NTS LogoSkeptical News for 6 September 2004

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Monday, September 06, 2004

Meyer's Hopeless Monster


Posted by Wesley R. Elsberry on August 24, 2004 05:56 PM

Review of Meyer, Stephen C. 2004. The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117(2):213-239.
by Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke, and Wesley R. Elsberry

[The views and statements expressed here are our own and not necessarily those of NCSE or its supporters.] "Intelligent design" (ID) advocate Stephen C. Meyer has produced a "review article" that folds the various lines of "intelligent design" antievolutionary argumentation into one lump. The article is published in the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. We congratulate ID on finally getting an article in a peer-reviewed biology journal, a mere fifteen years after the publication of the 1989 ID textbook Of Pandas and People, a textbook aimed at inserting ID into public schools. It is gratifying to see the ID movement finally attempt to make their case to the only scientifically relevant group, professional biologists. This is therefore the beginning (not the end) of the review process for ID. Perhaps one day the scientific community will be convinced that ID is worthwhile. Only through this route — convincing the scientific community, a route already taken by plate tectonics, endosymbiosis, and other revolutionary scientific ideas — can ID earn a legitimate place in textbooks. Unfortunately, the ID movement will likely ignore the above considerations about how scientific review actually works, and instead trumpet the paper from coast to coast as proving the scientific legitimacy of ID. Therefore, we would like to do our part in the review process by providing a preliminary evaluation of the claims made in Meyer's paper. Given the scientific stakes, we may assume that Meyer, Program Director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, the major organization promoting ID, has put forward the best case that ID has to offer. Discouragingly, it appears that ID's best case is not very good.

We cannot review every problem with Meyer's article in this initial post, but we would like to highlight some of the most serious mistakes. These include errors in facts and reasoning. Even more seriously, Meyer's paper omits discussion or even citation of vast amounts of directly relevant work available in the scientific literature. Summary of the paper Meyer's paper predictably follows the same pattern that has characterized "intelligent design" since its inception: deny the sufficiency of evolutionary processes to account for life's history and diversity, then assert that an "intelligent designer" provides a better explanation. Although ID is discussed in the concluding section of the paper, there is no positive account of "intelligent design" presented, just as in all previous work on "intelligent design". Just as a detective doesn't have a case against someone without motive, means, and opportunity, ID doesn't stand a scientific chance without some kind of model of what happened, how, and why. Only a reasonably detailed model could provide explanatory hypotheses that can be empirically tested. "An unknown intelligent designer did something, somewhere, somehow, for no apparent reason" is not a model.

Meyer's paper, therefore, is almost entirely based on negative argument. He focuses upon the Cambrian explosion as an event he thinks that evolutionary biology is unable to account for. Meyer asserts that the Cambrian explosion represented an actual sudden origin of higher taxa; that these taxa (such as phyla) are "real" and not an artifact of human retrospective classification; and that morphological disparity coincides with phyletic categories. Meyer then argues that the origin of these phyla would require dramatic increases in biological "information," namely new proteins and new genes (and some vaguer forms of "information" at higher levels of biological organization). He argues that genes/proteins are highly "complex" and "specified," and that therefore the evolutionary origin of new genes is so improbable as to be effectively impossible. Meyer briefly considers and rejects several theories proposed within evolutionary biology that deal with macroevolutionary phenomena. Having rejected these, Meyer argues that ID is a better alternative explanation for the emergence of new taxa in the Cambrian explosion, based solely upon an analogy between "designs" in biology and the designs of human designers observed in everyday experience.

The mistakes and omissions in Meyer's work are many and varied, and often layered on top of each other. Not every aspect of Meyer's work can be addressed in this initial review, so we have chosen several of Meyer's major claims to assess. Among these, we will take up the Cambrian explosion and its relation to paleontology and systematics. We will examine Meyer's negative arguments concerning evolutionary theories and the origin of biological "information" in the form of genes. An expanded critique of this paper is in preparation.

Playing with Dynamite: The Cambrian Explosion

The Cambrian explosion is a standard topic for antievolutionists. There are several reasons for this: many taxa make their first appearance in the Cambrian explosion; the amount of time within the period of the Cambrian explosion is geologically brief; and we have limited evidence from both within and before the Cambrian explosion on which to base analysis. The first two factors form the basis of an antievolutionary argument that evolutionary processes are insufficient to generate the observed range of diversity within the limited time available. The last factor is a general feature of the sorts of phenomena that antievolutionists prefer: not enough evidence has yet accrued to single out a definitive scientific account, so it is rhetorically easy for a pseudoscientific "alternative" to be offered as a competitor. In Meyer's closing paragraph, he mentions "experience-based analysis." The consistent experience of biologists is that when we have sufficient evidence bearing upon some aspect of biological origins, evolutionary theories form the basis of explanation of those phenomena (an example where much evidence has become available recently is the origin of birds and bird flight; see Gishlick 2004). Problems with Meyer's discussion of the Cambrian Explosion:

1. Meyer tries to evaluate morphological evolution by counting taxa, a totally meaningless endeavor for investigating the evolution of morphology. Most paleontologists gave up taxa-counting long ago and moved on to more useful realms of research regarding the Cambrian (see Budd and Jensen 2000). This is perhaps why most of Meyer's citations for this section are to his own articles (themselves not in relevant scientific journals).

2. Meyer repeats the claim that there are no transitional fossils for the Cambrian phyla. This is a standard ploy of the Young-Earth Creationists (see Padian and Angielczyk 1999 for extended discussion of this tactic and its problems). Meyer shows a complete lack of understanding of both the fossil record and the transitional morphologies it exhibits (even during the Cambrian explosion; for a recent example of transitional forms in the Cambrian explosion see Shu et al. 2004) as well as the literature he himself cites. (This topic has been dealt with before, as with DI Fellow Jonathan Wells. See Gishlick 2002 at http://www.ncseweb.org/icons/icon2tol.html.)

