07/25/12

Super-fast evolution: new species in just 6,000 years


Sea starsAccording to a recent story in Science Daily, new species of sea stars may have arisen in as little a time as 6,000 years.

Researchers studied the diversity in DNA sequences from sea stars of two related species to estimate how long it has been since the two species diverged. Their results showed a range from roughly 6,000 to 22,000 years ago.

That rules out some ways new species could evolve. For example, they clearly did not diverge slowly with genetic changes over a long period of time, but were isolated quickly.

Over the last 11,000 years, the boundary between cold and warm water in the Coral Sea has fluctuated north and south. A small population of the ancestral sea stars, perhaps even one individual, might have colonized a remote area at the southern end of the range then been isolated by one of these changes in ocean currents.

These two species of “cushion stars” – Cryptasperina pentagona and C. hystera – while they look very similar, are very different in many aspects – habitat and sex lives in particular.

Pentagona has male and female individuals that release sperm and eggs into the water where they fertilize, grow into larvae and float around in the plankton for a few months before settling down and developing into adult sea stars.
Hystera are hermaphrodites that brood their young internally and give birth to miniature sea stars ready to grow to adulthood.

Six thousand years is a remarkably short time for a significant evolutionary activity – about the entire length of recorded human history. And about as long as some creationist crackpots think the Earth has been in existence. But it’s not a one-speed-fits-all for evolutionary change. Even the longer 22,000 years is still remarkably short. That’s about when the first Europeans arrived in North America, or the length of the time it takes the remarkable planetoid, 2006 SQ372, to complete its orbit.

Earlier this year, Wired Magazine published a story about research to discover how long it would take for a mouse-sized animal to evolve to an elephant-sized one. And the answer was 24 million years.

That’s how many generations a new study estimates it would take to go from mouse- to elephant-sized while operating on land at the maximum velocity of change. The figure underscores just how special a trait sheer bigness can be.
“Big animals represent the accumulation of evolutionary change, and change takes time,” said evolutionary biologist Alistair Evans of Australia’s Monash University.
Evans and co-authors revisit a fossil record dataset of mammal body size during the last 70 million years, in a study published Jan. 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The data was originally used to describe the evolutionary growth spurts experienced by mammals soon after dinosaurs ceased to be Earth’s dominant animals.
The relative sizes of mouse and elephant skulls. To go from mouse-sized to elephant-sized would take at least 24 million generations.
For the previous 140 million years, mammals had been rat-sized or smaller. With dinosaurs significantly reduced, mammals had a chance to fill newly vacant ecological niches, particularly that of the large-bodied plant-eater.

But what about human evolution? We have a pretty good record of our species’ evolution over more than 4 million years, from the apelike Ardipithecus through Australopithecus, Neanderthal, Cro Magnon to us. But we are, like other animals, still evolving. And the rate of evolution may be speeding up.

According to a story in National Geographic,

Explosive population growth is driving human evolution to speed up around the world, according to a new study.
The pace of change accelerated about 40,000 years ago and then picked up even more with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the study says.
And while humans are evolving quickly around the world, local cultural and environmental factors are shaping evolution differently on different continents.
“We’re evolving away from each other. We’re getting more and more different,” said Henry Harpending, an anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who co-authored the study.
For example, in Europe natural selection has favored genes for pigmentation like light skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. Asians also have genes selected for light skin, but they are different from the European ones.
“Europeans and Asians are both bleached Africans, but the way they got bleached is different in the two areas,” Harpending said.
He and colleagues report the finding this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And some birds may be evolving faster, too – depending on their colour. According to a story in Science Daily in May,

Researchers have found that bird species with multiple plumage colour forms within in the same population, evolve into new species faster than those with only one colour form, confirming a 60-year-old evolution theory.
The global study used information from birdwatchers and geneticists accumulated over decades and was conducted by University of Melbourne scientists Dr Devi Stuart-Fox and Dr Andrew Hugall (now based at the Melbourne Museum) and is published in the journal Nature.
The link between having more than one colour variation (colour polymorphism) like the iconic red, black or yellow headed Gouldian finches, and the faster evolution of new species was predicted in the 1950s by famous scientists such as Julian Huxley, but this is the first study to confirm the theory.
By confirming a major theory in evolutionary biology, we are able to understand a lot more about the processes that create biodiversity said Dr Devi Stuart-Fox from the University’s Zoology Department.

