figuratively the evolutionary anthropologists.)Evolution of the Christmas Tree: Firs Tie Oaks in Fitness Race 12/24/2005
In the struggle for existence, the conifers should have lost, because when angiosperms appeared, they had fancier valve jobs. Thats the feeling of a story introduced by Elizabeth Pennisi on Science Now. Those of us who celebrate Christmas tend to take fir and spruce trees for granted around the holiday season, she quipped, But without a special modification that allows these trees to efficiently transport water, we might be hanging our ornaments on a ficus instead, according to a new study. She explained:
In order for photosynthesis to occur, tall trees must supply their uppermost leaves with water, which is pulled up from the roots by evaporation. Angiosperms such as oaks and willows accomplish this using a series of centimeters-long, tube-shaped cellular pipes. Tiny valves made of cellulose membranes connect each pipe and help keep air bubbles out. Christmas trees and other conifers have much shorter pipe cells, however, and therefore must use many more valves than angiosperms. This should create more resistance and make it harder for them to transport water. But they dont have any trouble at all, says John Sperry, a plant biologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)Sperrys team measured water flow in 18 conifers, including bald cypress, junipers and redwoods, and compared results with 29 species of angiosperms. There was no essential difference. Conifers hoisted the water with equal ease, despite the shorter pipe cells. How do they do it?
The reason, says [Jarmila] Pittermann, has to do with key differences in the valves. Angiosperm valves are simple membranes full of miniscule pores. In conifers, the valves consist of a circle of impermeable tissue surrounded by porous tissue. The conifers pores are 100 times larger than those in angiosperms and allow water to pass through relatively easily. This efficiency more than makes up for the additional valves on the way to the tree top, Pittermann says.The researchers said that this helps scientists understand water transport in wood. But the work also points to how conifers, which predate angiosperms and are often considered primitive, were able to survive once angiosperms populated Earth, Pennisi explains. Without these very special cells, one biologist claimed there wouldnt be any conifers anymore presumably because they could not compete against the angiosperms. The work was published in Science.1 In the paper, the authors did not explain how or when the unique structure of the conifer valve evolved. They just said that without the adaptation, angiosperms would have a 38-fold advantage in water transport:
The superior hydraulics of the conifer pit are crucial for minimizing sapwood resistivity. If conifer tracheids had the pit resistance of angiosperms, their sapwood resistivity would increase by 38-fold.... This, added to the narrow diameter range of tracheids, would make it much more difficult for conifers to compete effectively with angiosperms.
1Pitterman et al., Torus-Margo Pits Help Conifers Compete with Angiosperms, Science, 23 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5756, p. 1924 | DOI: 10.1126/science.1120479.
What did evolution have to do with this story, really? Did it contribute anything of value, even an ornament to hang on the tree? The results were not what evolutionists expected. Conifers ruled the Jurassic forests, then along come angiosperms with superior plumbing, and there should have been no contest. Those old, primitive conifers should have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and our Christmas trees would look very different. Sweep away the Darwinian mythology, and what remains? Two well-designed, highly successful groups of plants. They may have different ways of lifting water, but so what? From a design perspective, it would be just as productive a research program to find reasons for the difference. Clearly the conifers are doing well. The tallest trees in the world are conifers (see 04/22/2004). Conifers seem to do even better than angiosperms in many locations, such as at timberline, where they survive numbing cold storms and snow without even having to drop their needles. Nobody told them they were at a disadvantage against the new trees on the block.Dover Fallout Is Radio Active 12/23/2005
Reaction in the media from Judge Jones stinging decision against intelligent design (ID) in the Pennsylvania case Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District has been rapid and varied. Evolutionists are overjoyed at this Christmas present the judge delivered, a dirty bomb they hope will put ID out of business, but the other side claims the damage is minimal and the debate goes on. Here are some samples:
Can we all remember that Judge Jones is just one man? His complete buy-in to the ACLU side, and complete rejection of all the pro-ID testimony, shows he is a sadly biased man at that. Isnt it just like liberal leftists to look to unelected judges to get their power. In no way does this decision reflect the amount of strong support ID is getting all over the country, and even other nations. If a vote were taken by most American parents of high school students, Charlie would be put out on a one-way ship to Christmas Island, along with his blood brother the Grinch.Mars Water Evidence Evaporates 12/23/2005
The strongest evidence for water from the Mars rovers has been called into question. Scientists from the University of Colorado at Boulder believe that the observations of sulfates and concretions are better explained by fumaroles in volcanic ash deposits (see also EurekAlert). Their paper in Nature1 explains that the model means high temperatures: Consequently, the model invokes an environment considerably less favourable for biological activity on Mars than previously proposed interpretations. Another paper in the same issue of Nature2 by scientists from University of Arizona and Los Alamos proposes rapid turbulent flows caused by meteor impacts produced the deposits, not periods of long-standing water as was previously assumed. The report by Robert Roy Britt on Space.com included a response from Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers. He said he always contended that the water was primarily underground, but thought that alternative views are good for science. The rovers, by the way, both celebrated their One Martian Year Anniversary recently (about twice as long as an Earth year). Both rovers are still going strong (see JPL press release). Opportunity recovered from a shoulder injury not long ago. Engineers were able to get the robotic arm working again. The MER Website has posted some more special effects images in which the rovers are placed into the scene. This one of Opportunity on Burns Cliff would make a nice Christmas stocking stuffer.
In other Mars news, the first results of the MARSIS instrument (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding) on the European orbiter Mars Express were published in Science.3 The radar instrument can penetrate the surface for up to a kilometer. Researchers found an underground impact basin 250 kilometers in diameter, and probed the northern polar ice deposits in this first-ever survey of the 3rd dimension of Mars.
1McCollom and Hynek, A volcanic environment for bedrock diagenesis at Meridiani Planum on Mars, Nature 438, 1129-1131 (22 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04390.
2Knauth, Burt and Wohletz, Impact origin of sediments at the Opportunity landing site on Mars, Nature 438, 1123-1128 (22 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04383.
3Picardi et al., Radar Soundings of the Subsurface of Mars, Science, 23 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5756, pp. 1925 - 1928, DOI: 10.1126/science.1122165.
Remember the optimistic claims that Opportunity had found evidence for long-lasting surface water? Remember how the astrobiologists immediately jumped to the conclusion that Mars probably had good conditions for life? (Theyre still doing it; see the 11/29 JPL press release). It was interesting to hear that the concretions or blueberries that seemed to clinch the argument for water have another explanation; they are apparently expected in an impact scenario, when a meteorite strike causes a short-term flood or base surge that can travel hundreds of kilometers from the impact site. It may be possible that the H2O on Mars is subsurface ice that might liquefy during an impact event, only to freeze or vaporize quickly afterward. Whatever they eventually decide, Mars doesnt have to be lively to be interesting.Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week 12/22/2005
Two Elizabeths Culotta and Pennisi get the award for evolutionary bravado for their piece in Science.1 They were trumpeting the magazines award of Breakthrough of the Year to Evolution in Action, a series of findings that ostensibly help us understand how evolution works. Whether the particular breakthroughs (the chimp genome, a study on chickadees that seems to support sympatric speciation, and studies of microbial resistance to antibiotics) actually supported belief in the common ancestry of all organisms (macroevolution), it didnt seem to quell their enthusiasm in the slightest:
The big breakthrough, of course, was the one Charles Darwin made a century and a half ago. By recognizing how natural selection shapes the diversity of life, he transformed how biologists view the world. But like all pivotal discoveries, Darwins was a beginning. In the years since the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species, thousands of researchers have sketched lifes transitions and explored aspects of evolution Darwin never knew.They didnt seem to pay much attention to the fact that the geneticists and paleontologists were having a little difficulty in the same issue of the journal (see next entry). Nor did they pay any notice to the worldwide controversy over Charles Darwin and his theories. Editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy did notice, however, as he defended the award:2
Wait a minute, I hear you cry. Hasnt it been a trying year for evolution, considering the debates about teaching evolutionary theory in science classes in the United States and the headlines about Intelligent Design? On the contrary; in the research community, its been a great year for understanding how evolution works, through both experiment and theory. No single discovery makes the case by itself; after all, the challenge of understanding evolution makes multiple demands: How can we integrate genetics with patterns of inherited change? How do new species arise in nature? What can the new science of comparative genomics tell us about change over time? We have to put the pieces together, and it could not be a more important challenge: As the evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.One might wonder, then, what scientists are seeing in the dark. Didnt Darwin himself promise light was coming 146 years ago to shed on most of these same questions? Kennedy pointed to his favorite example of the new light: a case of microevolution in stickleback fish. The findings, however meager, are not as important as the process, Kennedy explained: The exciting thing about evolution, he said, is not that our understanding is perfect or complete but that it is the foundation stone for the rest of biology. Other foundation can no man lay than that which has been laid, apparently. Maybe, though, even intelligent design has a role to play like the building inspector (see quote at top right of this page). Kennedy claimed, Genes that are now known to exert complex effects on body form at the macro level answer the commonly stated objection that complex structures could not have evolved from simpler precursors. And so it goes: Scientific challenges are raised, inviting answers. Hard to disagree with that, but who gets to judge the validity of the answers, if not the challengers?
Other news outlets were quick to pick up on the Breakthrough of the Year story: MSNBC, San Diego Union-Tribune, the Independent and the BBC News, for instance. Readers are free to comb these articles for contenders for the SEQOTW award.
1Culotta and Pennisi, Breakthrough of the Year: Evolution in Action, Science, 23 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5756, pp. 1878 - 1879, DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5756.1878.
2Donald Kennedy, Editorial: Breakthrough of the Year, Science, 23 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5756, p. 1869, DOI: 10.1126/science.1123757.
