The Rational Gods of Iceland

CreationismWhile 61% of Icelanders say they believe in God, according to a recent poll, absolutely none  under the age of 25 believe that their personal hairy thunderer created the world:

Less than half of Icelanders claim they are religious and more than 40% of young Icelanders identify as atheist. Remarkably the poll failed to find young Icelanders who accept the creation story of the Bible. 93.9% of Icelanders younger than 25 believed the world was created in the big bang, 6.1% either had no opinion or thought it had come into existence through some other means and 0.0% believed it had been created by God.

None. Zero. That’s pretty astounding and progressive, especially when you compare it to the USA, where 42% of Americans still have superstitious, medieval creationist beliefs, according to a mid-2014 Gallup poll:

More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.

Well, a lot of Americans also believe in Donald Trump, so one can’t really be surprised at their lack of acuity, scientific education and common sense. There is some faint hope for a growth in secular (critical) thought, though, as Gallup notes:

There is little indication of a sustained downward trend in the proportion of the U.S. population who hold a creationist view of human origins. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who adhere to a strict secularist viewpoint — that humans evolved over time, with God having no part in this process — has doubled since 1999.

I’m not holding my breath for any sudden dawning of mass rationalism in the USA. Not while Trump, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter get any media attention. It’s the home of the truther, open-carry, anti-vaccination, climate-change-denial, Tea Party and the TVangelist movements, after all. The vast majority of wingnut, conspiracy and pseudoscience sites I have seen are American made, too (local blogs notwithstanding).
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Gut instincts

Ars TechnicaA story on Science Daily says research suggests our so-called “free will” may be less free than we ever imagined. We may, instead, be meat puppets ruled by the desires and cravings of the smallest symbiotes we carry: our gut bacteria.

The story opens:

It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity… researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way… the authors believe this diverse community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut. Because the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, those signals could influence our physiologic and behavioral responses.

Actually this is not really surprising. It has long been known that human evolution has been affected by both viral and bacterial presence, as well as having our own DNA encoded with bits from them. And recently it was discovered bacteria can encode DNA from other animals – even dead ones – into their own.

The discovery of the recombinant DNA process should have alerted everyone to the wider possibility that there may be biological analogues already. After all, it only makes sense that in any symbiotic relationship, there must be some way for all parties to communicate with each other for mutual survival. The gut is a competitive environment with numerous species, so they also need a mechanism for cooperation and communication in ways that also help keep the host alive.

Most life on the planet has some form of symbiotic relationship and many are mutually beneficial like that with our gut flora, although there are also parasitic relationships as well.

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Gangs of Feathered T-Rex

Packs of tyrannosaurs
Imagine, if you will, an early morning scene in the late Cretaceous. The air is quiet as the day warms. At the edge of a large forest a plain of ferns ripples in the light breeze (grass would not evolve for another 20 or so million years). Under the canopy of the ancient beeches and maples, there is movement. Nothing fast, just a hint. A flash of mottled colour against the background. A glint of light off an eye. A soft snuffling. A feather falls silently to the forest floor.

Among the nearby ferns, a pack of ceratopsians grazes, adults watching the woods carefully, nervously, herding the young towards the safety of the pack’s centre with prods of their heads, honking to get the young ones’ attention. They eat the flowers that dot the plain among the ferns and cycads, chew the horsetails that grow at the edge of the ponds and streams. A youngster sees a tasty patch of moss and, unnoticed, slips out between the elders to get it.

Suddenly the forest explodes. Leaves scatter and branches snap as the muscular forms crash through the cover and converge on the young triceratops, separated from the horned protection of the pack. Two large adults, a teenager and two younger tyrannosaurs running a well-coordinated hunt as they have done many times int he past. Their speed makes them a blur against the trees.

The ceratopsians bellow in fear and rage, and quickly form a circle, heads out, protecting the oldest and youngest within the centre. The pack of tyrannosaurs’ charge sounds like thunder, and they screech in anticipation as they race to surround the doomed youngster. They circle rapidly, darting to avoid the feeble attempts at defence from the surrounded dinosaur.

The herd can’t save it, and they move away, quickly, the outer ring still shuffling backwards to keep their ferocious, horned heads facing the danger. The tyrannosaur pack ignores the herd as it feeds, tearing off chunks of the living flesh as the youngster’s screams get fainter.