So much science, so much research that continues to prove Darwin’s original theory, albeit much refined today thanks to our genetic research. You have to wonder, then, why 46% of Americans and 42% of Canadians and many others in the world still believe in the nonsense of creationism nor the pseudoscience of “intelligent” design.

I blame the continued survival of creationism on our failing education system with its lack of emphasis on science and its lack of training in critical thinking; on our society’s growing distrust in and disrespect for intellectuals; and the increasing influence of fundamentalist religion in politics.

03/14/12

Why the Republicans are bad for science


Tumblr imageRick Santorum’s recent win in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries are frightening for anyone who values science and critical thinking. Santorum is not the only Republican who frightens me. They all do. But Santorum most of all. The idea of a right-wing, homophobic, fundamentalist, creationist running the biggest and most powerful nation in the world is scary enough to keep me awake at night.

Santorum was the author of a 2001 amendment to the US education funding bill. His pro-creationist proposal was known as The Santorum Amendment. It “promoted the teaching of intelligent design while questioning the academic standing of evolution in U.S. public schools.” “Intelligent” design is anything but: it’s merely creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo. Santorum has a long history of “mischaracterizing” and misunderstanding evolution, as chronicled here: “…Santorum doesn’t need facts to back up his side, as long as he makes it sound like the other side has its own problems.”

Since Santorum’s failed attempt to get creationism inserted into the classroom, teaching so-called “intelligent” design has been declared unconstitutional by a US federal judge: “U.S. District Judge John E. Jones delivered a stinging attack on the Dover Area School Board, saying its first-in-the-nation decision in October 2004 to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum violates the constitutional separation of church and state.” The judge declared there was “overwhelming evidence” presented during the trial to prove “intelligent” design “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

That hasn’t stopped Santorum from being an outspoken advocate for creationism in whatever party dress it wears. Mitt Romney, his chief rival for the top spot, has been described as a “theistic evolutionist” based on older quotes, but he has said little or nothing about creationism during the campaign for the Republican candidacy.

In 2008, Santorum commented that, “…the theory of evolution… is used to promote to a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist.”

Creationist humourIn November, 2011, as the HuffPost reported, Santorum said, “the “left” and “scientific community” have monopolized the public school system’s curriculum, only permitting the teaching of evolution and leaving no room for the introduction of creation-based theories in the classroom.” Santorum bemoaned his frustration at the “whole ‘science only allows science to be taught in science class scenario.” Uh, Rick, that’s what you’re supposed to teach in a science class.

Creationism is not by itself a significant issue. It’s rather that it links to other, bigger issues. As Martin Wisckol writes,

While creationism itself rarely is the subject of political policy beyond school curriculum, it’s closely tied to high-profile issues that are – including abortion rights, stem cell use, gay marriage and birth control. And the most sizeable portion of the electorate subscribing to creationism are evangelical Christians… according to Pew researcher David Masci.

Santorum has other issues with science and scientific research aside from creationism. As Discover Magazine noted, Santorum doesn’t believe in climate change science. He doesn’t support stem cell research. Santorum called Barack Obama’s environmental policy, “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible” (see here – although that may have merely been a CYA retraction when his words were taken as a faith-based attack on Obama).

Early in the campaign, Romney distanced himself from Santorum’s ‘climate-science-is-political-science’ denial, by admitting he believed, “…the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that.” (see here). But later he flip-flopped and said, “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.” He also supports the rights of gas and oil companies to despoil the environment, including, “…drilling in the “the Gulf of Mexico, both the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelves, Western lands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and off the Alaska coast.” Romney will be as bad for the environment as he will be for science, it appears.

It’s easy to target Santorum’s fundamentalist-Tea-Party-anti-science myopia and Romney’s pro-corporate-waste-the environment-deny-science position. But as Chris Mooney points out in this piece, even educated Republicans are prone to accept the same fallacies and narrow-minded views that characterize all of the presidential candidates:

Again and again, Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue.
Tea Party members appear to be the worst of all. In a recent survey by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, they rejected the science of global warming even more strongly than average Republicans did. For instance, considerably more Tea Party members than Republicans incorrectly thought there was a lot of scientific disagreement about global warming (69 percent to 56 percent). Most strikingly, the Tea Party members were very sure of themselves—they considered themselves “very well-informed” about global warming and were more likely than other groups to say they “do not need any more information” to make up their minds on the issue.