3. Meyer attempts to argue that the "gaps" in the fossil record reflect an actual lack of ancestors for Cambrian phyla and subphyla. To support this, Meyer cites some papers by University of Chicago reasearcher Mike Foote. However, of the two papers by Foote cited by Meyer, neither deals with the Cambrian/Precambrian records (one concerns the Middle and Late Paleozoic records of crinoids and brachiopods, the other the Mesozoic record of mammal clade divergence), or even transitional fossils. Foote's papers deal with issues of taxonomic sampling: How well does a fossil record sample for a given time period reflect the biodiversity of that period? How well does a given fossil record pinpoint divergence times? Foote's conclusions are that we have a good handle on past biodiversity, and that divergence times probably match appearance in the fossil record relatively closely. But Foote's work utilizes organisms that are readily preserved. It doesn't deal with organisms that aren't readily preserved, a trait that almost certainly applies to the near-microscopic, soft-bodied ancestors of the Cambrian animals. According to Meyer's argument, which doesn't take into account preservation potential, microscopic metazoans such as rotifers must have arisen recently because they entirely lack a fossil record. Neither of Foote's papers supports Meyer's contention that the lack of transitional fossils prior to the Cambrian indicates a lack of ancestors. Lastly, it appears that fossils of the long-hypothesized small, soft-bodied precambrian worms have recently been discovered (Chen et al. 2004).

Information and Misinformation

For some, "information theory" is simply another source of bafflegab. And that appears to be the only role Meyer sees for "information theory". After brief nods to Shannon and algorithmic information theory, Meyer leaves the realm of established and accepted information theoretic work entirely.

1. Meyer invokes Dembski's "specified complexity"/"complex specified information" (SC/CSI) as somehow relevant to the Cambrian explosion. However, under Dembski's technical definition, CSI is not just the conjoint use of the nontechnical words "specified" (as in "functional") and "complexity", as Meyer erroneously asserts. According to Dembski's technical definition, improbability of appearance under natural causes is part of the *definition* of CSI. Only after one has determined that something is wildly improbable under natural causes can one conclude that something has CSI. You can't just say, "boy, that sure is specific and complicated, it must have lots of CSI" and conclude that evolution is impossible. Therefore, Meyer's waving about of the term "CSI" as evidence against evolution is both useless for his argument, and an incorrect usage of Dembski (although Dembski himself is very inconsistent, conflating popular and technical uses of his "CSI," which is almost certainly why Meyer made this mistake. See here for examples of definitional inconsistency.).

2. Meyer relies on Dembski's "specified complexity," but even if he used it correctly (by rigorously applying Dembski's filter, criteria, and probability calculations), Dembski's filter has never been demonstrated to be able to distinguish anything in the biological realm — it has never been successfully applied by anyone to any biological phenomena (Elsberry and Shallit, 2003).

3. Meyer claims, "The Cambrian explosion represents a remarkable jump in the specified complexity or 'complex specified information' (CSI) of the biological world." Yet to substantiate this, Meyer would have to yield up the details of the application of Dembski's "generic chance elimination argument" to this event, which he does not do. There's small wonder in that, for the total number of attempted uses of Dembski's CSI in any even partially rigorous way number a meager four (Elsberry and Shallit, 2003).

4. Meyer claims, "One way to estimate the amount of new CSI that appeared with the Cambrian animals is to count the number of new cell types that emerged with them (Valentine 1995:91-93)" (p.217). This may be an estimate of something, and at least signals some sort of quantitative approach, but we may be certain that the quantity found has nothing to do with Dembski's CSI. The quantitative element of Dembski's CSI is an estimate of the probability of appearance (under natural processes or random assembly, as Dembski shifts background assumptions opportunistically), and has nothing to do with counting numbers of cell types.

Of Text and Peptides

1. Meyer argues that "many scientists and mathematicians have questioned the ability of mutation and selection to generate information in the form of novel genes and proteins" (p. 218). He makes statements to this effect throughout the paper. Meyer does not say who these scientists are, and in particular does not say whether or not any of them are biologists. The origin of new genes and proteins is actually a common, fairly trivial event, well-known to anyone who spends a modicum of effort investigating the scientific literature. The evolution of new genes has been observed in the lab, in the wild, inferred in great detail between closely-related modern species, and reconstructed in hundreds of cases by comparing the genomes from organisms sequenced in genome projects over the last decade (see Long 2001 and related articles, and below).

2. Meyer compares DNA sequences to human language. In this he follows Denton's (1986) Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Denton (1986) argued that meaningful sentences are isolated from each other: it is usually impossible to convert one sentence to another via a series of random letter changes, where each intermediate sentence has meaning. Like Denton (1986), Meyer applies the same argument to gene and protein sequences, concluding that they, like meaningful sentences, must have been produced by intelligent agents. The analogy between language and biological sequence is poor for many reasons; starting with the most obvious point of disanalogy, proteins can lose 80% or more of their sequence similarity and retain the same structure and function (a random example is here). Let's examine an English phrase where four out of five characters have been replaced with a randomly generated text string. See if you can determine the original meaning of this text string: Tnbpursutd euckilecuitn tiioismdeetneia niophvlgorciizooltccilhseema er [1] Eighty percent loss of sequence identity is fatal to English sentences. Clearly proteins are much less specified than language.

3. Meyer cites Denton (1986) unhesitatingly. This is surprising because, while Denton advocated in 1986 that biology adopt a typological view of life, he has abandoned this view (Denton 1998). Among other things, Denton wrote, "One of the most surprising discoveries which has arisen from DNA sequencing has been the remarkable finding that the genomes of all organisms are clustered very close together in a tiny region of DNA sequence space forming a tree of related sequences that can all be interconverted via a series of tiny incremental natural steps." (p. 276) Denton now accepts common descent and disagrees with the "intelligent design" advocates who conjecture the special creation of biological groups, regularly criticizing them for ignoring the overwhelming evidence (Denton 1999).