Their hunger slaked for the moment, the pack would soon retire to the forest to look for another easy target that might venture close by.

Triceratops vs tyrannosaur

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Seeing evolution in action

Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

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Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day

Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

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We are Stardust… and Viral Genes

SupernovaIn her classic song, Woodstock, Joni Mitchell ended with the chorus:

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Which most people assume is merely poetic licence. Well, Joni wasn’t wrong: we – and every living thing on our planet – are made of stardust. As we learn at Physics Central:

If we know how many hydrogen atoms are in our body, then we can say that the rest is stardust. Our body is composed of roughly 7×1027 atoms. That is a lot of atoms! Try writing that number out on a piece of paper: 7 with 27 zeros behind it. We say roughly because if you pluck a hair or pick your nose there might be slightly less. Now it turns out that of those billion billion billion atoms, 4.2×1027 of them are hydrogen. Remember that hydrogen is bigbang dust and not stardust. This leaves 2.8×1027 atoms of stardust. Thus the amount of stardust atoms in our body is 40%.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

Mitchell’s theme was picked up by the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan, in his hit TV show, Cosmos. Live Science tells us:

In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called “Cosmos” that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth’s history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Sagan famously stated in one episode.

His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff, said Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

“All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars,” Impey told Life’s Little Mysteries. “The universe was originally hydrogen and helium, the carbon was made subsequently, over billions of years.”

So how did all this stardust get into out bodies? Supernovae, spewing heavy material into the vastness of space, scattering atoms and molecules at near lightspeed. Our “Garden of Eden” was the nuclear furnace of an exploding star.

We are made of the material created 13-plus billion years ago, We are, as Mitchell sang, stardust. Recycled and reused, but the stuff of the cosmos nonetheless. *

And we’re also built of viral genes, a product of the evolution of life, of the co-evolution of life and that strange creature, the virus. Viruses have helped shape us, and our adaptations to the environment. That’s the premise of Frank Ryan’s latest book, Virolution.**

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The Cosmic Origins of Life

CometHere’s one to confound the creationist crowd: life may have begun as a result of organic molecules resulting from impacts by comets or meteorites. No supernatural foundation, no invisible hand guiding the process. Just random crashes, a little physics, some chemistry, a while lot of time, and voila: life.

But wait, there’s more…

How did these molecules go from static organic molecules to self-reproducing you ask? Ah, therein lies another tale… that of enzymes, the little engines of life. More randomness, more chemistry. No intelligent design.

Let’s start with the comets.

According to a recent article in Science Daily,

Scientists … from Imperial College London, the University of Kent and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory discovered that when icy comets collide into a planet, amino acids can be produced. These essential building blocks are also produced if a rocky meteorite crashes into a planet with an icy surface.

The researchers suggest that this process provides another piece to the puzzle of how life was kick-started on Earth, after a period of time between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago when the planet had been bombarded by comets and meteorites.

The intrepid researchers fired projectiles at comet-like speeds into icy surfaces similar to what we know comets are made from.  They discovered that the shock wave slams simple molecules together into more complex forms. The heat from the impact  then transforms these more complex molecules into amino acids such as glycine and D-and L-alanine.

Dr Mark Price, co-author from the University of Kent, adds: “This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid. This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins.”

In a similar experiment, published in July,2013, scientists simulated an icy comet-like snowball using carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, ethane and propane. They zapped it with high-energy electrons to “simulate the cosmic rays in space” and discovered that the result was “complex, organic compounds, specifically dipeptides, essential to life.”

Chemists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawaii, Manoa, showed that conditions in space are capable of creating complex dipeptides – linked pairs of amino acids – that are essential building blocks shared by all living things. The discovery opens the door to the possibility that these molecules were brought to Earth aboard a comet or possibly meteorites, catalyzing the formation of proteins (polypeptides), enzymes and even more complex molecules, such as sugars, that are necessary for life.

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The colonization of land by life pushed back in time

Fossile lifeA recent story on Science Daily made me stop and read with fascination. It’s about the discovery of fossils that showed life colonized land more than two billion years ago. That’s a shocker, because all indicators are that the Earth was a hostile place, land was barren, and life was a lot simpler.

But apparently we underestimated the ability and tenacity of life. This gives us hope that life may exist on other planets or moons.