Mooney calls it the “smart idiot” effect, and continues:

…well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue.

Rationality does not win the day, it seems, even with educated Republicans. Ideology does. And increasingly that ideology seems to be the products of a smaller and select group of uber-right media outlets (like Fox), self-appointed spokespeople (like the harridan Ann Coulter), and vocal Tea Party members. Ideology, as Martin Wisckol writes, is driving the debate about many issues, not facts – information, or empirical data:

…the “facts” used by voters are often subjective, depending on one’s political, philosophical and religious beliefs. The trend is growing, fueled in part by spurious information on the internet, and is a major reason for partisan gridlock in Sacramento and Washington.
Thirty percent of Republicans say manmade global warming is occurring, while 64 percent of Democrats say that’s the case, according to Pew Research Center. Pure creationism – which says man was created by God in his current form – is subscribed to by 52 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats, according to Gallup. Pew found the difference on creationism to be a closer – but still substantial – 39 percent to 30 percent.
And it’s not just evolution and global warming that are too complex for most voters to thoroughly assess based on data. The comparative efficiency of health-care policies, the effect of a large deficit, the best way to reduce the debt and how to stimulate the economy are other key areas where factual understanding doesn’t determine a voter’s position so much as their preexisting ideology and whose word they’re inclined to trust.

Sad to think that during the Enlightenment, governments supported the quest for learning. In the 21st Century, Republicans want the government to support ignorance and superstition.

03/13/12

NASA latest target of creationist harridans


CreationismA former NASA computer technician has filed an wrongful dismissal suit against his former employer, alleging he was, “discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design.” Engaged is a mild word. From what I’ve read in more balanced reports, he proselytized and his co-workers complained. The trial began Monday (documents here).

David Coppedge admitted he, “…handed out (religious) DVDs on the idea while at work.” But that’s not all. According to this AP story, Coppedge was also involved in political campaigning at work:

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, contends his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian, and interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a Christmas party.

Coppedge runs an apologist creationist website that tries to discredit evolutionary and biological science and new discoveries with pseudo-scientific jargon.

The Huffington Post story noted,

While the case has attracted interest because of the controversial nature of intelligent design, it is at its heart a straightforward discrimination case, said Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

“Intelligent” design is not controversial unless you try to promote it in your workplace to skeptical coworkers. Creationist advocates get shirty that your efforts get you dismissed. The story continues:

“The question is whether the plaintiff was fired simply because he was wasting people’s time and bothering them in ways that would have led him to being fired regardless of whether it was about religion or whether he was treated worse based on the religiosity of his beliefs,” said Volokh. “If he can show that, then he’s got a good case.”

The CBC story quoted John West, associate director of the inappropriately-named, right-wing anti-science “Centre for Science and Culture” at the creationist defence group, the “Discovery Institute” (aka The Discoveroids*)

“It’s part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we’ve seen that for several years. This is free speech, freedom of conscience 101.”

The US Constitution protects free speech from government interference. It doesn’t protect anyone’s right to disrupt a workplace. There is no constitutional right to promote creationism in the workplace.

No, it isn’t free speech or conscience. It’s a typical creationist assault on science through a wedge issue. West is using typical pro-creationist/anti-science spin doctoring. In this quote, he tries to reposition the issue from one of a workplace problem to one of constitutional freedom and faith. It is neither. It’s not a war on dissent**. It’s about whether Coppedge was engaged in workplace harassment. The only “war” going on is the constant creationist assault on critical thinking.

Would these people defend someone who actively promoted astrology at JPL? Or promoted Communism? Or is protecting “free speech” limited to defending the alleged right to spout creationist folderol?

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, says his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian and other interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a “Christmas party.”

Belief in “intelligent” design IS religious. Only religious fundamentalists or biblical literalists believe in creationism. But belief alone won’t get you fired.

Live Science notes:

According to Coppedge’s complaint first filed with the courts in April 2010, JPL supervisors reprimanded Coppedge for handing out intelligent design DVDs to coworkers and discussing his beliefs about intelligent design with them. Coppedge alleges that JPL stifled his right to free speech and created a hostile work environment, demoting him from his “team lead” position in 2009. Coppedge lost his job last year.
“Plaintiff contends that, as a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ conduct and actions, he has been prejudiced and harmed as the result of Defendants’ actions suppressing and constraining protected speech in the workplace on account of viewpoint, content and religion,” reads Coppedge’s complaint filed at the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2010. The complaint has since been updated to include Coppedge’s termination.
According to JPL, it was not Coppedge’s beliefs, but his conflicts with colleagues that led to his demotion. The lab also holds that Coppedge’s firing was the result of planned budget cuts, not his intelligent design beliefs.