Pennisi ought to know better; she has reported on many an evolutionary crisis (e.g., 12/14/2004, 08/06/2004, 06/13/2003). To hear these two reporters cackling like spring chickens over a scrambled Darwin egg is pathetic. None of the breakthroughs listed bear any real support to the central claim of Darwin that all species descended from a single common ancestor in the dim, unrepeatable past. Kennedy acknowledged that scientific challenges have been raised by intelligent design proponents, and that they invite answers, but look who gets to judge the answers. Its like the kid getting to grade his own paper, or the defendant getting to play judge and jury, or the corporate boss getting to set his own salary and benefits. Its even worse than that. The Darwinists not only control the answers; they usually control the questions. They even control the language and the definitions of words. Small wonder that Charlie gets another medal.Cambrian Explosion Still Troubling to Evolutionists 12/22/2005
Despite Darwinian efforts to muffle it or spread it into a diffuse rumble, the Cambrian explosion (the near-sudden emergence of most animal body plans in the fossil record) was loud and snappy. A new phylogenetic study by Antonis Rokas (MIT), Dirk Krüger, and Sean B. Carroll (U of Wisconsin), published in Science this week,1 could not rid the models of rapid evolution across diverse clades, what they call radiations compressed in time. Their new broad study of gene sequences reached the same verdict as the fossil record. Their technical terms, translated into plain English, mean that the Cambrian explosion was real:
The phylogenetic relationships among most metazoan phyla remain uncertain. We obtained large numbers of gene sequences from metazoans, including key understudied taxa. Despite the amount of data and breadth of taxa analyzed, relationships among most metazoan phyla remained unresolved. In contrast, the same genes robustly resolved phylogenetic relationships within a major clade of Fungi of approximately the same age as the Metazoa. The differences in resolution within the two kingdoms suggest that the early history of metazoans was a radiation compressed in time, a finding that is in agreement with paleontological inferences. Furthermore, simulation analyses as well as studies of other radiations in deep time indicate that, given adequate sequence data, the lack of resolution in phylogenetic trees is a signature of closely spaced series of cladogenetic events. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)Three other scientists commenting on the story in the same issue of Science2 tried to find ways around the study but were not too successful. Is the big bang in animal evolution real? they asked. Maybe it can be circumvented with more data, or with different analytical methods. In light of these concerns, are the conclusions of Rokas et al. justified? Should we ignore their study? Most certainly not, because they have produced a wealth of data and have shown that it might just be possible that the fossil record can be reconciled with molecular data. The resolution, however, was left in future tense (with emphasis on tense).
Rokas et al. did not seem so optimistic. A press release from University of Wisconsin underscored Carrolls conclusion that the animal family tree is looking bushy in places. There were frenetic bursts of evolution he said. Despite their efforts to resolve the record, instead of a tree, we got a bush where many branches sprout close together. He said it was hard to distinguish evolutionary events, even with boatloads of data. Rokas found a way to put a positive spin on it. The difficulty we are facing in telling animal relationships apart is evolutions signature that some very interesting evolutionary stuff happened here, he chuckled.
1Antonis Rokas, Dirk Krüger, Sean B. Carroll, Animal Evolution and the Molecular Signature of Radiations Compressed in Time, Science, 23 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5756, pp. 1933 - 1938, DOI: 10.1126/science.1116759.
2Lars S. Jermiin, Leon Poladian, Michael A. Charleston, Evolution: Is the Big Bang in Animal Evolution Real?, Science, 23 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5756, pp. 1910 - 1911, DOI: 10.1126/science.1122440.
Very interesting evolutionary stuff, indeed (but only to a demolition expert). The Darwin Party knows that critics hammer the point that the Cambrian explosion falsifies evolutionary theory. Oh, how the Darwinists would love to get around it! These two papers and the news article show that they cannot. Look at the bars on their timeline, representing the data: they stack nearly on top of one another. To the left are fictional, imaginary dashed lines connecting them into a phylogenetic tree, with absolutely no data, fossil or genetic, to support the inference. Should they be depriving students of these embarrassing findings? Most textbooks glibly state that evolution is a fact, and the fossil record proves it. This is a snow job if there ever was one. Demand accountability.How to Overcome Student Objections to Evolution 12/21/2005
Biology teachers face increasing difficulty from students coming into class with bad feelings about evolution (11/30/2005, 08/30/2005). Many pro-evolution teachers will be attracted to methods that have a demonstrable track record of relieving tensions and facilitating the process of getting students to accept Darwins theory. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton U, NY) has just the thing. Writing in PLoS Biology,1 he introduced Evolution for Everyone, or EvoS for short, with the upbeat title, Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution (compare 11/01/2005 entry about another suggested method) First, the bad news that made this initiative necessary:
Evolution is famously controversial, despite being as well established as any scientific theory. Most people are familiar with the dismal statistics, showing how a large fraction of Americans at all educational levels do not accept the theory of evolution, how efforts to teach evolution often fail to have an impact, and how constant vigilance is required to keep evolution in the public school curriculum. Even worse, most people who do accept the theory of evolution dont relate it to matters of importance in their own lives. There appear to be two walls of resistance, one denying the theory altogether and the other denying its relevance to human affairs. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)Wilson impresses the reader right off the bat with statistics from tests of the EvoS method at Binghamton University, showing a pronounced shift toward acceptance of evolution among students, regardless of religious background, familiarity with the theory, or political persuasion. How did he do it? Wilson describes the multi-pronged approach as focusing on teaching a sequence of ideas and helping students catch the evolution bug. From the long article, a few highlights stand out.
For one thing, EvoS does not shy away from controversy, but embraces it as a teaching opportunity. When students feel threatened by evolution, for instance, the teacher delves right in. Threatening ideas are like other threats, Wilson says; the first impulse is to run away or attack them. Make the same ideas alluring, and our first impulse is to embrace them and make them our own. OK, so while the teacher is trying to explain how evolution explains the world and helps provide ways to improve the future, a student objects that evolution has produced a lot of bad social policies. Now what? Dont dodge the question:
This requires a discussion of past threatening associations, even before the theory is presented. Evolution has been associated with immorality, determinism, and social policies ranging from eugenics to genocide. It has been used to justify racism and sexism. All of these negative associations must be first acknowledged and then challenged. Its not as if the world was a nice place before Darwin and then became mean on the basis of his theory. Before Darwin, religious and other justifications were used to commit the same acts, as when the American colonists used the principle of divine right to dispossess Native Americans, and men claimed that women were designed by God and Nature for domestic servitude. These beliefs are patently self-serving and it should surprise no one that an authoritative scientific theory would be pressed into the same kind of service. It is the job of intellectuals to see through such arguments and not be taken in by them. Moreover, the deep philosophical issues associated with topics such as morality, determinism, and social equality are increasingly being approached from a modern evolutionary perspective and are among the topics to be discussed in the course. When these issues are discussed at the beginning of the course, students put their own threatening associations with evolution on hold and become curious to know how a subject that they associate with science (evolution) can shed light on a subject that they associate with the humanities (philosophy). Students who indicate exceptional interest are referred to books that are both authoritative and accessible, such as Daniel Dennetts Darwins Dangerous Idea.Wilson teaches evolution not as a choice between theology or materialism, but a third way: a process of change, in which the material organism becomes a kind of living clay that can be molded by environmental forces that influence survival and reproduction. This, he explains, enables evolutionary theory to make predictions about how organisms and populations adapt to their surroundings.
Wilson encourages discussion groups. As another example of facing a controversial topic head-on, he divides students into groups to discuss infanticide:
Choosing the subject of infanticide, I say that superficially it might seem that organisms would never evolve to kill their own offspring, but with a little thought the students might be able to identify situations in which infanticide is biologically adaptive for the parents. I ask them to form small groups by turning to their neighbors to discuss the subject for five minutes and to list their predictions on a piece of paper.Lest one think this is just talking about birds and bees, Wilson makes it clear that a key feature of EvoS is encouraging students to see human beings as integrally involved in the evolutionary process:
One of the biggest tactical errors in teaching evolution is to avoid discussing humans or to restrict discussion to remote topics such as human origins. The question of how we arose from the apes is fascinating and important, but is only one of any number of questions that can be asked about humans from an evolutionary perspectiveincluding infanticide. If evolutionary theory can make sense of this subject for organisms as diverse as plants, insects, and mammals, what about us? If we operate by different rules than all other creatures for this and other subjects, why should this be so? The most common answer to this question is learning and culture, but what exactly are these things? Do they exist apart from evolution, or do they themselves need to be explained from an evolutionary perspective? I raise these issues early in the course, not to answer them, but to emphasize how much is on the table as part of the course.Wilson says that for millennia, people have considered humankind categorically different from other creatures in their mental, moral and aesthetic abilities. We are obviously unique in some respects, he acknowledges, but in exactly what way needs to be completely rethought. Students are encouraged to view human infanticide along the same lines as they did for animals, and to do the same for human warfare, learning, and culture all of which the teacher can demonstrate are present in varying degrees in the natural world.
Such directness might seem worrisome to a biology teacher. Wilson reassures the reader that, in practice, the method actually produces compliant students:
It might seem that boldly discussing subjects such as human infanticide (which the students quickly connect to the contemporary issue of abortion), along with other topics such as sex differences and homosexuality later in the course, is the ultimate in political incorrectness. However, I have taught this material for many years in prior courses without a single complaint, and the assessment of Evolution for Everyone demonstrates an overwhelmingly positive response across the religious and political spectrum. Clearly, there is a way to proceed that arouses intense interest without animosity or moral outrage. In the case of infanticide, evolutionary theory doesnt say that its rightit is used to make an informed guess about when it occurs. All of the students want to know if the guess proves to be correct for humans in addition to other creatures, regardless of their moral stance on abortion. Moreover, they see that the information can be useful for addressing the problem, whatever particular solution they have in mind. The importance of culture is not denied, but becomes part of the evolutionary framework rather than a vaguely articulated alternative. The picture that emerges makes sense of cases of infanticide that appear periodically in the news (typically young women with few resources and under the influence of a male partner who is not the father) and that previously seemed inexplicable. Nearly everyone values this kind of understanding and thinks that it can be put to positive use, as demonstrated by the quantitative assessment. More generally, including humans along with the rest of life vastly increases students interest in evolution and acceptance to the degree that it seems to lead to understanding and improvement of the human condition.Wilson continues; evolutionary changes are not always adaptive, nor are they always benign. Fitness is a relative and local concept, he explains. It doesnt matter how well an organism survives and reproduces, only that it does so better than other organisms in its vicinity. Overall, the teacher presents evolution as practical for explaining the observations without making any moral judgments. But then, what about morality? Thats part of our evolution, too, as more group discussion helps the students realize:
If behaviors regarded as immoral in human terms are adaptive and natural, then arent all the fears about evolution justified? Nobecause behaviors that are regarded as moral in human terms are also adaptive and natural under the right circumstances, which can be illustrated with the following exercise of the sort suggested by Nelson and Alters. First, the class is asked to list the behaviors that they associate with morality. The most common items include altruism, honesty, love, charity, sacrifice, loyalty, bravery, and so on. Then they are asked to list behaviors that they associate with immorality, and respond with opposite items such as selfishness, deceit, hatred, miserliness, and cowardice. With these lists in mind, the students are asked three questions: (1) What would happen if you put a single moral individual and a single immoral individual together on a desert island? (The students quickly conclude that the moral individual would become shark food within days.) (2) What would happen if you put a group of moral individuals on one island and a group of immoral individuals on another island? (The students are equally quick to conclude that the moral group would work together to escape the island or turn it into a little utopia, while the immoral group would self-destruct.) (3) What would happen if you allow one immoral individual to paddle over to Virtue Island? (The answer to this question is complex because it is a messy combination of the straightforward answers to the first two questions.)The students learn, then, that situational ethics pop right out of evolutionary theory. This exercise is simple and entertaining, he says, but profound in its implications. It shows that most of the traits associated with human morality can be biologically adaptive. Students are assured that a quasi-traditional morality, including altruism and honesty (except for the occasional freeloader or non-cooperator) is a natural consequence of natural selection within groups. Alas, the teacher must admit that group selection can lead to a disturbing corollary. Cant behaviors that count as moral within groups be used for immoral purposes among groups? The answer to this question is yes, which means that moral conduct among groups is a different and more difficult evolutionary problem to solve than moral conduct within groups. By this time, students understand that scientists should one day be able to figure this out by such a useful, predictive theory as natural selection.