Mars, at least its surface, is unlikely to harbour life now, but may have in its water-rich past. We may find fossils. Europa, Jupiter’s ice-covered moon, may have life in the oceans under its surface. Finding out will be tough. Titan? A remote possibility. But these fossils give us new hope: life can survive in very hostile conditions.*

Conventional scientific wisdom has it that plants and other creatures have only lived on land for about 500 million years, and that landscapes of the early Earth were as barren as Mars. A new study, led by geologist Gregory J. Retallack of the University of Oregon, now has presented evidence for life on land that is four times as old — at 2.2 billion years ago and almost half way back to the inception of the planet.hat landscapes of the early Earth were as barren as Mars.

That raises several interesting ideas. First, what sort of life was it? The researchers don’t know for sure, but it’s a bit like slime mold or some lichen. It was tiny, but rather complex given its age and a promising candidate for the oldest known eukaryote. Sci-news notes:

Diskagma buttonii are very small – about 0.3 – 1.8 mm long. They most resemble modern soil organisms called Geosiphon, a fungus with a central cavity filled with symbiotic cyanobacteria.

It was something not quite animal or plant – something simple. But not that simple: they appear to have had symbiotic cyanobacteria in their interiors. Cyanobacteria appeared about 3 billion years ago, and started photosynthesizing (with water as a reducing agent) and making oxygen between then and about 2.6 billion years ago (life itself first showed up about 3.5 billion years ago but some estimates push it much earlier, to 4.3 billion).**

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ID’s deep roots in creationism

Fundamentalist folliesProponents of creationism often try to deny that “intelligent” design (ID) is merely creationism wrapped in a fake lab coat to make it look like it’s pals with science. It isn’t. They’re not buddies, didn’t go to school together, and don’t ‘like’ each others Facebook pages.

ID is merely a tawdry, paper-thin attempt to hoodwink the gullible who can’t see past the plastic pocket protector that there’s a bible in the pocket. In part this is because the popular notion of what a theory is has devolved into a synonym for guess or an unproven assumption. But that’s not the scientific meaning of the word: “…a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science… Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.” Scientific method

ID is not even a hypothesis: it’s a statement of faith and its pseudo-scientific arguments have been well-debunked on better sites than this (i.e. Skeptico). It starts with belief and looks for ways to prove it, rejecting anything that counters that preconceived theology.
creationism masquerading as ID

The National Center of Science Education defines ID this way:

“Intelligent Design” creationism (IDC) is a successor to the “creation science” movement, which dates back to the 1960s. The IDC movement began in the middle 1980s as an antievolution movement which could include young earth, old earth, and progressive creationists; theistic evolutionists, however, were not welcome. The movement increased in popularity in the 1990s with the publication of books by law professor Phillip Johnson and the founding in 1996 of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (now the Center for Science and Culture.) The term “intelligent design” was adopted as a replacement for “creation science,” which was ruled to represent a particular religious belief in the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987.
IDC proponents usually avoid explicit references to God, attempting to present a veneer of secular scientific inquiry. IDC proponents introduced some new phrases into anti-evolution rhetoric, such as “irreducible complexity” (Michael Behe: Darwin’s Black Box, 1996) and “specified complexity” (William Dembski: The Design Inference, 1998), but the basic principles behind these phrases have long histories in creationist attacks on evolution. Underlying both of these concepts, and foundational to IDC itself, is an early 19th century British theological view, the “argument from design.”

Despite angry denials from creationist supporters that ID is not the same, and instead ID is a form of scientific research, that’s balderdash. It’s the “wedge” strategy- the ID movement’s published methods for inserting their religious content into the secular world.
Creationist bingo

All they’ve done is use cut-n-paste to replace terms like creationism in their documents with scientific-sounding phrases like “intelligent” design. They haven’t changed the core religious nature of their argument. Common Sense Atheism documents this as a clumsy, but failed attempt to mislead the reader:

…consider how the term “intelligent design” was born. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that “creation science” could not be taught in public schools because it advances a particular religion. That same year, a Creationist textbook called Of Pandas and People had been published using terms like “creationism” over 150 times. But after the defeat of Creationism in court, the editors replaced every instance of “creationism” with “intelligent design” and every instance of “creationists” with “design proponents.” In one case, part of the original term, “creationists,” was left behind by the editing process, rendering “cdesign proponentsists”… That the editors merely replaced “creationism” with the new term “intelligent design” is abundantly obvious when one compares various drafts of Of Pandas and People (originally called Biology and Creation)…