4. Meyer's case that the evolution of new genes and proteins is essentially impossible relies on just a few references from the scientific literature. For example, Meyer references Taylor et al. 2001, a paper entitled "Searching sequence space for protein catalysts" and available online at the PNAS website. But Taylor et al.'s recommendation for intelligent protein design is actually that it should mimic natural evolution: "[A]s in natural evolution, the design of new enzymes will require incremental strategies…". There is a large mass of evidence supporting the view that proteins are far less "specified" than Meyer asserts. Fully reviewing this would require an article in itself, and would be somewhat beside the point since Meyer's claim is categorically disproven by the recent origin of novel genes by natural processes. (Another way in which "experience-based analysis" leads one to conclusions other than those Meyer asserts.) However, some idea of the diversity of protein solutions to any given enzymatic "problem" is given at the NCBI's Analogous Enzymes webpage, which includes hundreds of examples. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there are many more ways to evolve a solution to any given functional "problem" in biology.

The origin of novel genes/proteins

Meyer makes his case that evolution can't produce new genes in complete neglect of the relevant scientific literature documenting the origin of new genes.

1. A central claim of Meyer's is that novel genes have too much "CSI" to be produced by evolution. The first problem with this is that Meyer does not demonstrate that genes have CSI under Dembski's definition (see above). The second problem is that Meyer cites absolutely none of the literature documenting the origin of new genes. For example, Meyer missed the recent paper in Current Opinion in Genetics and Development with the unambiguous title, "Evolution of novel genes." The paper and 183 related papers can be found here. Many other references can be found linked from here. It is worth listing a few in-text to make crystal-clear the kinds of references that Meyer missed:

Copley, S. D. (2000). "Evolution of a metabolic pathway for degradation of a toxic xenobiotic: the patchwork approach." Trends Biochem Sci 25(6): 261-265. PubMed

Harding, M. M., Anderberg, P. I. and Haymet, A. D. (2003). "'Antifreeze' glycoproteins from polar fish." Eur J Biochem 270(7): 1381-1392. PubMed

Johnson, G. R., Jain, R. K. and Spain, J. C. (2002). "Origins of the 2,4-dinitrotoluene pathway." J Bacteriol 184(15): 4219-4232. PubMed

Long, M., Betran, E., Thornton, K. and Wang, W. (2003). "The origin of new genes: glimpses from the young and old." Nat Rev Genet 4(11): 865-875. PubMed

Nurminsky, D., Aguiar, D. D., Bustamante, C. D. and Hartl, D. L. (2001). "Chromosomal effects of rapid gene evolution in Drosophila melanogaster." Science 291(5501): 128-130. PubMed

Patthy, L. (2003). "Modular assembly of genes and the evolution of new functions." Genetica 118(2-3): 217-231. PubMed

Prijambada I. D., Negoro S., Yomo T., Urabe I. (1995). "Emergence of nylon oligomer degradation enzymes in Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO through experimental evolution." Appl Environ Microbiol. 61(5):2020-2. PubMed

Ranz, J. M., Ponce, A. R., Hartl, D. L. and Nurminsky, D. (2003). "Origin and evolution of a new gene expressed in the Drosophila sperm axoneme." Genetica 118(2-3): 233-244. PubMed

Seffernick, J. L. and Wackett, L. P. (2001). "Rapid evolution of bacterial catabolic enzymes: a case study with atrazine chlorohydrolase." Biochemistry 40(43): 12747-12753. PubMed

2. Meyer cites Axe (2000) as a counter to the evolutionary scenario of successive modifications of genes leading to new protein products. But Axe (2000) is not in any sense about "successive modifications"; Axe modified proteins in several locations at a time. ID advocates love to cite certain Axe papers that indicate that functional proteins are rare in sequence space, but not others that indicate the opposite (Axe et al., 1996). Axe apparently said in 1999 that his work had no relevance to intelligent design.

3. Meyer portrays protein function as all-or-nothing. But protein function is not all-or-nothing. Recent research highlights several evolutionary mechanisms "tinkering" with existing genes to arrive at new genes (Prijambada et al. 1995; Long 2001). But you won't learn about that from Meyer.

4. As far as we can tell, Meyer uses the word "duplication" or something similar only twice in the entire 26-page article. One of these usages is in the references, in the title of an article referring to centriole duplication. The other is on p. 217, where Meyer introduces the genes-from-unnecessary DNA scenario. However, he subsequently ignores duplicated functional genes in this section and focuses on the origin of genes from noncoding DNA. Duplication really belongs with Meyer's section on the second evolutionary scenario, the origin of genes from coding DNA. There, Meyer argued that the origin of new genes from old genes was impossible because such a process would mess up the function of the old genes. If he had put it there, he would have revealed the existence of the extremely simple, and already well-known, solution to the problem that he posed, namely, gene duplication (Lynch and Conery, 2000, 2003).

5. Meyer relies heavily on a new paper by Axe published in the Journal of Molecular Biology. Meyer alleges that Axe (2004) proves that, "the probability of finding a functional protein among the possible amino acid sequences corresponding to a 150-residue protein is similarly 1 in 10^77." But Axe's actual conclusion is that the number is "in the range of one in 10^77 to one in 10^53" (Axe 2004, p. 16). Meyer only reports the lowest extreme. One in 10^53 is still a small number, but Meyer apparently didn't feel comfortable mentioning those 24 orders of magnitude to his reader. A full discussion of Axe (2004) will have to appear elsewhere, but it is worth noting that Axe himself discusses at length the fact that the results one gets in estimating the density of functional sequences depend heavily on methods and assumptions. Axe uses a fairly restricted "target" in his study, which gives a low number, but studies that just take random sequences and assay them just for function — which Meyer repeatedly insists is all that matters in biology — produce larger numbers (Axe 2004, pp. 1-2). [2]

We would like to pose a challenge to Meyer. There are a large number of documented cases of the evolutionary origin of new genes (again, a sample is here). We challenge Meyer to explain why he didn't include them, or anything like them, in his review. We invite readers to wait to see whether or not Meyer ever addresses them at a later date and whether he can bring himself to admit that his most common, most frequent, and most central assertion in his paper is wildly incorrect and widely known to be so in the scientific literature. These points should not be controversial: even Michael Behe, the leading IDist and author of Darwin's Black Box, admits that novel genes can evolve: "Antibiotics and pesticide resistance, antifreeze proteins in fish and plants, and more may indeed be explained by a Darwinian mechanism." (Behe 2004, p. 356) If we might be permitted a prediction, Meyer or his defenders will respond not by admitting their error on this point, but by engaging in calculated obfuscation over the definition of the words "novel" and "fundamentally." They will then assert that, after all, yes, evolution can produce new genes and new information, but not "fundamentally new genes." They will never clarify what exactly counts as fundamental novelty.