Strikes me that handing out religious DVDs or campaigning for a homophobic state proposition in any workplace during work hours are inappropriate acts. The US Constitution protects free speech from government interference. It doesn’t protect anyone’s right to disrupt a workplace. There is no constitutional right to promote creationism in the workplace.

Far more frightening is the rest of the story about the dumbing down of America:

According to the Gallup polling organization, as of 2010, 38 percent of Americans believed that humans evolved with God’s guidance, a position roughly congruous with intelligent design. Forty percent said they believed that God created humans in their present form, while 16 percent said they believed that humans evolved without God’s hand.
The Pew Research Center… in 2005… found that about 58 percent of Americans said the biblical account of creation was definitely or probably true, but the same percentage also said the same of evolution. In August 2005, a Gallup poll found that only 52 percent of Americans knew what the term “intelligent design” meant.
One study published in January found that people’s acceptance of evolution depends on their gut feeling rather than a careful examination of the evidence.
Nonetheless, evolution, creationism and intelligent design remain hot political topics. Legislators in several states introduced legislation this year that would limit the teaching of evolution or promote instruction in creationism.

Those figures are truly frightening and bode ill for science and critical thinking. Forty percent believe in creationism, while only 16% believe humans evolved without supernatural intervention. That’s sad. So very, very sad.

Creationism is fraudulent pseudoscience***. Claptrap. Codswallop. “Intelligent” Design (ID) is simply lipstick on the creationist pig. It isn’t science any more than “faith healing” is medicine.

The Sensuous Curmudgeon has been following the trial and commenting on the pieces creationist groups have been posting on their websites in their attempt to recast the case as a battle over faith rather than a workplace discipline issue. His archive of posts is here.

One example of the fundamentalist spin is this screed from an uber-right site:

In a developing case indicative of the growing war on religion and in particular Christianity, opening statements are expected Monday in a legal case involving the wrongful termination of a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee…
Anyone who has ever been a Christian in a secular workplace characterized by a decidedly anti-religious environment knows all too well that this kind of “labeling” and discrimination is common place. Though JPL will advance all kinds of evidence to defend its demotion and ultimate firing of Coppedge, most unbiased Americans can read between the lines and see that what really went on here was a coordinated and widespread effort to get rid of that ignorant Christian trouble-maker. Heaven forbid somebody in NASA actually believe in God or Intelligent Design – that is pure unadulterated blasphemy to today’s breed of scientists!

Typical creationist/fundamentalist hookum. Free speech is a canard in this trial.

People are allowed to believe any tomfoolery they want, even creationism, the apex of tomfoolery, up there with with astrology, phrenology, crystal therapy and alien abductions. All of which have many, many followers. But believers can’t annoy co-workers with their beliefs and disrupt the workplace. And that’s what NASA alleges Coppedge did.
~~~~~

* My favourite quotes from the Discoveroids’ website: “The Spanish Inquisition was about testing the sincerity of people’s Christianity.” “Darwinism is the tribal religion of the modern elites, presided over by The New York Times, NPR/PBS and even The Wall Street Journal.” “Ann Coulter is so funny that people fail to notice the well read public intellectual behind the laughing smile and endless blonde tresses.” (Ann Coulter is the poster girl of the uber-right wingnut caucus who personifies the term ‘shrill harridan’). Guffaws all around.
** Many scientists have challenged Darwin’s original ideas. Evolutionary theory has evolved in its own way from Darwin’s day. That’s natural (like evolution). Darwin didn’t know about genetics, DNA, viruses, radiation and other things that affect development and mutation. So of course scientists have had to refine and adapt the original theory in the light of new information. Science grows with knowledge, unlike creationism which stopped thinking about things 4,000 years ago when the Genesis mythology was first penned. Today’s evolutionary biology is far more complex and fuller than what Darwin proposed. But that doesn’t mean Darwin was wrong, any more than Newton or Galileo are wrong simply because we’ve learned new things since either.
*** Creationism is the belief that the first creation myth in the Book of Genesis is fact, not primitive mythology. Curiously, the different and contradictory second creation myth (2:4-2:25) gets ignored.