The important point is that evolutionary theory can potentially explain the evolution of behaviors associated with morality and immorality. This is vastly different than the usual portrayal of evolution as a theory that explains immorality but leaves morality unaccounted for. The average student is well aware that immoral behaviors usually benefit the actor, that human groups have a disturbing tendency to confine moral conduct to their own members, and so on. When evolutionary theory is presented as a framework for understanding these patterns in all their complexity, including the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly, it is perceived as a tool for understanding that can be used for positive ends, rather than as a threat.So you see, students, evolutionary theory should not be threatening. Its just a tool, a neutral way of looking at the natural world (including ourselves), so that we can explain a wide variety of observations that before Darwin seemed inexplicable. Its time to get into the heavy stuff:
At this point (about mid-semester), the students are told that they have acquired a conceptual framework that can be used to study virtually any subject in biology and human affairs, which will be used to study particular topics for the rest of the semester. There is great flexibility in the topics that can be chosen, which is facilitated by having the students read, rather than a textbook, well-chosen articles from the primary scientific literature.(It can be safely assumed that Wilson does not have in mind sources like Of Pandas and People). The enlightened student is now ready to think about Darwinian medicine, and topics as diverse as violence, sexuality, personality, and culture to see what insights evolutionary thinking can provide. They realize that they have started to approach the study of humans in the way that evolutionary biologists approach the rest of life, with a common language that can be spoken across many domains of knowledge. They have arrived.
One more thing: the student gets to choose his or her own topic and write it up in evolutionary terms. Suggestions: adoption, alcoholism, attractiveness, body piercing, depression, eating disorders, fashion, fear, hand dominance, homosexuality, marriage, play, sexual jealousy, sibling rivalry, social roles, suicide, video games, and yawning. As Dobzhansky famously remarked, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.
To summarize, Evolution for Everyone works by establishing a general conceptual framework through a sequence of ideas. The framework is then strengthened and consolidated by applying it to a number of specific topics. Virtually all students respond to the class because they cease to be threatened by evolutionary theory and begin to perceive it as a powerful way to understand and improve the world. Once the theory becomes alluring, the only remaining obstacle to learning is the intrinsic difficulty of the subject. That, it turns out, is not much of an obstacle either. Almost anyone can master the basic principles of evolution and incorporate them into their own thinking, providing both a foundation and an incentive to advance their knowledge in subsequent courses.Speaking of subsequent courses, Wilson is thinking way outside the box of high school or college biology. First, he encourages students who have caught the evolution bug to spread their newfound interests into a campus-wide program. The anthropology, psychology, economics and philosophy departments, with help from the administration, can all merge their evolutionary ideas into a cohesive picture, transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries. Special seminars can be held. Students can earn special EvoS certificates by completing required courses. Faculty advisors can counsel each student to develop a curriculum tailored to his or her interests from the menu of offerings.
One last obstacle: other faculty. Though most of them already ridicule creationism, Wilson contends that most of them dont yet see the relevance of evolution to their disciplines. His plan, therefore, includes faculty training as well as student training, so that the university becomes a single intellectual community.
In many ways, this type of experience approaches the ideal of a liberal arts education. It should be especially appealing to small colleges that have difficulty achieving a critical mass in single subject areas. Evolutionary theory is not the only common language, but it is a very good one that will eventually become part of the normal discourse for all subject areas relevant to human affairs and the natural world.Thats Evolution for Everyone one big, happy campus.
1David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution, Public Library of Science, Biology, Volume 3 | Issue 12 | December 2005.
In James Clavells chilling tale The Childrens Story, (a must read before continuing this commentary), the New Teacher comes to class after the conquest (presumably a communist takeover). She takes a frightened group of children and calms them into becoming compliant, trusting citizens. In just 23 minutes, she has gently and effectively dismantled their patriotism, their faith, their family loyalty and their most cherished beliefs before they even know what hit them. A well-trained, master manipulator, she is not a teacher: she is a facilitator, a guarantor of compliance with the new regime, an electrician who has cut off power from the resistance. She is just as much an arm of the State as the soldier on the battlefield, and perhaps even more effective. This is not education. It is indoctrination with finesse.Judge Rules ID Unconstitutional 12/20/2005
Judge John E. Jones III gave his ruling on the Dover school board case in favor of the plaintiffs, as expected. His wording against the board was strident, even accusing them of lying about their religious motives for including intelligent design (ID) as an alternative to evolution. He spoke of the breathtaking inanity of the school boards policy, and claimed the citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID policy that required a statement be read by school administrators in biology classes disclaiming evolution as a fact and mentioning an alternative text that would be available for interested students. We conclude that the religious nature of ID would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child, the judge said. MSNBC News reported:
Jones blasted the disclaimer, saying it singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, misrepresents its status in the scientific community, causes students to doubt its validity without scientific justification, presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resource and instructs students to forgo scientific inquiry in the public school classroom and instead to seek out religious instruction elsewhere. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)(See also LiveScience.) Judge Jones clearly embraced all the arguments of the plaintiffs and their witnesses, lawyers and scientists, and accepted none of those on the other side. He tried to pre-empt claims that his ruling would be viewed as the product of an activist judge by claiming the only activists were the members of the Dover school board. Bill OReilly on Fox News didnt hesitate to accuse him of being an activist judge, shaking his head in disbelief at the ruling, as did his guest Judge Napolitano: now, just mentioning the idea of a designer in a public school class, without specifying anything about said designer, without requiring any testing or assignments on it, but just informing students that an alternative theory exists, is unconstitutional. The Fox News segment mentioned that Jones is a Republican appointed by President Bush. It also noted that Jones added insult to injury by forcing the defendants to pay all the plaintiffs legal bills, probably astronomical, a move which will likely have a chilling effect on other school boards wanting to test the waters on intelligent design. It is also unlikely this ruling will be appealed, since the board members who instituted the policy were voted out of office in last months election (11/09/2005). That also means the ruling will remain limited to the central Pennsylvania district where the trial occurred.
The Discovery Institute was quick to respond, calling the ruling a futile attempt to censor science education. Articles by Jonathan Witt and John West soon followed; the very one-sided ruling is bound to generate a great deal of polarized commentary. Access Research Network found it surprising that the ruling not only prohibited offering ID as an alternative to evolution, but even made it unconstitutional to criticize evolution in any way: To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the ruling stated, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. Leaders in the ID movement see the Dover trial as a poor test case that will probably not be the last.
See also the Fox News report and a commentary on it by Tom Magnuson at Access Research Network.
Given the nature of the case, a ruling in favor of the board would have been surprising. But Jones went overboard; his ruling is so full of bluster and emotion, it sounds like another bluffing shout before the dying gasp of the materialists wanting to maintain their stranglehold on education and to police student brains against entertaining doubts about the authority of Pope Charlie, a shriek by the wicked witch threatening death to her captives before the water of scientific evidence makes her melt away. Undoubtedly Jones did not want to soil his reputation among the scientific elitists. Now he can continue to party with his liberal friends without them calling him the judge that destroyed science. He may have rescued his reputation for the short term, but in the long term of history, his ruling may well be cited as the epitome of activism, of judicial meddling in science and philosophy.Undersea Christmas Lights Explained 12/19/2005
There is a marine animal like a jellyfish that puts on one of the most dazzling light shows in nature. Some ctenophores, or comb jellies, can send multi-colored pulses of light that radiate down their sides in a rainbow of colors. If youve ever seen one of these on a TV nature show, you were probably stunned and asked, How does it do that? Three scientists from Oxford and Paris were intrigued by the spectacular iridescence of these comb jellies and decided to find out. The first thing they found out was that nobody had ever explained it before.
Their investigation, published in Current Biology,1 concluded that the effect is part photochemical and part structural. The animals have rows of specialized cilia associated with light-producing (bioluminescent) organs. The cilia are arranged in precise formations such that they act as photonic crystals that can concentrate particular wavelengths of light (this mechanism also operates in bird feathers and butterfly wings; see 11/18/2005). The color seen by an observer depends on the angle of the photonic crystals along the line of sight. As the cilia beat in synchronized patterns down the sides, this angle changes, causing the colors to change in wavy patterns down their sides. The result is a dazzling undersea light show:
Our results show that the observed colouration of the ctenophore Beroë cucumis can be explained by the structure described, which operates as a photonic crystal. This is the first time a photonic crystal composed of cilia has been reported. The parallelogrammatic cilial packing is also new: the two-dimensional photonic crystals previously described have had hexagonally, squarely or rectangularly packed components.Since ctenophores lack eyes, the scientists figure these function as a deterrent to predators. The researchers hope by learning about the design of these light-producing structures, inventors might find useful applications: A photonic crystal is a rare type of colour-producing structure, they said, composed of a regularly repeating structure with dimensions a fraction of the wavelength of light, complex optical properties and large commercial potential.
1Welch, Vigneron and Parker, The cause of colouration in the ctenophore Beroë cucumis, Current Biology, Volume 15, Issue 24, 24 December 2005, Pages R985-R986.
Watch for these on the next undersea nature program on TV; the light show truly is spectacular as the authors describe it (click here for an image gallery, but to be fully appreciated, the lights must be seen in action). Ctenophore lighting is another useless wonder of nature that appears to be overkill simply for evading predators. The world is a vast treasure chest of ingenious solutions to physical problems that challenge our own intelligence to understand. Approaching these phenomena from a design perspective not only helps explain them, but also leads to what Francis Bacon called experimenta fructifera, fruitful experiments that can improve our lives. For more thoughts by William Dembski on intelligent design and biomimetics, particularly regarding the Vorticella spring (12/13/2005), see Uncommon Descent.Choose You This Day: Multiverse or I.D. 12/18/2005
If Leonard Susskind is right, cosmologists are escaping the conclusion of intelligent design (ID) by backing into a radically speculative idea: a near infinity of universes. Susskind, a theoretical physicist from Stanford, just published a book, Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (Little, Brown 2005), that explores current cosmological thinking about the Anthropic Principle the observation that the constants of physics in our universe appear finely tuned to make stars, planets and life possible. Susskind was interviewed by Amanda Gefter in New Scientist.