Morphological novelty

The origin of morphological novelty is also a large topic with an extensive literature, but unfortunately we can only discuss a limited number of topics in any depth here. To pick two issues, Meyer fails to incorporate any of the work on the origin of morphological novelties in geologically recent cases where evidence is fairly abundant, and Meyer also fails to discuss the crucial role that cooption plays in the origin of novelty. Below is a small sampling of the kinds of papers that Meyer would have had to address in this field in order to even begin to make a case that evolution cannot produce new morphologies:

Ganfornina M. D., Sanchez D. 1999. "Generation of evolutionary novelty by functional shift." Bioessays. 21(5):432-9. PubMed

Mayr, E. 1960. "The Emergence of Evolutionary Novelties." in Evolution After Darwin: Volume 1: The Evolution of Life: Its Origin, History, and Future, Sol Tax, ed. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. pp. 349-380.

Pellmyr, O. and Krenn, H. W., 2002. "Origin of a complex key innovation in an obligate insect-plant mutualism." PNAS. 99(8):5498-5502. PubMed

Prum, R. O. and Brush, A. H., 2002. "The evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers." Q Rev Biol. 77 (3), 261-295. PubMed

True, J. R. and Carroll, S. B., 2002. "Gene co-option in physiological and morphological evolution." Annu Rev Cell Dev Biol. 18, 53-80. PubMed

Mayr's paper in particular is a well-known introduction to the topic. He emphasized the important role of change-of-function for understanding the origin of new structures. In his conclusion he wrote,

"The emergence of new structures is normally due to the acquisition of a new function by an existing structure. In both cases the resulting 'new' structure is merely a modification of a preceding structure. The selection pressure in favor of the structural modification is greatly increased by a shift into a new ecological niche, by the acquisition of a new habit, or by both. A shift in function exposes the fully formed 'preadapted' structure to the new selection pressure. This, in most cases, explains how an incipient structure could be favored by natural selection before reaching a size and elaboration where it would be advantageous for a new role." (p. 377-378)

Mayr wrote this in 1960, at the sprightly age of 56, but it applies rather well to discoveries about the origin of new genes and new morphological structures made in the last few decades. Most new genes and new structures are derived by change-of-function from old genes and old structures, often after duplication. Many other terms are used in the evolutionary literature for this process (Mayr's "preadaptation", replaced by "exaptation" by Gould; cooption; functional shift; tinkering; bricolage; see e.g. the commonly-cited essay by Jacob 1977 for a discussion of the "tinkering" analogy for evolution), but none of them appear in Meyer's essay.

The Power of Negative Thinking

Negative argumentation against evolutionary theories seems to be the sole scientific content of "intelligent design". That observation continues to hold true for this paper by Meyer.

1. Meyer gives no support for his assertion that PE proponents proposed species selection to account for "large morphological jumps". (Use of the singular, "punctuated equilibrium", is a common feature of antievolution writing. It is relatively less common among evolutionary biologists, who utilize the plural form, "punctuated equilibria", as it was introduced by Eldredge and Gould in 1972.)

2. Meyer makes the false claim that PE was supposed to address the problem of the origin of biological information or form. As Gould and Eldredge 1977 noted, PE is a theory about speciation. It is an application of Ernst Mayr's theory of allopatric speciation — a theory at the core of the Modern Synthesis — to the fossil record. Any discussion of PE that doesn't mention allopatric speciation or something similar is ignoring the concept's original meaning.

3. Meyer also makes the false claim that PE was supposed to address the origin of taxa higher than species. This class of error was specifically addressed in Gould and Eldredge 1977. PE is about the pattern of speciation observed in the fossil record, not about taxa other than species.

4. Meyer makes the false claim that genetic algorithms require a "target sequence" to work. Meyer cites two of his own articles as the relevant authority in this matter. However, when one examines these sources, one finds that what is cited in both of these earlier essays is a block of three paragraphs, the content of which is almost identical in the two essays. Meyer bases his denunciation of genetic algorithms as a field upon a superficial examination of two cases. While some genetic algorithm simulations for pedagogy do incorporate a "target sequence", it is utterly false to say that all genetic algorithms do so. Meyer was in attendance at the NTSE in 1997 when one of us [WRE] brought up a genetic algorithm to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem, which was an example where no "target sequence" was available. Whole fields of evolutionary computation are completely overlooked by Meyer. Two citations relevant to Meyer's claims are Chellapilla and Fogel (2001) and Stanley and Miikkulainen (2002). (That Meyer overlooks Chelapilla and Fogel 2001 is even more baffling given that Dembski 2002 discussed the work.) Bibliographies for the entirely neglected fields of artificial life and genetic programming are available at these sites:


A bibliography of genetic algorithms and artificial neural networks is available here.