ID supporters universally identify the need for a “designer” as the mechanic behind the curtain, and all say it’s their own particular Christian deity. Wikipedia notes:

Intelligent design (ID) is a form of creationism promulgated by the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank. The Institute defines it as the proposition that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” It is a contemporary adaptation of the traditional teleological argument for the existence of God, presented by its advocates as “an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins” rather than “a religious-based idea”. All the leading proponents of intelligent design are associated with the Discovery Institute and believe the designer to be the Christian deity.

A designer, logically, has to be a deity* but why only this particular one? I have yet to run across a single ID proponent who will say that designer is Shiva. Or Kali. Or Moloch. Or Ra. Or Odin. Or Zeus. Why not each one working as a team (because there’s no God in team)? All of the hundreds of other deities (thousands?) in world mythologies and religions are ignored and just one is elected as the only possible designer: the hairy thunderer of the New Testament. Not only are non-Christians excluded from ID, but so are Catholics. Only fundamentalist literalist Christians need apply.

Creationism poster

As Wikipedia also notes:

Scientific acceptance of Intelligent Design would require redefining science to allow supernatural explanations of observed phenomena, an approach its proponents describe as theistic realism or theistic science.

In other words, yes kids, Santa Claus really does put those presents under the Xmas trees of good children every year, millions of them simultaneously, all over the world, delivered from a sleigh that travels faster than light and, while seemingly small, actually has an infinite storage capacity. Never mind those wrapped boxes you found at the back of the closet last week. Those aren’t proof of another, more logical explanation of how the presents arrive. Belief is more important than observation, so don’t question our explanation. We’ll tell you what you need to know.
Creationist continuum
As noted in another article on the NSCE website:

Following creationist tradition, IDC proponents accept natural selection but deny that mutation and natural selection are adequate to explain the evolution of one kind to another, such as chordates from echinoderms or humans and chimps from a common ancestor. The emergence of major anatomical body types and the origin of life, to choose just two examples popular among IDC followers, are phenomena supposedly too complex to be explained naturally; thus, IDC demands that a role be left for the intelligent designer — God.

About.com sums it up very well:

Intelligent Design is, like all other creationist movements, more about politics and religion than about science. Where Intelligent Design differs is that it was originally and deliberately conceived in explicitly political terms whereas earlier creationist movements tended to acquire political goals and principles over time. This is very important to understand because it reveals as false the pretensions of Intelligent Design apologists that they are involved in a scientific enterprise.

The US judicial system recognized the similarity between the two, as well (see this article). Judge Jones noted in the Dover School case:

ID uses the same, or exceedingly similar arguments as were posited in support of creationism. One significant difference is that the words “God,” “creationism,” and “Genesis” have been systematically purged from ID explanations, and replaced by an unnamed “designer.”
Demonstrative charts introduced through Dr. [Barbara] Forrest show parallel arguments relating to the rejection of naturalism, evolution’s threat to culture and society, “abrupt appearance” implying divine creation, the exploitation of the same alleged gaps in the fossil record, the alleged inability of science to explain complex biological information like DNA, as well as the theme that proponents of each version of creationism merely aim to teach a scientific alternative to evolution to show its “strengths and weaknesses,” and to alert students to a supposed “controversy” in the scientific community. In addition, creationists made the same argument that the complexity of the bacterial flagellum supported creationism as Professors Behe and Minnich now make for ID.

ID cartoon
Talkreason.org has many good articles critiquing ID, but this one is particularly good because it deconstructs a description from the “Discovery Institute” (the political and religious organization that developed and promotes ID, and spreads the wedge):

Right away we are told that ID is a program conducted by “scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature.” Basically this is an admission that their program is not about gathering data and allowing the evidence to lead them wherever it may, but rather a mission to find evidence which supports a predetermined conclusion — that being that an intelligent agent created everything. In this way, the ID “researcher” confines himself to analysis of only those findings which he may have use for as a buttress for the conclusion he has already arrived at. It goes without saying that this is not science. To presuppose automatically the existence of a (perhaps supernatural) designer is to preclude real, thoughtful, scientific research in accordance with the scientific method, since science deals only with observable, measurable, phenomena.