Susskind spoke as if he and other cosmologists have been forced into the concept of a multiverse (multitude of universes, of which our entire universe is just one sample) because the fine-tuning problem wont go away. Try as they might, physicists cannot come up with a theory that explains why the constants are the way they are. All they know is that, were they different, life would be impossible in our universe. Initially, string theory seemed to allow for a million possible vacuum states that would have determined the type of universe that emerged. That was not enough, Susskind thought; getting one life-giving universe out of a million was still too improbable. When two physicists upped the number of vacuum states to 10500, Susskind became a believer. Out of that many universes, surely some would have the anthropic conditions for life. We notice ours does, because were in it. Intelligent design could remain just an illusion, therefore, because uncountable numbers of other universes exist with random values for the physical constants.
When Susskind started sharing this idea, The initial reaction was very hostile, but over the past couple of years people are taking it more seriously, he said. They are worried that it might be true. Cosmologist Stephen Weinberg considers it one of the great sea changes in fundamental science since Einstein, a radical change that alters the nature of science itself.
In a way it is very radical but in another way it isnt. The great ambition of physicists like myself was to explain why the laws of nature are just what they are. Why is the proton just about 1800 times heavier than the electron? Why do neutrinos exist? The great hope was that some deep mathematical principle would determine all the constants of nature, like Newtons constant. But it seems increasingly likely that the constants of nature are more like the temperature of the Earth properties of our local environment that vary from place to place. Like the temperature, many of the constants have to be just so if intelligent life is to exist. So we live where life is possible. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)Susskind remarked that the conclusion of a vast ensemble of universes came as a disappointment to many physicists. He himself finds the idea that reality might be vaster than we ever imagined exciting. It doesnt destroy the hope for a grand unified theory, he claims; now, the challenge is not to explain just our universe, but the entire array of all possible universes. Unfortunately, another disappointment is the realization there appears to be no principle of natural selection among the universes that would favor the life-giving types. There is no evidence for this view, he admitted; Even most of the hard-core adherents to the uniqueness view admit that it looks bad. Furthermore, Susskind is unconvinced by appeals to exotic forms of life that might exist without worlds; in my heart of hearts, he said with resignation, I just dont believe that life could exist in the interior of a star, for instance, or in a black hole.
Susskind denied that belief in a multiverse will bring on the Popperazzi those who follow Karl Poppers teaching that an idea must be falsifiable to be scientific. His reason? Undetectable universes are no more metaphysical than claiming our universe is homogeneous, including the parts beyond our observational horizon. He even suggested ways to test it, such as looking for evidence of negative curvature that might suggest our universe tunneled from one vacuum state to another.
Last, Gefter asked him if we are stuck with intelligent design if we do not accept his landscape hypothesis.
I doubt that physicists will see it that way. If, for some unforeseen reason, the landscape turns out to be inconsistent maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of natures fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.A blogger named David Heddle on HeLives.com, with reformed views of a nuclear physicist, found Susskinds remarks in this interview profoundly unsatisfying; To save materialism, he quipped, Susskind argues that we must explain this fine-tuning, and his landscape has the best chance of playing the role of a white knight.
George Ellis (U of Cape Town) also reviewed the book for Nature last week.1 He quipped about how physicists used to deal with real, observable stuff; Nowadays things have changed, he said. A phalanx of heavyweight physicists and cosmologists are claiming to prove the existence of other expanding universe domains even though there is no chance of observing them, nor any possibility of testing their supposed nature except in the most tenuous, indirect way. Ellis confirms that Susskind argues for the multiverse because of the anthropic issue: the apparent miracles of physics and cosmology that make our existence possible. The only way out was to posit a large enough set of random combinations of universes such that the incredibly special conditions for life to exist will inevitably occur somewhere in the multiverse. It follows, then, that The apparent design of conditions favourable to life in our own universe domain can therefore be explained in a naturalistic way.
What does Ellis think about this argument? He is uncomfortable that it is neither testable nor predicted from well-established physics. It is also a vacuous answer: if all possibilities exist somewhere in the multiverse, as some claim, then it can explain any observations, whatever they are. Ellis finds the test that Susskind proposes only partially in its favor, but even then, the data are not exactly supportive. He finds this a symptom of some present-day cosmology, where faith in theory tends to trump evidence. He also disparages the use of infinities with gay abandon and the use of the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics for support, an unproven and totally profligate viewpoint that many find difficult to take seriously. Speaking of faith, Ellis waxes philosophical on the subject even theological gently chiding Susskind for lack of scientific rigor:
As a philosophical proposal, the multiverse idea is interesting and has considerable merit. The challenge facing cosmologists now is how to put on a sound basis the attempts to push science beyond the boundary where verification is possible and what label to attach to the resultant theories. Physicists indulging in this kind of speculation sometimes denigrate philosophers of science, but they themselves do not yet have rigorous criteria to offer for proof of physical existence. This is what is needed to make this area solid science, rather than speculation. Until then, the multiverse situation seems to fit St Pauls description: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. In this case, it is faith that enormous extrapolations from tested physics are correct; hope that correct hints as to the way things really are have been identified from all the possibilities, and that the present marginal evidence to the contrary will go away. This book gives a great overview of this important terrain, as seen from an enthusiasts viewpoint.
1George Ellis, Physics aint what it used to be, Nature 438, 739-740 (8 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/438739a.
Read this as a stunning defeat by the materialists and a victory for intelligent design. In a debate, when your opponents only retreat is to espouse an absurd position, you know you are winning. Like bugs scrambling for cover when a rotting log is lifted, the materialists are avoiding the light of intelligent design at all costs. They call to speculative mountains and rocks, saying, Fall on us, and hide us from the design inference, for the light of fine-tuning has come, and who is able to stand?Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week 12/17/2005
This weeks entry comes from an article by Richard Robinson, a freelance science writer, on the origin of life. It was printed last month in PLoS Biology (see next headline). It is a prime illustration of the assumption on the part of many evolutionists that Darwins theory of natural selection is omnipotent:
Beginning with a single cell, Darwinian evolution provides a simple, robust, and powerful algorithm for deriving all the astonishing richness of life, from bacteria to brains. Natural selection and other evolutionary forces, acting on surplus populations of replicating cells and multicellular organisms, lead inevitably to evolution and adaptation. Give biologists a cell, and theyll give you the world. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)
1Richard Robinson, Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks, Public Library of Science, Biology, Vol 3, issue 11, Nov 2005, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030396.
Evolution is not an algorithm. Evolution is not a force. Evolution is not inevitable. Evolution cannot deliver the world. That being understood, we will grant Richard a little slack for telling a funny joke right before this quote:Dont PNA in our OOL 12/17/2005A physicist, a chemist, and a mathematician are stranded on a desert isle, when a can of food washes up on the beach. The three starving scientists suggest, in turn, how to open the can and ease their hunger. The physicist suggests they hurl it upon the rocks to split it open, but this fails. The chemist proposes they soak it in the sea and let the salt water eat away at the metal; again, no luck. They turn in desperation to the mathematician, who begins, Assume we have a can opener....The purpose of the joke was to show that origin-of-life scientists need a cell to get their story started. Give biologists a cell, and theyll give you the world, he said. But beyond assuming the first cell must have somehow come into existence, how do biologists explain its emergence from the prebiotic world four billion years ago? And thats the subject of our next headline, below.
Evolutionary theories for the origin of life (OOL) are in a bit of a crisis, unable to imagine how something as complex as a replicating cell (the necessary unit for Darwinian natural selection) could come into existence. Richard Robinson, a freelance science writer, surveyed the scene in PLoS Biology,1 and agreed: The short answer is that they cant, yet. The word yet hinted that hope remains: But this question may be a little closer to being answered as new money enters the field, and two new discoveries provide support for two competing models of prebiotic evolution.
The two competing models are the genetics first model, that a replicating molecule bearing genetic information arose first, and the metabolism first model, that a metabolic cycle emerged that was later co-opted by information-bearing molecules. Well examine the two new discoveries he spoke of shortly.
Robinson brought his readers up-to-date on the history of origin of life studies in a lighthearted manner. He pointed out that funding is a big issue among researchers in the field. He surveyed the Miller experiment (05/02/2003) and subsequent milestones from the 1950s to the present day, quoting Harold Morowitz (George Mason U) that The initial Miller experiment was earth-shaking, even though Morowitz himself discounts its relevance today, since in subsequent years researchers realized the initial conditions were wrong. Robinson discussed the leading RNA World scenario (11/01/2002, 07/11/2002), but acknowledged that assuming RNA would emerge is like the assume a can opener joke (see prior commentary). Some have suggested a simpler polymer, like peptide nucleic acid (PNA), preceded RNA:
The case for PNA is weak, though. While modern cells still bear traces of a catalytic RNA world within them, there is absolutely nothing that I know of to suggest there is evidence for PNA or other such molecules in present cells,says [Leslie] Orgel [Salk Institute]. If they ever contributed to the development of life, all traces of their existence appear to have been wiped clean. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)Apparently there was no PNA in the OOL, in other words. Robinson also discussed the problem of chirality, that is, how life selected only one hand out of mirror-image molecules (see online book). Robinson paid particular attention to the hypothesis by Michael Russell (12/03/2004) and William Martin that life began as a self-perpetuating chemical cycle in minerals around hydrothermal vents, but acknowledged again that this model also depends on RNA. Amidst the bad news, Robinson announced two recent discoveries he thinks provide new hope for the two competing theories.
1Richard Robinson, Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks, Public Library of Science, Biology, Vol 3, issue 11, Nov 2005, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030396.