On the Other Hand: the View Meyer Fails to Consider

When Meyer states that a massive increase in information is required to create all the body plans of the living "phyla" he is implying that evolution had to go from a single celled creature to a complex metazoan in one step, which would be impossible. But the origin of metazoans is not a case of zero to metazoan instantly. Rather, it involves a series of incremental morphological steps. These steps become apparent when the evolution of the major clades of metazoan life is viewed in a phylogenetic context. The literature using this phylogenetic perspective is extensive if Meyer wanted to investigate it (for example see Grande and Rieppel eds. 1994, Carroll 1997, Harvey et al. eds. 1996). Certainly an acknowledgment of such literature is crucial if one is going to discuss these topics in a scholarly article, even if it was to criticize it. No discussion of an evolutionary innovation would be complete without reference to the phylogeny, and yet we find not one in Meyer's 26 page opus. Perhaps the glaring absence of phylogenies owes to Meyer's lack of acceptance of common descent, or perhaps it is because when the relationships of the 'phyla' are seen in a phylogenetic context, one readily sees that all of the complex developmental and morphological features that diagnose the extant clades need not arise simultaneously. Rather, they are added incrementally. First one cell type, then three, multiple body layers, and bilateral symmetry. At this point you have a "worm" and all the other bauplans are basically variations on the worm theme. There are worms with guts, and worms with muscles, worms with segments, worms with appendages, and even worms with a stiff tube in them (this last would be us). Missing from Meyer's picture is any actual discussion of the origins of metazoan development. Reading Meyer, one would think that it is a giant mystery, but the real mystery is why Meyer does not reference this huge area of research.

Meyer implies that the lack of specificity of development in genes is a surprising problem for evolution, yet it is well known and it is widely recognized that development is coordinated by epigenetic interactions of various cell lineages. Meyer treats this fact as if it were some mysterious phenomenon requiring a designer to input information. But, just as the ordered structure of convection cells in is boiling pot of water is not a mystery to physicists even though it is not specified by the shapes of the component water molecules, neither are developmental programs to biologists. The convection cells are an emergent property of the interactions of the water molecules, just as the growth of organismal form is an emergent property of the interactions of cell lineages. It is thought that metazoan development arose by competition between variant cell lineages that arose during ontogeny, and thus its organization remains in the epigenetic interactions of the various cell lineages (Buss 1987). This was extensively documented by Leo Buss in 1987, but Meyer somehow failed to mention this seminal work on the origin of metazoan development.

Understanding the interactions of lineages and their various reciprocal inductions is crucial to understanding the evolution of metazoan development and bodyplans. The study of this forms the basis for the entire field of evolutionary and developmental biology, Meyer acts like this field doesn't even exist, while citing sparingly from some of its works. Also absent is any discussion of the difference between sorting and selection (see Vrba and Gould 1986). The difference is crucial: sorting at one level does not imply selection, but rather may be the result of selection at an entirely different level of the organismal hierarchy. Meyer appears to be completely unaware of this distinction when criticizing the inability of selection to create new morphologies. In some cases novelty at one level in the hierarchy may result when selection occurs somewhere else in the hierearchy: the emergent morphology may actually be the result of a sorting cascade, rather than direct selection. The evolution of metazoan bodyplans involved an exchange between selection at the level of the individual and at the level of the cell lineage, which was sorted through developmental interactions (Buss 1987) .

Finally, any discussion of development and evolution would not be complete without dealing with the effects of heterochrony on form, and here too we find relevant citations glaringly absent despite the prominent place of heterochrony in the literature going back to de Beer. This is 60 years of research missed by Meyer. (The oversight is worse when one considers various contributing ideas in development that date back to von Baer.)

Meyer repeatedly appeals to the notion of an ur-cell metazoan ancestor that had all the genetic potentiality of the different metazoan bauplanes. The reference to this hypothetical super-ancestor is as popular with creationists as it is erroneous to biologists. While biologists have at times proposed a need for such an ur-cell, this is no longer particularly in vogue, because the recognition of hierarchy and epigenetic processes and has removed the need for an all-encompassing ancestor. There are many hierarchies that need to be separated. There is the phylogenetic hierarchy (the order of character acquisition in time), the developmental hierarchy (the order of cell differentiation) and the structural hierarchy (the position of various parts in an organism). Meyer muddles all of these together and treats them like they are all the same thing, but they are not.

A Long Walk Off a Short Peer Review

The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (PBSW) is a respected, if somewhat obscure, biological journal specializing in papers of a systematic and taxonomic nature, such as the description of new species. A review of issues in evolutionary theory is decidedly not its typical fare, even disregarding the creationist nature of Meyer's paper. The fact that the paper is both out of the journal's typical sphere of publication, as well as dismal scientifically, raises the question of how it made it past peer review. The answer probably lies in the editor, Richard von Sternberg. Sternberg happens to be a creationist and ID fellow traveler who is on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group at Bryan College in Tennessee. (The BSG is a research group devoted to the determination of the created kinds of Genesis. We are NOT making this up!) Sternberg was also a signatory of the Discovery Institute's "100 Scientists Who Doubt Darwinism" statement. [3] Given R. v. Sternberg's creationist leanings, it seems plausible to surmise that the paper received some editorial shepherding through the peer review process. Given the abysmal quality of the science surrounding both information theory and the Cambrian explosion, it seems unlikely that it received review by experts in those fields. One wonders if the paper saw peer review at all.

Although this critique has focused on the scientific problems with Meyer's paper, it may be worth briefly considering the political dimensions, as the paper is likely to become part of the ID creationists' lobbying machine. The paper has been out since early August, so it is somewhat puzzling that the Discovery Institute and similar groups have yet to publicize this major event for ID theory. Are they embarrassed at its sub-par (even by ID standards) content, or are they are waiting to spring it on some unsuspecting scientist at a future school board meeting or state legislature hearing? Regardless, once the press releases start to fly, responses to the paper should be careful to not assume facts not in evidence (such as the review, or lack thereof, of Meyer's paper), and should be careful to distinguish between issues that are scientifically important and unimportant. Whether or not editorial discretion was abused in order to enable "intelligent design" to make a coveted appearance in the peer-reviewed scientific literature is not currently known, and is at any rate not the most important issue. The important issue is whether or not the paper makes any scientific contribution: does it propose a positive explanatory model? If the paper is primarily negative critique, does it accurately review the science it purports to criticize? The fact that a paper is shaky on these grounds is much more important than the personalities involved. Intemperate responses will only play into the hands of creationists, who might use these as an excuse to say that the "dogmatic Darwinian thought police" are unfairly giving Meyer and PBSW a hard time. Nor should Sternberg be given the chance to become a "martyr for the cause." Any communication with PBSW should focus upon the features that make this paper a poor choice for publication: its many errors of fact, its glaring omissions of relevant material, and its misrepresentations of the views that it does consider.