You can’t research an act of god. Any god. What happens when you find something you can’t fully explain or understand? IDers would assign it to “the designer” then move on. Scientists would investigate further to try and provide an answer that doesn’t involve a supernatural cause. They would look to see what existing laws, theories or hypotheses are related and whether they apply. They would test, then retest, and test again until something made sense, long after IDers had shrugged their shoulders and given up looking.
ID trial arguments
ID is, like the notion of the flat earth, based not on observation, research and experimentation, but simply on blind faith.
Intelligent geography
Why would ID deserve any more research that, say, phrenology? ID has already decided the answer, so anything scientists find that explains outside that answer will be rejected by the IDers. They already start by rejecting science – evolution, cosmology, biology.
Common Sense Atheism does allow that creationism and ID are, semantically, different terms (although joined at the hip by their theological basis):

Here’s how I like to think of Creationism and Intelligent Design. I tend to use “Creationism” to refer to theories informed by the Bible or Christian (or Muslim) theology. For example, a theory including a 6,000 year old Earth is obviously Creationism.
In contrast, I tend to use “Intelligent Design” to refer to modern attempts at natural theology, which are not dependent on scripture or doctrine. The method of natural theology is to make an inference from observations of public, natural evidence to the existence of some kind of Designer or First Cause. This method does not allow you to assume any properties at all about the Designer that cannot be inferred from the observations of public, natural evidence… Remember, “intelligent design” and “creationism” are just words. They mean whatever we say they mean.

I agree, but I prefer to call it “ID creationism” so that the concept is not mis-identified by those who are not aware of the historical or political origins of the ID movement, and somehow mistakenly think that ID is actually something scientific.It isn’t. It’s claptrap masquerading as an “alternative” to science. Why should we pretend otherwise?