Evolutionary OOL is a faith ministry, funded by charitable contributions from the federal government. It survives purely on hope hope that somehow, somewhere, scientists may find the holy grail of a purely naturalistic origin of life. Evolutionists often chide creationists for believing in a God of the gaps attributing to divine action what science has not yet explained. Yet here we see a naturalism of the gaps, as philosopher of science J. P. Moreland (Biola) quips. Putting God in a gap such as the origin of life by attributing it to design, he says, is justifiable when the gaps have been getting wider for a long time. The design inference is not a mere God-of-the-gaps retreat, he also argues, because there is positive evidence for design, not just lack of evidence for a natural explanation. Evolutionists lack both of these qualifiers for dealing with gaps. They cannot coax intractable molecules to fill in a gap that molecules do not naturally wish to fill, and there is no evidence nor requirement that chance and natural law could, would or should fill it.Creation-Evolution Controversy in the News 12/16/2005
Darwin, Genesis, Paul Mirecki, disclaimer stickers, Kansas and intelligent design continue to be searchable keywords in news reporting about science education.
Were still waiting for substantive arguments on why students should be taught that humans have bacteria ancestors. Pro-evolution reporters seem to get worked up over politics, definitions, motives, implications, religion, and authority. How about a little scientific evidence?Were Dinosaurs Cold-Blooded? 12/16/2005
A paper in Science1 shows that at least one dinosaur species came in large and small forms. Martin Sander and Nicole Klein studied fibrolammelar bone on plateosaurs (a heavy two-legged dinosaur with an elephant-like body and long neck), and found that the growth rates were poorly correlated with body size. Some plateosaurs were full-grown at five meters, others at twice as big. It suggests that the creatures were dependent on environmental factors for warmth. This calls into question the conventional wisdom, held for 20 years, that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, because most warm-blooded creatures grow steadily to their adult size (see the BBC News and National Geographic News).
This find also suggests that the earliest dinosaurs were not the two-legged fast-running kind, but the four-legged, lumbering kind. Sander calls this a paradigm shift: The idea that it [the earliest dinosaur] walked on two legs has been pretty much dogma for the last 20 years.
The paper also calls into question some assumptions about dinosaur evolution. Since the common reptilian ancestor of the dinosaurs, and their closest relatives, the pterosaurs, or flying reptiles, was believed to have been warm-blooded, the BBC News article states, the [University of] Bonn discovery could throw ideas about their evolution into disarray. To salvage the idea of warm-blooded dinosaurs, some are seriously suggesting warm-bloodedness evolved multiple times: My hunch right now is that maybe there was repeated evolution of warm-bloodedness, Martin Sander told BBC News. If so, warm-bloodedness was not inherited from a common ancestor.
Carolyn Gramling, commenting on this paper in the same issue of Science,2 quoted Thomas Holtz (U of Maryland) remarking about how little we still know about early dinosaur evolution. There has been the tendency to infer that features found in all advanced dinosaurs were found in all of their ancestors, he said. This emphasizes the importance of tree-based thinking. We have to look at as many branches of the evolutionary tree to get as big a picture as possible.
1P. Martin Sander and Nicole Klein, Developmental Plasticity in the Life History of a Prosauropod Dinosaur, Science 16 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5755, pp. 1800 - 1802, DOI: 10.1126/science.1120125.
For more on tree-thinking, see the 11/14/2005 story. Tree thinking is an escape into the briar patch (11/26/2005) where Darwinists can hide from scrutiny within the tangled web of varying interpretations.Stem Cell Achievement a Possible Fraud 12/16/2005
South Korean stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang has reason for stress and fatigue, as news reports show him escorted by bodyguards on the way to the office. His landmark paper in Science1 last July that announced the creation of stem cells matching the donors DNA (05/23/2005) has been called into question on two fronts. On the scientific front, the claims are being questioned by colleagues. On the ethical front, critics say he covered up the fact that females in his lab were pressured to donate egg cells.
Science this week2 reported that his as-yet unreplicated results inspired a global ramp-up in stem cell efforts last summer. A co-worker accused Hwang of pressuring a lab worker to forge evidence. Hwang stands by his work (see BBC), but is requesting a retraction of the paper. He has resigned from the World Stem Cell Hub.  Other sources for this story: Nature,3 MSNBC News, BBC News, Town Hall 12/15, Town Hall 12/16.
The clash of ethics with science continued on other fronts as well. The Salk Institute embedded human brain cells into mice, reported Live Science; (see 03/10/2005). On the issue of abortion, researchers from University of Oslo in Norway found that mental distress from an abortion lasts for years (source: EurekAlert).
Update 12/23/2005: LiveScience reported Dec. 23 that Hwang also resigned from his post as professor at Seoul National University after allegations he fabricated his research on stem cells became stronger. By the end of the month, news reporters were declaring his entire study fraudulent.
1Woo Suk Hwang et al., Patient-Specific Embryonic Stem Cells Derived from Human SCNT Blastocysts, Science, 17 June 2005: Vol. 308. no. 5729, pp. 1777 - 1783, DOI: 10.1126/science.1112286.
2Dennis Normile and Gretchen Vogel, News of the Week: Korean University Will Investigate Cloning Paper, Science, 16 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5755, pp. 1748 - 1749, DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5755.1748.
3David Cyranoski, TV tests call into question cloners stem-cell success, Nature 438, 718 (8 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/438718b.
Many have warned that science devoid of ethical standards could generate fraud and abuse (07/11/2005, 02/11/2005, 02/08/2005, 11/03/2004, 10/21/2004, 10/18/2004). With the highest values in science tending toward prestige, prizes and money, these could represent just the beginning of sorrows.Darwin Descendent Enters Narnia 12/15/2005
Did you know that one of the great-great-great-grandsons of Charles Darwin plays the part of bad-boy Edmund in the new Chronicles of Narnia movie? After difficulty finding an appropriate person to play the part, Director Andrew Adamson saw a picture of Skandar Keynes and said, I think its Edmund and signed him up. Keynes gave a few snippets about his life to USA Today. His father Randal Keynes helped make possible a special screening of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe at the Galapagos Conservation Trust in London, with profits to go toward conservation of the islands the teen actors ancestor made famous. Skandar Keynes and other celebrities will attend the showing.
If you have not seen this film, by all means go. It is outstanding. This anecdote about Keynes is interesting for its symbolic value. Darwin is an icon of materialism, C. S. Lewis of Biblical Christianity. Of all the characters in the movie for a Darwin descendent to play, it must strike many as fitting that he acted the part of the disobedient, selfish-centered, unethical Edmund. But look how Edmund turned out after experiencing the bitter fruit of his sin, and after watching the Christ figure, Aslan the noble lion, take the punishment he deserved. Let this anecdote be a reminder to pray for the redemption of the materialists.Planet Out of Bounds 12/14/2005
Theres a small planetary object where it shouldnt be. New Scientist reported the discovery of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) with a high inclination of 47° and a nearly circular orbit. Astronomers cant figure out how it got there. Its too far out to have been flung by Neptune into such a strange orbit. They have nicknamed it Buffy, the theory slayer.
Theories are fun, till data get in the way. One planetary science professor years ago was heard to say that astronomers usually get stuck at some point in their models of solar system formation, and have to invoke some kind of miracle to continue on and wind up with the real worlds.One-Celled Organisms Spring Generates Enormous Forces 12/13/2005
The pioneering Dutch microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek marveled at the miniature animalcules he witnessed darting through the water and spinning like a top. One such marvelous protozoan was Vorticella. The way it rapidly contracted and expanded on its little stalk must have reminded Leeuwenhoek of a spring. It turns out, it is a spring a remarkable motorized spring made of molecules that generates enormous forces, according to a report on EurekAlert. In fact, this little spring sets the speed and power record for cellular nanomachines.
Researchers presenting their findings at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology likened the spring to a stretched telephone cord that recoils rapidly so rapidly, in fact, that size for size, it outperforms human muscles and car engines. The secret is a bundle of contractile fibers called the spasmoneme running through the center of the stalk. The researchers looked under the hood and found a calcium-fueled engine that uses spasmin, a protein in the centrin family. The exact mechanism of this engine is poorly understood, but scientists hope that by learning about it they can some day build nanomolecular machines of exquisite power and efficiency.
For a stark illustration of the unbelievable schizophrenia of todays biologists, read this story marveling at the design and complexity of this little machine, just one of thousands being discovered in the simplest and smallest of organisms and then go to the ASCB Public Policy website where the society encourages its members to sign petitions, write letters and in every way possible fight the idea of intelligent design.Marine Unicorn Tusk is a Precision Sensor 12/13/2005
Unicorns exist in the north sea. Not horses, these are marine mammals, called narwhals, a kind of whale that sports a unique spiraling tooth that gives them the appearance of a unicorn. Scientists have puzzled for centuries over what these tusks are for. Leading theories were that males used them for joisting to defend territory, or they were artifacts of sexual selection. Now, scientists from Harvard School of Dental Medicine under Martin Nweeia think they have solved the mystery. The tusk is lined with ten million tiny nerve connections that give this unusual tooth an extremely sensitive probe into the temperature, salinity and pressure of the icy water in which they live. With the proteinaceous membrane on the outer surface connected to the nerves inside, it acts as an antenna of sorts, guiding the animals to their prey in the deep water or sensing the environment at the surface.
The tooth on males can be up to nine feet long, yet is resistant to breakage. It grows in a spiral pattern straight out without curving, as with elephant tusks. No other mammal has a tooth anything like it; the press release states, there is no comparison in nature and certainly none more unique in tooth form, expression, and functional adaptation. Tooth scientists are interested in learning how the narwhal tooth remains both strong and flexible (it can bend a foot without breaking), for possible applications in restorative dental materials. See also the reports on LiveScience, National Geographic News, and Science Daily. Narwhals have also been seeing rubbing one anothers tusks for perhaps some pleasurable or social purpose humans cannot imagine.
No missing links. Functionally useful. Optimally designed. The truth about the tooth required discounting evolutionary stories and going into the Arctic to study these animals and their structures up close, to determine their design. Chalk up another study that assumed there was a purpose beyond the just-so stories, and did good scientific work to uncover it. Now we can all be amazed a little more.Micro-RNAs are Cells Optimizers 12/12/2005
Unnoticed next to the main ingredients, microRNAs were considered to be junk DNA, leftovers from millions of years of evolution. That line comes from an article on EurekAlert telling about how dramatically that picture has changed. RNA molecules are now seen to be indispensable, with many roles in the cell. This article talked about how a certain microRNA has a fail-safe role in development, preventing birth defects. Researchers at the University of Florida found microRNA that acts as protective mechanisms in healthy development not just by strategically turning off gene activity, but by making sure it stays turned off. This is one way a hindlimb is prevented from turning on genes that are only supposed to be expressed in the forelimb.
Another article on EurekAlert claimed that RNAs have shaped the evolution of the majority of mammalian genes, but the connection to macroevolution is obscure. What scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research found is that most genes have microRNAs that regulate them. These RNAs dont just switch them on and off; they finely-tune the expression, to help cells achieve the optimum levels of proteins for the tissues that need them. Many of these microRNAs are evolutionarily conserved (i.e., unevolved) from animals as different as humans and chickens. One researcher noted, Our genomes have good reason to maintain the microRNA targeting sites necessary for turning down these genes at the appropriate place and time.