The ultimate test of the value of a peer-reviewed paper is whether it spawns actual research and convinces skeptics. Applicability and acceptance in science, not in politics, is the ultimate test of proposed scientific ideas. As we have stated before, all ID advocates have to do is demonstrate to scientists that they have something that works. They need a positive research program showing scientists that ID has more to offer than "Poof, ID did it."


There is nothing wrong with challenging conventional wisdom — continuing challenge is a core feature of science. But challengers should at least be aware of, read, cite, and specifically rebut the actual data that supports conventional wisdom, not merely construct a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, knocking down strawmen, and tendentious interpretations. Unless and until the "intelligent design" movement does this, they are not seriously in the game. They're not even playing the same sport.


As we have said, the errors in this paper are too numerous to document more than a few here. We invite readers to find more mistakes and misrepresentations in this work and add them to our comments section, and/or email them to us to add to the full online critique.


1. The original phrase was: "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories", the title of Meyer's paper. The random text was generated at the random text generator webpage: http://barnyard.syr.edu/monkey.html

2. Page numbers for Axe (2004) in this section refer to the in press, pre-publication version of Axe's paper availabe on the JMB website: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jmb.2004.06.058.

3. As mentioned previously, Meyer is the directory the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Meyer's reported affiliation on the PBSW paper is to Palm Beach Atlantic University, which requires all faculty to affirm the following statement:

To assure the perpetuation of these basic concepts of its founders, it is resolved that all those who become associated with Palm Beach Atlantic as trustees, officers, members of the faculty or of the staff, must believe that man was directly created by God.


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Trackback URL: http://www.pandasthumb.org/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/429

Walking back to genesis

If evolution could be re-run, how would the story end? In this exclusive extract from his latest book, The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins goes back in time to find out

Thursday September 2, 2004

It is a conceit of hindsight to see evolution as aimed towards some particular end point, such as ourselves. A historically minded swift, understandably proud of flight as self-evidently the premier accomplishment of life, might regard swiftkind - those spectacular flying machines with their swept-back wings, who stay aloft for a year at a time and even copulate in free flight - as the acme of evolutionary progress. If elephants could write history they might portray tapirs, elephant shrews, elephant seals and proboscis monkeys as tentative beginners along the main trunk road of evolution, taking the first fumbling steps but each - for some reason - never quite making it: so near yet so far. Elephant astronomers might wonder whether, on some other world, there exist alien life forms that have crossed the nasal rubicon and taken the final leap to full proboscitude.

We are neither swifts nor elephants, we are people. As we wander in imagination through some long dead geologicial epoch, it is humanly natural to reserve a special warmth and curiosity for whichever otherwise ordinary species in that ancient landscape is our ancestor (it is an intriguingly unfamiliar thought that there is always one such species). It is hard to deny our human temptation to see this one species as "on the main line" of evolution, the others as supporting cast, walk-on parts, sidelined cameos. Without succumbing to that error, there is one way to indulge a legitimate human-centrism while respecting historical propriety. That way is to do our history backwards.

The Ancestor's Tale is cast in the form of an epic pilgrimage from the present to the past. All roads lead to the origin of life. But because we are human, the path we shall follow will be a human pilgrimage to discover human ancestors. As we go, we shall greet other pilgrims who join us at a series of rendezvous points, as we encounter the common ancestor we share with each of them.

The first fellow pilgrims we greet, some five million years ago, deep in Africa where Stanley memorably shook hands with Livingstone, are the chimpanzees. A million years further into the past, the gorillas join us, then the orang utans. Next the gibbons, then monkeys ... and so on until we finally greet the bacteria, after which all the pilgrims march together in one single backward quest for the origin of life itself, life's "Canterbury".

Following Chaucer's lead, my pilgrims, which are all the different species of living creature, have the opportunity to tell tales along the way. It is these tales that form the main substance of the book. The Dodo's Tale, on page 6, is just one of them. The Host's Return (part of which follows) summarises what I have learned during the course of the pilgrimage.

Chaucer's genial host, having guided the pilgrims from London to Canterbury and stood impresario to their tales, turned around and led them straight back to London. If I, having made the four-billion-year pilgrimage to the dawn of life, now return to the present, it must be alone, for to presume upon evolution's following the same forward course twice would be to deny the rationale of our backward journey. Evolution was never aimed at a particular endpoint.

And yet, if, to borrow a thought experiment of the American biologist Stuart Kauffman, evolution could be rerun again and again - maybe on an imaginary sample of earthlike planets - how similar would the results be?

Like any zoologist, I can search my mental database of life on this planet and come up with an estimated answer to questions of the form: "How many times has X evolved independently?" "The" eye has evolved more than 40 times, to nine different "designs". Echolocation - the trick of emitting sound pulses and navigating by accurate timing of the echoes - has evolved at least four times: in bats, toothed whales, oilbirds and cave swiftlets. Not as many times as the eye's tally of 40-60, but still often enough to make us suspect that, if the conditions are right, sonar will evolve.

To do the counts more systematically would make a good research project. What systems have evolved many times independently, like eyes? Or "several times", like echolocation? Have some things evolved only once, or not at all? I suspect that we'd find certain potential evolutionary pathways which life is "eager" to go down. Other pathways have more "resistance".

Elsewhere, I developed the analogy of a huge museum of all life, both real and conceivable, with corridors going off in many dimensions to represent evolutionary change, both real and conceivable. The corridor of eyes is wide open, almost beckoning. Other corridors are blocked off by barriers that are hard or even impossible to surmount. Evolution repeatedly races down the easy corridors, and just occasionally, and unexpectedly, leaps one of the hard barriers.