Watch Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial on PBS. See more from NOVA.

~~~~~
* Clearly the whole argument fails if you don’t believe in this or any other deity. If it wasn’t Ganesh who made the world and all the cute bunnies and squirrels, then I ain’t buying it… but you don’t have to be an atheist to believe in evolution: a modest education, and an open mind are all you need.

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Evolution, Creationism, and Elections

Jesus and dinosarsEarlier this summer, Gallup released the results of its latest poll on American belief in evolution, creationism and “intelligent” design. The results are among the most depressing numbers ever posted about the decay of American thought and education. Yet although this should set off the warning bells to both US presidential candidates that something needs to be done to stem this problem, none of this has been raised in the debates or on the campaign trail.

How can this have happened in one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world? How is it that the only nation to put a man on the moon, a nation that can put a rover on Mars or a satellite into orbit around Saturn with pinpoint accuracy, has so many superstitious dunderheads?

American fundamentalism is becoming increasingly pronounced in the political process, and has interfered at many levels in the education system to force its beliefs into curricula. Surely some of the American policy makers recognize this disturbing trend, but none have, so far, addressed it.*

In the excellent TV drama, The Newsroom, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) attacks the American fundamentalists in politics – the so-called Tea Party wing that has hijacked the Republican party – calling them the American Taliban. It’s easy to see the parallels between them – they both want a faith-based curricula, to punish non-believers in their particularly myopic faith, to merge that faith with the political process, and to repeal women’s rights and return them to a subservient role as chattel. McAvoy’s statement, made in the final episode of series one, is easily understood by anyone who has been watching recent US election campaigns.

The question about belief in evolution or other notions has been asked by Gallup since 1986 and the results have been fairly consistent. Gallup asked the following questions. The current and historical results are charted below.
Gallup poll on evolution vs superstition
Forty-six per cent of respondents believe in magic and myth rather than the copious scientific proof for evolution. That is nearly half of all Americans! That number has not dipped below 40% since Gallup started asking the question. A third of Americans (32%) believe humans evolved, but under their god’s guiding hand.

Gallup has asked Americans to choose among these three explanations for the origin and development of human beings 11 times since 1982. Although the percentages choosing each view have varied from survey to survey, the 46% who today choose the creationist explanation is virtually the same as the 45% average over that period — and very similar to the 44% who chose that explanation in 1982. The 32% who choose the “theistic evolution” view that humans evolved under God’s guidance is slightly below the 30-year average of 37%, while the 15% choosing the secular evolution view is slightly higher (12%).

The American belief in the science of evolution**, as a natural process independent of deities or magical intervention, has never risen above 16%. It’s at 15% today. Only one in seven Americans believe in one of the most important, most most heavily documented and evidenced laws of biology. So why isn’t this failure of education in the front lines of the presidential debate?

Some of this is the result of the unrelenting political and social campaigns and lobbying by the Christian right and its anti-science organizations to reinforce their fundamentalist grip on US politics. And they seem to have succeeded in getting may of their supporters into office.

The presidential candidates are likely too scared to confront this army of ignorant believers – especially Romney, whose Republicans make up the largest group of superstitious believers, as Gallup noted:

Majority of Republicans Are Creationists
Highly religious Americans are more likely to be Republican than those who are less religious, which helps explain the relationship between partisanship and beliefs about human origins. The major distinction is between Republicans and everyone else. While 58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, 39% of independents and 41% of Democrats agree.

But Obama is equally silent on the issue to, maybe because the poll showed 41% of Democrats are equally superstitious and believe in creationism.

Yet both candidates (and see here) have admitted they believe in evolution, not creationism, and oppose teaching creationism in schools. So why don’t they say so on the campaign trail, especially in states that have brought this nonsense into schools?

No one, it seems, wants to confront the idiots who support creationism, and rub their noses in their ignorance. And by not doing so, politicians have allowed the fundamentalists to set the political agenda.

Madness. I’m not the only one concerned about how the religious right as hijacked the political debate – almost any topic from abortion to gay marriage to science to other faiths comes with a heavy doze of fundamentalist disapproval. As Katherine Stewart recently wrote,

The far right’s fixation on same-sex relationships is so ludicrous that it defines a sub-category of camp. But let’s take a step back for a moment. The big question, the one that keeps coming back in every one of these skirmishes in the culture wars, is: why is the loudest religion in American politics today so much about hate?

(A comment on the GOP’s religiously-fuelled policies over women’s rights and abortion can be found in a recent HuffPost blog by Ethan Rome.)

Can you imagine an elected politician who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee making a statement that evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of hell”? But that comment came from Republican Rep. Paul Broun last month.

An ultraconservative congressman whose district includes the University of Georgia campus, Broun told a Baptist church last month that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were lies spread by scientists out to erode people’s faith in Jesus Christ. He also claimed the Earth is roughly 9,000 years, a view held by fundamentalist Christians based on biblical accounts of creation.

Here are his actual words:

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

Another recent member of that committee was Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who claimed victims of “legitimate rape” were unlikely to become pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with American politics in 2012: the religious right. It’s also what is particularly wrong with the Republican Party. And for the life of me, I can’t find anything to disprove Will McAvoy’s statement.