We really didnt need any of the references to evolution. Those evolutionists who are desperately trying to understand the origin of life have tremendous headaches with RNA. While the RNA World is the most popular speculation about how life got started, getting from carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus to RNA is a big hurdle (07/11/2002) No plausible prebiotic soup experiment has been able to produce RNA: not the phosphates, not the ribose sugars, not the bases. Furthermore, no soup of chemicals puts them together into nucleotides the links on the RNA strand. And furthermore, even if the soup got lucky and made a nucleotide, there is no known natural mechanism for linking them together into RNA polymers, to say nothing of getting them all one-handed, and in a sequence that could accomplish anything (except self-destruct with the next UV ray or lightning bolt). OOL researchers look at RNA and DROOL (Darwinist Rambling about Origin Of Life). Notice how evolutionary thinking about evolutionary junk hindered real understanding of what these molecules were there for. Therefore, the field belongs to those who see optimized, interrelated complexity functioning with high fidelity and reason, that is well-designed.Does Big Science Know What Science Is? 12/11/2005
How well do the leaders of the worlds major scientific institutions understand the nature of science? This rather audacious question is occasioned by recent statements by scientific leaders that might raise the eyebrows of some philosophers of science.
No serious philosopher of science denies the benefits wrought by medicine, physics, chemistry and biology; after all, science took us to the moon. But Science is one of those troublesome nouns that seems to convey too little by standing for too much, said philosopher Daniel J. Robinson in a lecture on philosophy of science.1 A philosopher with a deep respect for science, Robinson nonetheless went on to illustrate widespread disagreement among the worlds foremost philosophers of science as to just what it is, and how science can be distinguished from non-science. Though few would see trouble classifying physics and chemistry as sciences, what about economics, political science, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and what earlier generations referred to as moral science? Because of its many achievements, the word science has taken on an aura of honor and authority that can be misconstrued, as with the cults of Christian Science, Science of Mind, and Scientology. Yet the need for precise definitions and criteria are often overlooked by practicing scientists. Without clarity, using a broad-brush term like science can obscure rather than enlighten a discussion.
Much of the controversy over the status of Intelligent Design (ID) revolves around the definition of science. This came to the forefront in the Kansas school board decision to change the definition from natural explanations for phenomena (05/18/2005) to explanations for natural phenomena (11/08/2005) To many evolutionists, this was a sneaky way for creationists to open the door for supernatural explanations in science. Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences now at UC San Francisco, underscored that point of contention forcefully in a commentary in Cell about science education that he gave the alarming title, A Wakeup Call for Science Faculty.2
We have recently received a wakeup call. A new survey finds that two-thirds of Americans agree with some of our political leaders that intelligent design theory should be taught as an alternative scientific explanation of biological evolution. What does this mean? According to intelligent design theory, supernatural forces acting over time have intervened to shape the macromolecules in cells, thereby forming them into the elegant protein machines that drive a cells biochemistry (Alberts, 1998). In other words, at least from time to time, living things fail to obey the normal laws of physics and chemistry. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)The 1998 reference was to his earlier paper in Cell titled, The cell as a collection of protein machines: preparing the next generation of molecular biologists, in which Alberts said, the entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines (01/09/2002). This quote got him into some trouble because it has been widely quoted by intelligent design proponents. Clearly, Alberts and other evolutionary biologists do not dispute the existence of biological machinery that looks designed; the question is whether these natural objects can have natural explanations. The quotation above also begs the question whether intelligence (the explanatory agent in intelligent design) necessarily denotes a supernatural force, or to what extent intervention can be natural, unnatural, or supernatural.
Natural, too, is one of those words with multiple meanings, depending on the context. Intellectual historian Alan Charles Kors demonstrated this point by listing several ways the word nature has been used historically in science and philosophy.3 Most scientists assume that nature refers to anything empirically observed: anything not supernatural is natural, in this view. But nature can also mean a statistical norm: i.e., the usual action or behavior of something: for instance, it is natural for parents to care for their children. Natural in this sense can have moral content and is not necessarily the opposite of supernaturalism. Finally, his notes state, we can understand nature as essence (that which distinguishes the creature from all other things). For example, when humans use their distinguishing faculty called reason to interact with the world, that behavior can be called natural; failing to use reason would certainly not be considered supernatural, but rather unnatural.
That raises additional questions. Does reason qualify as a natural phenomenon? If it is subsumed under the laws of chemistry and physics alone, is it really reason? Or does the observation of unnatural things fall within the realm of science? Scientists can quickly fall into traps when trying to define science and natural too narrowly. They might rule existing scientific studies, like abnormal psychology (11/13/2005), out of court, or even deny the validity of their own conclusions. Yet the black-and-white meanings sufficed for Alberts to rule out intelligent design by definition. Having summarily dispensed with ID, he appealed to emotional arguments to suggest that only evolutionary biology can cure cancer:
Teaching intelligent design theory in science class would demand nothing less than a complete change in the definition of science. This definition would give those of us who are scientists an easy out for the difficult problems we are trying to solve in our research. For example, why spend a lifetime, constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry, trying to obtain a deep understanding of how cells accumulate mutations and become cancerous if one can postulate a supernatural step for part of the process? Yet we can be certain that, without the deep understanding that will eventually come from insisting on natural explanations, many powerful cancer therapies will be missed.This argument, however, also begs the question whether physical and chemical laws fully explain biological behavior, such as how cells accumulate mutations and become cancerous. With computers, by analogy, it is clear that the silicon, plastic, glass and metal are natural (empirically observable) objects subject to the laws of chemistry and physics drop a computer from a height, and it will fall at 32 feet per second per second and obey the second law of thermodynamics yet an important part of the nature of the computer, its essence as a device to run intelligently-designed software, would be overlooked. Knowing the physics and chemistry of the hardware would not help debug the software.
In biology, mathematically-precise laws are hard to come by. The Harvard Law states cynically, Given precise conditions of heat, pressure and temperature, the organism does what it darn well pleases. Physics and biology are both classed as sciences, but the latter envies the elegant and deterministic equations of the former. Even Mendels equations of inheritance and the Hardy-Weinberg Law are statistical in nature, with many exceptions. The attempt to formalize evolutionary theory with mathematical rigor is fraught with problems and anomalies (see 10/26/2005, 10/01/2005, 08/19/2005). Conversely, modern theoretical physicists delve into questions not amenable to observation, like string theory and multiverses, and even write elegant equations about conceptual frameworks that might be dubbed supernatural (because they lack empirical verification even in principle). To Alberts, however, more dogmatic assertions and emotional appeals suffice to restate the obvious, provided the words science and natural are left undefined:
The idea that intelligent design theory could be part of science is preposterous. It is of course only by insisting on finding natural causes for everything observed in nature that science has been able to make such striking advances over the past 500 years. There is absolutely no reason to think that we should give up this fundamental principle of science now. Two-thirds of Americans might seem to have no real idea of what science is, nor why it has been so uniquely successful in unraveling the truth about the natural world. As I write, the Kansas State Board of Education has just changed the definition of science in revisions to the Kansas State Science Standards to one that does not include natural explanations for natural phenomena. What more proof do we need for the massive failure of our past teaching of biology, physics, chemistry, and earth sciences at high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States?Sparing Dr. Alberts the additional challenge of defining the words truth and reason, it seems premature to expect readers of Cell to charge out on his proposed crusade without knowing where they are going. He called on scientists to completely redesign our undergraduate introductory science courses, so that all students come into direct contact with science as inquiry and are forced to develop their own understanding of what science is, and what it is not. Alberts praised the approach of teaching science as inquiry, which stresses the finding answers rather than memorizing rote facts. This will be the demise of Intelligent Design, he assures: It is through the careful analysis of why intelligent design is not science that students can perhaps best come to appreciate the nature of science itself. This seems to do little more than reinforce definitions: we define science in such a way that intelligent design is not science, and that explains the nature of science i.e., the only alternative, methodological naturalism. The reason why inquiry should be restricted to natural causes, furthermore, he failed to make clear.
Throughout 2005, other leaders of large scientific institutions, such as Lord May of the Royal Society (11/30/2005), Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (07/11/2005, 02/11/2005), and the editors of Science and Nature (09/28/2005, 08/13/2005, 08/10/2005, 05/19/2005, 04/27/2005) have echoed sentiments similar to those of Bruce Alberts (03/24/2005) Recognizing that early scientists referred to themselves as natural philosophers, perhaps this demonstrates the evolutionary principle of allopatric speciation by geographical isolation between the science and philosophy departments. Or was that by design?
1Daniel J. Robinson, Philosophy of science, The Great Ideas of Philosophy, The Teaching Company, 2002.
2Bruce Alberts, Commentary: A Wakeup Call to Science Faculty, Cell, Vol 123, 739-741, 2 December 2005.
3Alan Charles Kors, lecture 18, Bishop Joseph Butler and Gods Providence, The Birth of the Modern Mind, The Teaching Company, 1998.
It is probably common for scientists to go through their entire educational career without a single philosophy of science class. Elementary and junior high schools often teach a Baconian view: just collect lots of facts, make observations, write a hypothesis, test it, take notes, and produce a science project to attract the attention of the judges and give Mom and Dad something to brag about. High school science is similar; science is what the textbook says and what scientists do. The budding scientist goes right into the university and starts taking calculus, astrophysics, biology or whatever, gets a degree, narrows his or her studies in grad school, gets a PhD, gets a job, and goes into a career all without knowing what science is.Instant Geology and Undersea Activity 12/09/2005
Were accustomed to thinking of geological processes as slow and gradual, except for volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides, but some recent stories are surprising for the speed and extent of active processes.
Wow, at 8 meters every 3 weeks, that ocean basin would be 82,000 miles wide in a million years, bigger than the whole earth! Just kidding, of course. Nobody is saying that is a typical or uniform rate. It does illustrate, however, that big things can happen in a short time if the conditions are right. Faster rates than that could be envisioned, and must have been the case for certain large-scale, catastrophically-formed regions.Darwin Display Becomes Rallying Point 12/08/2005
The Charles Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (11/21/2005, 11/17/2005, 10/17/2005) has become a safe haven and symbol of dominance for Darwinists otherwise flustered by the controversy over evolution. This most in-depth exhibition of Darwins life and thought will make the rounds to Boston, Chicago, Toronto and London in coming seasons. Alan Packer reviewed the exhibit for Nature1 and found it splendid. He opined, In explaining what we know about the theory of evolution and its originator, given the limitations of what an exhibition can convey, Darwin could hardly be bettered. He also thought it was well-timed because of the controversy in Dover, Pennsylvania over intelligent design. Darwin, according to Packer, removed the nebulous idea of belief from the discussion.