The venomous sting (injecting poison hypodermically through a sharp-pointed tube) has evolved at least 10 times independently: in jellyfish and their relatives, in spiders, scorpions, centipedes, insects, molluscs (cone shells) snakes, the shark group (stingrays), bony fish (stonefish), mammals (male platypus) and plants (stinging nettles). It's a good bet that venom, including hypodermic injection, would evolve in reruns.

Sound production for social purposes has evolved independently in birds, mammals, crickets and grasshoppers, cicadas, fish and frogs. Electrolocation, the use of weak electric fields for navigation, has evolved several times in fish and the duckbilled platypus. So has the - probably subsequent - use of electric currents as weapons. The physics of electricity is the same on all worlds, and we could bet with some confidence on repeated evolution of creatures that exploit electricity for both navigational and offensive purposes.

True flapping flight, as opposed to passive gliding or parachuting, has evolved four times: in insects, pterodactyls, bats and birds. Parachuting and gliding of various kinds evolved many times, maybe hundreds of times independently, and may be an evolutionary precursor to true flight. Examples include lizards, frogs, snakes, "flying" fish, squids, colugos, marsupials and rodents (twice). I'd put a lot of money on gliders turning up in hypothetical reruns of evolution, and a reasonable sum on true flapping fliers.

Jet propulsion may have evolved twice. Cephalopod molluscs do it, at high speed in the case of squids. The other example I can think of is also a mollusc, but it is not high-speed. Scallops mostly live on the sea bottom, but occasionally they swim. They rhythmically open and close their two shells, like a pair of snapping castanets. You'd think that this would propel them "backwards" in a direction opposite to the snapping. In fact, they move "forwards", as though biting their way into the water. How can this be? The answer is that the snapping movements pump water through a pair of apertures behind the hinge. These two jets propel the animal "forwards". The effect is so counter-intuitive it is almost comical.

But how about things that have evolved only once, or not at all? The wheel, with a true, freely rotating bearing, seems to have evolved only once, in bacteria, before being finally invented in human technology. Language, too, has apparently evolved only in us: that is to say at least 40 times less often than the eye. It is surprisingly hard to think of "good ideas" that have evolved only once.

I put the challenge to my Oxford colleague the entomologist and naturalist George McGavin, and he came up with a nice list, but still a short one compared with the list of things that have evolved many times. Bombardier beetles of the genus Brachinus are unique in Dr McGavin's experience in mixing chemicals to make an explosion. The ingredients are made and held in separate (obviously!) glands. When danger threatens, they are squirted into a chamber near the rear end of the beetle, where they explode, forcing noxious (caustic and boiling-hot) liquid out through a directed nozzle at the enemy. The case is well known to creationists, who love it. They think it is self-evidently impossible to evolve by gradual degrees because the intermediate stages would all explode. What they don't understand is that the explosive reaction requires a catalyst: gradually increase the dose of catalyst, and you gradually escalate the explosion, from nothing to lethal.

Next in the McGavin list is the archer fish, which may be unique in shooting a missile to knock prey down from a distance. It comes to the surface of the water and spits a mouthful at a perched insect, knocking it down into the water, where it eats it. The other possible candidate for a "knocking down" predator might be an ant lion. Ant lions are insect larvae of the order Neuroptera. Like many larvae, they look nothing like their adults. With their huge jaws, they would be good casting for a horror film. Each ant lion lurks in sand, just below the surface at the base of a conical pit trap which it digs itself. It digs by flicking sand vigorously outwards from the centre - this causes miniature landslides down the sides of the pit, and the laws of physics do the rest, neatly shaping the cone. Prey, usually ants, fall into the pit and slide down the steep sides into the ant lion's jaws. The possible point of resemblance to the archer fish is that prey don't fall only passively. They are sometimes knocked down into the pit by the particles of sand. These are not, however, aimed with the precision of an archer fish's spit, which is guided, with devastating accuracy, by binocularly focused eyes.

Spitting spiders, family Scytodidae, are a bit different again. Lacking the fleetness of a wolf spider or the net of a web spider, the spitting spider chucks a venomous glue some distance towards its prey, pinning it to the ground until the spider arrives and bites it to death. This is different from the archer fish technique of knocking prey down. Various animals, for example venom-spitting cobras, spit defensively, not to catch prey. The bolas spider, Mastophora, is different again, and is probably another unique case. It could be said to throw a missile at prey (moths, attracted by the fake sexual scent of a female moth, which the spider synthesises). But the missile, a blob of silk, is attached to a thread of silk which the spider whirls around like a lasso (or bola) and reels in.

McGavin's next candidate for an evolutionary one-off is a beauty. It is the diving bell spider, Argyroneta aquatica. This spider lives and hunts entirely under water but, like dolphins, dugongs, turtles, freshwater snails and other land animals that have returned to water, it needs to breathe air. Unlike all those other exiles, Argyroneta constructs its own diving bell. It spins it of silk (silk is the universal solution to any spider problem) attached to an underwater plant. The spider goes to the surface to collect air, which it carries in the same way as some water bugs, in a layer trapped by body hairs. But unlike the bugs, which just carry the air like a scuba cylinder wherever they go, the spider takes it to its diving bell, where it unloads it to replenish the supply. The spider sits in the diving bell watching for prey, and it stores and eats prey there, once caught.

But George McGavin's champion example of a one-off is the larva of an African horsefly called Tabanus. Predictably in Africa, the pools of water in which the larvae live and feed dry up. Each larva buries itself in the mud and pupates. The adult fly emerges from the baked mud and flies off to feed on blood, eventually to complete the cycle by laying eggs in pools of water when the rains return. The buried larva is vulnerable to a predictable danger. As mud dries out, it cracks, and there is a risk that a crack will tear right across the grub's refuge. It could theoretically save itself if it could somehow engineer a way for any crack that approaches it to be diverted around it instead. And it does indeed achieve this in a truly wonderful and probably unique manner. Before burying itself in its own pupation chamber, it first corkscrews its way down into the mud in a spiral. It then corkscrews its way back to the surface in an opposite spiral. Finally, it dives into the mud straight down the centre between the two spirals, and that is its resting place through the bad times until water returns.