~~~~~

Let me close with a few quotes from this American Taliban:
“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship.”
“This is God’s world, not Satan’s. Christians are the lawful heirs, not non-Christians.”
Gary North (Institute for Christian Economics)
“When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right to practice evil.”
Gary Potter (Catholics for Christian Political Action)
“I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
George Bush Sr. (former President of the United States)
“The Christian community has a golden opportunity to train an army of dedicated teachers who can invade the public school classrooms and use them to influence the nation for Christ.”
James Kennedy (Center for Reclaiming America)
“Evolution is a bankrupt speculative philosophy, not a scientific fact. Only a spiritually bankrupt society could ever believe it…Only atheists could accept this Satanic theory.”
Jimmy Swaggart (Jimmy Swaggart Ministries)
“Nobody has the right to worship on this planet any other God than Jehovah. And therefore the state does not have the responsibility to defend anybody’s pseudo-right to worship an idol.”
Joseph Morecraft (Chalcedon Presbyterian Church)
“I’m an old-fashioned woman. Men should take care of women, and if men were taking care of women today, we wouldn’t have to vote.”
Kay O’Connor (Kansas Senate Republican)
“Anybody that believes in separation of church and state needs to leave right now.”
Star Parker (Coalition on Urban Renewal & Education)

~~~~~

* In Canada, when PC-then-Alliance-politician-then-Conservative cabinet minister, Stockwell Day, was exposed as a “young-earth” creationist in national media, he was widely ridiculed and criticized for for holding both a top political job and erroneous ideologies. In 2008, an Angus Reid poll showed  “58 percent (of Canadians) accept evolution, while 22 percent think that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” That’s better than the US, but still way too high.

** Without evolution, almost everything we know and understand about biology fails. It would be like astronomy without believing in the speed of light – which is exactly what creationism is, because without the time required by Darwinian evolution, the distant galaxies can’t be millions of light years away. Cosmology fails without evolution because it means everything we have learned or posited about the development of stars and planets is false.

CreationistsThe law of entropy, which governs all physics – the second law of thermodynamics – is repealed under creationism. We need a new model to teach us how energy behaves. If creationism is correct, then the entropic effects we have measured in stars and galaxies can’t have happened, since they require millions, even billions of years to occur. Einstein’s relativity, too, goes out the window.

Creationism means humans and Mesozoic dinosaurs co-existed. Humans and Permian dimetrodons co-existed, too. Paleozoic trilobites crawled in the shallow water while humans walked the shore, although no fossil record of them exists after the great Permian extinction. The sea giants megalodon, the giant shark, swam in the oceans with reptilian plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, pliosaurs and the giant armoured fishes of the Devonian, the placoderms.

Woolly mammoths preserved in the Siberian ice during an Ice Age that must not have happened, walked the earth while pterosaurs (extinct 65 million years ago) sailed in the skies above them and Tyrannosaurs hunted on the plains. Humans walked under lepidodendrons, the giant Carboniferous fern-trees we thought extinct along with the trilobites, 250 million years ago. Silurian Eurypterids, the giant sea scorpions, hunted in the shallows. Human-ancestor primates like Australopithecus and other species of humans like Neanderthals, must have also shared the earth with modern humans, if creationism is true.

Creationism means no fossils millions of years old. All that life preserved in rock lived no more than 10,000 years ago (and in some schools of creationism, 6,000 years ago). It must have been a frighteningly dangerous time, with all those giant predators on land, in the sea and air. And all of these creatures disappeared from the planet before 3,600 BCE, when the world’s oldest writing system was devised. Why? Because there is no written record of any of these plants, fish, arthropods, dinosaurs and giant mammals.

Or is there? Some creationists believe that nonsense, and have gone to many great lengths to “prove” the impossible: that humans and dinosaurs co-existed before written history. Claptrap. This is not better than the early creationists who claimed fossils are nothing more than natural formations of stone that look like bones, or that their deity inserted millions of fossils into the rocks to test believers’ faith. Some even claim scientists make fossils from plaster in factories in China! (Note that some museums have plaster casts made from authentic fossils.)

Such crap. Unadulterated, mindless, stupid crap.

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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.

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Flatulent dinosaurs warmed ancient earth

Dino fartAn amusing story on Science Daily says researchers have determined that the giant, herbivorous sauropods of the Mesozoic might have been responsible for the era’s warm climate. Well, not the dinosaurs themselves, but rather the methane-producing bacteria in their guts:

“A simple mathematical model suggests that the microbes living in sauropod dinosaurs may have produced enough methane to have an important effect on the Mesozoic climate,” said Dave Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University. “Indeed, our calculations suggest that these dinosaurs could have produced more methane than all modern sources — both natural and man-made — put together.”

So basically, dinosaur farts created global warming. That would be one stinky environment.

Wilkinson, Ruxton, and Nisbet therefore calculate global methane emissions from sauropods to have been 520 million tons (520 Tg) per year, comparable to total modern methane emissions. Before industry took off on modern Earth about 150 years ago, methane emissions were roughly 200 Tg per year. By comparison, modern ruminant animals, including cows, goats, giraffes, and others, produce methane emission of 50 to 100 Tg per year.

Out-gassing animals have been blamed before as the cause of our recent climate changes. According to this site,

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide (this is more than the whole transportation sector). Cattle-breeding is taking a major factor for these greenhouse gas emissions according to FAO. Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

The site’s conclusion is to “Eat less meat and dairy products.” Now if dinosaurs did better in the hotter climate of the Mesozoic, then curiously the same advice would have been suitable for carnosaurs, because eating the sauropods could have reduced the global climate. Fewer herbivores equals fewer farts equals less methane in the atmosphere equals cooler temperatures. Somehow I can’t see a T. Rex nibbling on the Cretaceous equivalent of broccoli in order to keep a warmer neighbourhood.

Just another example of the wonderful delights we find in the world of science.

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