A panel of academics met last week at the museum to discuss the controversy between Darwinism and intelligent design, Reuters reported (see MSNBC News). Their panel discussion, entitled Darwins Legacy, considered ID as a cultural battle, a global phenomenon or even a brilliant marketing scheme but not a serious scientific theory. Michael Ruse puzzled over why America is so religious yet also a scientific powerhouse. He attributed the religious nature to historical reaction of the South to the Civil War. They turned toward the Bible and away from everything they thought represented the North, he asserted, while evolution was taken to represent everything about the North that they disliked. Ronald Numbers expressed concern that ID is not just an American phenomenon, but is growing rapidly in Asian countries, Russia, China, and Islamic states. He chocked ID up to a successful P.R. campaign.
Finally Edward Larson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 book on the Scopes monkey trials, held that the debate boiled down in the United States to what is being taught in high-school biology classes.Some evolutionists, like E. O. Wilson, have claimed that only anti-evolutionists refer to it as Darwinism, but Casey Luskin at Evolution News found many hits on the word in science journals. Darwin still remains a hero to many evolutionary biologists. In a recent issue of Current Biology,2 for instance, John Raven (U of Dundee) was asked, Do you have a scientific hero? Only a short answer was considered necessary: Charles Darwin. I hope I do not need to say more.
Yet Darwin continues to elicit controversy 146 years after the publication of his influential book. Alan Boyle on MSNBC rated Darwin vs. Design as #1 of the top five science-related social controversies. Robert Crowther on Evolution News said that academic persecution of scientists investigating intelligent design is a dangerous and growing trend. Despite the risk, more schools are poised to look at ID favorably and Darwin with a critical eye. After the debacle of the ID-mocking class at U. of Kansas (see next entry), Knox College in western Illinois will be offering a more balanced philosophy class on ID, reported the Daily Review Atlas, and depending on how the Dover trial goes, school boards may be lining up to give ID more exposure in science classes. Lisa Anderson wrote for the Chicago Tribune that no matter which way Judge Jones rules, the controversy will not be quieting down. And if the judge rules that ID is constitutional, were going to have school boards across the country trying it (introducing ID) the next day, she quoted one analyst. Andersons title summarized what might happen: Dover ruling could be its own genesis.
1Alan Packer, Exhibition: A close look at Darwin, Nature 438, 741 (8 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/438741b.
2John Raven, Q&A, Current Biology, Volume 15, Issue 22, 22 November 2005, Pages R905-R906.
Despite their attempts to get the focus off Darwin and onto the word evolution, and claim scientific legitimacy for the bits and pieces of evidence of microevolution here and there that they can extrapolate to support the idea that humans descended from bacteria through numerous, successive, slight modifications over millions of years, the antics of the Darwin Party really boil down to Charlie worship. John Raven is not the first evolutionist interviewed in a magazine that immediately pointed to Charlie as a scientific hero. They really, really love the guy, because he is the patron saint of storytellers. His Moses-like face, shining with the glory of naturalism, led them to the promised land of endless scientific funding for lazy speculations (12/22/2003). Notice how Larson (a man who personally helped overturn the Inherit the Wind stereotype about the Scopes Trial) worried about how the controversy has not yet affected funding. The Darwin Party has reason to worry. A lot of useless speculative projects that get nowhere and produce nothing but vaporware on back order will be scrutinized carefully if the presumed authority of Pope Charlie falls into disrepute (ex., 11/05/2005).Who Beat Up Paul Mirecki? 12/07/2005
A dark sequel has been added to the story of the Univ. of Kansas prof who was going to teach a class ridiculing intelligent design, then canceled it when a defamatory email he wrote surfaced (see 11/29/2005 story). Now, he claims he was accosted while driving off campus early Monday morning and beaten up by two guys in a pickup truck who had been tailgating him, according to a report in the Lawrence Journal-World 12/06. The details appear sketchy, making some doubtful of the story, but his injuries were not in doubt; he was treated at the Lawrence Memorial Hospital for bruises and sore spots which he said were caused by the men punching him and hitting him with a metal object. According to Mirecki, the attackers made references to the controversy as their reason for the attack. The suspects have not been identified, and Mirecki himself has kept mum about the details (see Lawrence Journal-World 12/07.
Subsequently, on Wednesday, Mirecki decided to step down as chairman of the Religious Studies department, reported the Wichita Eagle. This article also mentioned the attack, but did not say if it had anything with his decision to step down. It said he acted on the recommendation of his colleagues in the department.
Lets make one thing crystal clear up front: whoever attacked Dr. Mirecki should be punished. If you know who did this, turn them in. If you did this and are reading this, turn yourself in. (A doubtful possibility; our feedback shows our readership to be a virtuous and intelligent lot.)Genome Complexity No Measure of Evolution 11/07/2005
Do genes show an increasing pattern of complexity from lower to higher organisms? Not necessarily, reported Elizabeth Pennisi in Science Now. Cnidarians, including sea anemones and corals, for example, show almost as much complexity in their genomes as humans, whereas fruit flies and worms, seemingly more complex than cnidarians (06/25/2005, 2nd par.) appear to have lost some of the complex gene families found in corals. A molecular biology team in Norway found that cnidarians have a more complex genome than previously thought.
...cnidarians such as coral and sea anemones have similar genetic underpinnings to vertebrates, be they fish or people. Cnidarians share extended gene families with vertebrates that fruit flies and nematodes lack, suggesting that insects and worms lost many members of those families. Indeed, the data hint that cnidarians have more genes than either fruit flies or nematodes.Pennisi ends with a quote by John Finnerty, an evolutionary biologist at Boston University. There is no simple relationship between the numbers of genes an animal possess and its complexity at the morphological level, he said.
OK, then, Darwinism has been falsified. Again. (See 11/25/2004, 12/30/2004). The complexity was there near the beginning and has not increased over hundreds of millions of years. There is no linear progression from simple to complex. This is not what evolutionary theory predicted. It chops down the evolutionary tree of life. Good; now we can build an intelligently-designed log cabin with it and come in out of the cold.New Mammal Discovered in Borneo 12/06/2005
Caught on camera: a cat-sized quadruped with a long, bushy tail. See the picture on National Geographic News. Found in Borneos rain forests, it is so new we dont know what to call it yet. The article says this is the first new mammal species discovered on the Southeast Asian island in more than a century. See also the Reuters story on MSNBC.
It looks like a cat with a fox face. How did such a creature escaped detection for so long? There are still plenty of mysteries on this vast planet. The natives probably knew all about it, though.Wine for Your Heart? Think Again 12/06/2005
Any heart gains from drinking alcohol in moderation are likely outweighed by the harm, say researchers. Thats how a story on BBC News begins that warns that alleged benefits of alcohol for heart health may not be trustworthy. A New Zealand team investigated earlier scientific studies that purported to show benefits of drinking in moderation, and found that the way the studies were carried out did not allow the researchers to be able to say with certainty that the findings could not due to other factors rather than solely the amount of alcohol consumed. This did not mean that health benefits have been falsified only unconfirmed. Meanwhile, the known harms of alcohol may outweigh any benefits. If so, the public health message is clear, the article warns. Do not assume there is a window in which the health benefits of alcohol are greater than the harms there is probably no free lunch. One theory keeps getting more and better confirmation, though: exercise is good for the heart. See the latest example on EurekAlert.
The science is inconclusive that there are any coronary benefits to alcohol consumption, but the harms are well known. It may just be that alcoholics tend to have clean arteries. There are two lessons in articles like this: (1) much of what we think we know is wrong, and (2) scientific findings are tentative. The assumption that wine is healthy has been going around since the 1960s and 1970s. How many people have been led to believe that they should drink wine more often for good health? How many following that line got drawn into alcoholism, or swamped any gains with greater harms? This is not to take a hard-line position on who is right, but just to remind everyone that some claims by scientists may be based on flawed studies.It Was the Year of Titan 12/05/2005
Of the top 10 astronomy stories for 2005, Astronomy Magazine gave #6 to Cassinis year at Saturn, and #1 to the Huygens landing on Titan last January 14 (01/14/2005, 01/21/2005).
The official science papers from that event are now in. In a special online edition, Nature1 published 9 new papers and articles with the latest results and interpretations of what Huygens found on its 2.5-hour descent and historic landing on the surface, where it survived at least another 3 hours taking pictures and measurements. Most of the Nature online articles, including video and audio files with links to other resources, have free access.
Titan, the second-largest moon of all (bigger than the planet Mercury), called the largest piece of unknown real estate in the solar system took on a vaguely familiar face as Huygens revealed river channels dissecting hills and emptying out into lakebeds littered with boulders but with a bizarre difference methane instead of water, ice grains instead of sand, and ice blocks instead of rocks (see EurekAlert story). The Cassini orbiter, working in tandem, also took multiple radar scans and focused all its precision instruments on Titan in nine encounters so far, with at least 36 more to go (05/18/2005). EurekAlert summarized announcements at the American Geophysical Union meeting about the jets on Enceladus (11/28/2005), which joins Titan as a dynamic, eruptive body. To complete the collection, a gallery of Cassini 2005 images of Saturns moons was released by the Imaging Team.
A series of new mosaics of the Titan landing site, composed of frames taken by the descent imager on Huygens, was released on both the JPL and ESA websites. Huygens was also the lead story on the Science Channel weekend program Discoveries This Week and will be the subject of a special program December 13-14, Rendezvous with Saturns Moon. NASA and ESA scientists are already working on a follow-up mission: this time, perhaps to float a blimp in the atmosphere to cover more territory and survive longer. Actual arrival, after planning, building, launching and cruising, will probably take at least 17 years, if funds can be raised.
1Web focus, Huygens on Titan, Nature online feature. See also the print edition starting with a News Focus by Tobias Owen, Huygens rediscovers Titan, Nature 438, 756-757 (8 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/438756a.
After months of waiting, the scientists have spoken. There is way too much material to cover here. Titan has to be one of the most intriguing worlds in the solar system beyond earth. The lack of impact craters and strong suggestions of surface activity (06/09/2005, 04/08/2005) give indications this world is young. The atmospheric methane blanket is eroding quickly (03/11/2005). The scientists still have no idea how the atmosphere could last more than a tiny fraction of the assumed age of the solar system (about one forty-fifth), and why no oceans of liquid ethane were found on the surface. Titan invites intense follow-up investigation by scientists and serious amateurs. The pictures, meanwhile, are sure to stimulate the wonder and imagination of everyone.How You Tune In 12/05/2005
Studies on rats have shown there are certain neurons that respond to changes in the background sound (see LiveScience story on MSNBC News). We humans probably have these, too. Rather than firing continuously, they search for changes in the auditory landscape that might be of interest: changes in pitch, loudness or duration in single sounds or patterns of sounds. The work was done by Ellen Covey and a team at the University of Washington and published in the European Journal of Neuroscience. The novelty detector neurons seem to act as gatekeepers, Covey and her colleagues conclude, preventing information about unimportant sounds from reaching the brains cortex, where higher processing occurs. This is how we can ignore unimportant information, even though it may be loud. It also may play a part in our sense of humor: Whatever we have just heard allows us to anticipate what will come next, and violations of our predictions are often surprising or humorous.
One of the great mysteries of neuropsychology and of philosophy is the mind-body problem. We continue to learn about the intricate machinery, the physical and chemical properties of our neurons, but how do these mechanical activities translate into our sensations of the external world? How does a chain of processes leading to the brain connect us to what is really out there? How can we be sure that the end of the chain, what is actually closest to us, corresponds to the source of the signal in the external world? How can our minds choose to focus in on certain sensations around us?SETI vs. Intelligent Design 12/03/2005
Intelligent Design proponents have often pointed to the similarity between what they are doing and what SETI is doing. For example, SETI is attempting to detect evidence of intelligence in coded signals from space, and design biologists are detecting evidence of intelligence in the DNA code. Seth Shostak, Director of the SETI Institute, decided to challenge that comparison in the weekly SETI report on Space.com. He started with a comparison of his own: ID people are no more to be taken seriously than the comedian who found a potato that looked like Richard Nixons head. But then he got serious; isnt there a double standard, if SETI is accepted by the scientific community and ID is not?
First, Shostak argued that the signals SETI is searching for are not all that complex. A code or message is not a requirement; a valid candidate might just be a persistent narrowband whistle of no known natural origin. Still, why would SETI be able to deduce intelligence with far less complexity than the high complexity found in DNA? Here, Shostak made a surprising statement: such a simple, narrow signal from space would constitute better evidence for intelligence than the DNA code:
Well, its because the credibility of the evidence is not predicated on its complexity. If SETI were to announce that were not alone because it had detected a signal, it would be on the basis of artificiality. An endless, sinusoidal signal a dead simple tone is not complex; its artificial. Such a tone just doesnt seem to be generated by natural astrophysical processes. In addition, and unlike other radio emissions produced by the cosmos, such a signal is devoid of the appendages and inefficiencies nature always seems to add for example, DNAs junk and redundancy. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)He admitted that the pulsar first thought to be evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in 1967 did not convey information, but then says that it was profligate in its signal, broadcasting all over the spectrum. This, he claims, shows that it was a signal no alien would produce; it would be too wasteful. In cells and sea lions, on the other hand, nature produces things full of Junk, redundancy and inefficiency he claimed. To him, this proves they were not artificially engineered because they are not optimally built.
A second error in the comparison, Shostak continued, is in overlooking the importance of context. SETI researchers would be justified in inferring artificiality if they found a large green square on an earth-like planet (instead of in a group of stars), just like archaeologists are justified in inferring hominid tool-making if rock chips are found in a cave.
In summary, Shostak disavows the comparison between SETI and ID research on two counts: (1) SETI is not looking for messages with evidence of intelligence, but only for simple artificial signals; (2) SETI is looking for artificiality in the context of places where such very modest complexity would be unexpected and not otherwise observed. The last word: This is clearly nothing like looking at DNAs chemical makeup and deducing the work of a supernatural biochemist.
We have to hand it to Seth Shostak for tackling an argument head-on without too much mocking. Will his arguments stand up to scrutiny? You decide. In the first place, looking for a simple signal is just the first pass filter. All the SETI literature has been replete with claims that eventually humans want to converse with the aliens and learn from them. Jimmy Carter spoke for the earth in writing, We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. Thats also why our messages to them have been very complex: from the Arecibo message, to the Pioneer plaque, and especially to the Voyager records loaded with information, telling them as much about ourselves as the bandwidth allowed. Finding a persistent narrowband whistle would most certainly instigate an intensive follow-up search to first confirm the artificiality of the signal, and then try to discover more complexity in it. Shostak and the world would certainly not be sufficiently convinced to get off at the whistle-stop and say, well, we found intelligent life, so lets move on to something else. Look at how the alleged canals on Mars sent scientists and the public into a frenzy to get more data and learn more about a possible Martian civilization. The confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence would surely demand more complexity in the signal, just as it did in the SETI-dominated movie Contact.Archaeopteryx in the Headlines Again: New Specimen Reported 12/02/2005
The best-preserved fossil yet of Archaeopteryx was announced in Science this week,1 the tenth in all. This one, described by Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Natural History Museum (Frankfurt, Germany), had a better-preserved foot than the others (all found in the Solnhofen Limestone beds of Bavaria) with indications it had a hyperextendable second toe somewhat similar to those on deinonychosaurs. Not being reversible, as on modern birds, this toe led the discoverers to conclude Archaeopteryx was not a perching bird. National Geographic News is convinced this fact plus the theropod-shaped skull settles the dispute about the relationship of birds to theropod dinosaurs.
Erik Stokstad, however, in a News Focus article in the same issue of Science,2 denied that there was anything radically new about this specimen. Theres another problem: Burkhard Pohl, an amateur collector and founder of the for-profit Wyoming Dinosaur Center where it will be housed (also co-author of the announcement in Science) is not forthcoming on this fossils pedigree:
The origins of the Archaeopteryx, however, remain hazy. Pohl says he found a donor to buy it from a private collector after the Senckenberg failed to raise enough money. (Mayr declines to reveal the asking price, but the Paläontologische Museum München paid DM 2 million--about $1.3 million--for a less spectacular specimen in 1999.) The Archaeopteryx appears to be legal, because Bavaria allows the export of fossils. Pohl wont say who legally owns it, but he says that its guaranteed that it will stay in a public collection. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)Pohl has connections with the world of commercial fossil dealing, and some scientists remain uncomfortable working with him, according to Stokstad. They want to be absolutely certain that fossils, particularly foreign ones, were legally excavated. They also want such important fossils to be housed in accredited public collections. Stokstad did not question the authenticity of this fossil specifically, and included some details supporting Pohls credibility and good intentions, but that he did raise these concerns by scientists in the same issue as the announcement of the discovery seemed unusual.
Science News (Week of Dec. 3, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 23, p. 355) offered additional information. It said that the interpretation of the foot is not conclusive. Some scientists, including Larry Martin (U of Kansas) and Alan Feduccia (U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) are not convinced that the discoverers proved their case that the bird was unsuited for perching in trees. To them, the claws look curved for perching and the toe looks reversible for clinging, just like on the other specimens.
1Gerald Mahr, Burkhard Pohl and D. Stefan Peters, A Well-Preserved Archaeopteryx Specimen with Theropod Features, Science, 2 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5753, pp. 1483 - 1486, DOI: 10.1126/science.1120331.
2Erik Stokstad, Best Archaeopteryx Fossil So Far Ruffles a Few Feathers, Science, 2 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5753, pp. 1418 - 1419, DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5753.1418.
Once again, a cloud of doubt is raised around this icon of evolutionary transitional forms. Fred Hoyle wrote a whole book about possible fraud surrounding the most famous feathered Archaeopteryx fossils (not all have feather impressions), and others have done the same over the years. Now we have another, the best-looking of all, and we cant be absolutely sure where it came from. Why cant the best paleontologists go over to Bavaria and uncover a clear example of a feathered specimen in situ to end all doubt?Cell Ribosome Assembly Is Like Throwing Car Parts Together 12/01/2005
Ribosomes are the protein-assembly machines in the living cell (11/24/2005, 07/26/2005, 01/19/2005). A bacterium can have thousands of them. They are composed of two large RNA complexes; the smaller one has 20 unique proteins that fit snugly in various parts of the apparatus, and the larger complex has even more. How do the parts all come together? Thats an area of intense study, reports Sarah A. Woodson in Nature:1
Many of the biochemical events that occur in a cell are performed by huge complexes of proteins and nucleic acids. A cunning approach promises to show how the components convene to make a functioning machine.Clearly there is more to it than that, because the parts all fit together in the right places, at the right times. Woodson describes how researchers are trying to observe whether the assembly steps are strictly determined in a predefined sequence, or whether the parts can arrive via alternative paths, like band members in a scatter formation.
Whatever happens, it needs to be reliable and energy-efficient. All the parts interact through highly specific interfaces,... she explains. Actively growing cells demand many thousands of ribosomes, whose synthesis consumes a large fraction of the cells metabolic energy. So ribosome assembly must be efficient as well as precise.
Unlike car parts, protein and RNA parts have some flexibility. In a process called induced fit, they snap together snugly, like rubbery puzzle pieces:
In the soft world of biological materials, cooperativity and specificity are achieved by the induced fit of molecular interfaces; that is, as two or more components come into contact they mould around one another to create stronger, more specific junctions. The idea that ribosome assembly can follow more than one path is consistent with redundant cooperative linkages in the assembly map. These cooperative linkages ensure that individual complexes are assembled completely. They also create alternative kinetic paths that make the assembly process itself more robust.Woodson spoke of machinery and machines five times, but only mentioned evolution twice, neither time explaining how the machinery and its precision assembly process came about. In her introduction, she merely said, Knowing how cellular complexes organize themselves is crucial for understanding molecular evolution and for engineering materials that can mimic their properties. The other mention of evolution was in her last sentence: In the ribosome, these interactions have been fine-tuned through billions of years of evolution, providing a clear window into the world of cellular machines.
1Sarah A. Woodson, Biophysics: Assembly line inspection, Nature 438, 566-567 (1 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/438566a.
And for that classic line, Woodson earns Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week. Weall just throw a bunch of car parts on the factory floor for billions of years, and when they get it right by chance, presto: we can expect a fully operational vehicle. This article, therefore, gets listed in both the Amazing and Dumb categories. It can be considered typical of references to evolution in scientific papers: nobody tells us how such things could have evolved by mindless, directionless chance processes; they just claim they did. You call this science? Read Gerald Schroeders editorial on AISH. He examines the probability of such accidents occurring naturally, showing that the argument of our online book is still valid. Any scientists who can believe that chance could perform miracles on this order should be called People of Frothy Faith.