Now, you see what this means? The larva is encased in a cylinder of mud whose circular boundary has been weakened in advance by the preliminary spiral burrowing. This means that when a crack snakes across the drying mud, if it hits the edge of the cylindrical column, instead of cutting straight across the middle it goes instead in a curved bypass around the edge of the cylinder, and the larva is spared. It is just like the perforations around a stamp which stop you tearing the stamp across. Dr McGavin believes that this ingenious trick is literally unique to this one genus of horsefly.

This kind of comparative exercise, counting which things evolve often, and which seldom, might help us to predict things about life outside this planet. Which features of life are parochial, and which universal? This is a question that biologists ask less often than they should.

If, as returning host, I reflect on this whole pilgrimage, my overwhelming reaction is one of amazement. Amazement at the extravaganza of detail that we have seen; amazement, too, at the very fact that there are any such details to be had at all, on any planet. The universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple - just physics and chemistry, the scattered dust of the cosmic explosion that gave birth to time and space. The fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing, is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice. Even that is not the end of the matter. Not only did evolution happen: it eventually led to beings capable of comprehending the process, and even of comprehending the process by which they comprehend it.

This pilgrimage has been a trip, not just in the literal sense but in the counter-cultural sense I met when a young man in California in the 1960s. The most potent hallucinogen on sale in Haight or Ashbury or Telegraph Avenue would be tame by comparison. If it's amazement you want, the real world has it all. Not only is life on this planet amazing, and deeply satisfying, to all whose senses have not become dulled by familiarity. The very fact that we have evolved the brain power to understand our evolutionary genesis redoubles the amazement and compounds the satisfaction.

The Ancestor's Tale: A pilgrimage to the dawn of life by Richard Dawkins is published by Weidenfeld &Nicolson today at Ł25.


Sunday, September 05, 2004

Fake ghostbuster busted


Police in India have arrested a man for dressing up as a ghost and then offering to drive away the spirit for money.

Ambika Rai allegedly wore a black dress to scare people at night on the streets of the West Bengal town of Siliguri.

He would later seek out the very same people and offer to perform expensive rituals "to drive away the ghost".

The scam was discovered when police were alerted by a phone call and joined locals in chasing the black 'ghost'.

Mr Rai was caught and admitted he was the ghost all along.

He confessed to charging hefty amounts for his ghostbusting services and taking home all the gifts that were given to him by people to appease the ghost.

Astronomers deny ET signal report

By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Astronomers have moved swiftly to quell speculation they may have received a deep-space radio signal from ET. It was reported on the internet that the signal had been found using the Seti@home screensaver that uses computer downtime to analyse sky data from telescopes.

But researchers connected with the project told BBC News Online on Thursday that no contact with extraterrestrials had been made.

"It's all hype and noise," said its chief scientist, Dr Dan Wertheimer. "We have nothing that is unusual. It's all out of proportion."

And Dr Paul Horowitz, of Harvard University, who specialises in hunting for possible alien contacts added: "It's not much of anything at all. We're not investigating it further."

Not a signal

For six years, the Seti@home project has used a downloadable screensaver on millions of computers around the world to sift through data for anything unusual.

The data has been collected by radio telescopes scanning the sky for any unusual signals from space.

It is believed that any extraterrestrial intelligence might want to send radio messages across the cosmos to make contact with other intelligences. Over the years, Seti@home has detected many hundreds of thousands of spurious signals and has used statistical techniques to identify them as interference.

About 150 signals survived the process and were subjected to further scrutiny but none passed the final test to be classed as a potential signal from ET.

Large numbers

The "signal" that kicked off furious media excitement on Thursday is called SHGb02+14a and was first detected by computers running Seti@home software in Germany and the US.

It has a frequency of 1420 megahertz - one of the principal frequencies of the most abundant element hydrogen.

Speaking to BBC News Online from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, where he is preparing an observing run to follow up Seti@home analysis, Dr Wertheimer said: "It's all hype. We don't have anything we are excited about.

"At the moment, we have no candidates that we are particularly excited about and the new 'signal' is not a priority."

He continued: "With Seti@home having analysed some 50 trillion frequency bands, it is not surprising that a signal like this occurs purely due to chance."

Dr Horowitz, who looks for alien signals using optical telescopes, told BBC News Online that it was "not new and definitely not a signal".

Story from BBC NEWS:

Sorry, E.T., but Parcel Post May Beat Phoning Home



September 2, 2004

Ever since 1960, when a Cornell astronomer named Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope at a pair of nearby stars on the chance that he might hear a cosmic "howdy" from extraterrestrial beings, astronomers have persevered in the notion that radio or light waves could bridge the unbridgeable gulfs marooning civilizations in space and time.

So far there has been only silence, but in their wildest, most romantic moments, astronomers dream of tapping into a kind of galactic library in which the knowledge and records of long-dead civilizations are beamed across the galaxy.

Now, however, it appears that E.T. might be better off using snail mail.

According to new calculations being published by a physicist and an electrical engineer today in the journal Nature, it is enormously more efficient to send a long message as a physical package, a cosmic FedEx, than as radio wave or laser pulse. As a result, say the authors, Dr. Christopher Rose, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Rutgers, and Dr. Gregory Wright, a physicist at Antipodes Associates in Fair Haven, N.J., searchers for extraterrestrial intelligence should pay more attention to how messages could be inscribed and delivered and where they might be found.

"Our results suggest that carefully searching our own planetary backyard may be as likely to reveal evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations as studying distant stars through telescopes," they wrote.

In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Woodruff T. Sullivan of the University of Washington said that although this was not a new idea, the new paper was the first quantitative analysis of the comparative costs of the ways of delivering information between the stars. He compared the notion of a message in a bottle to the monolith left as a calling card by aliens in "2001: A Space Odyssey," adding, "If astroarchaeologists were to find such, it would hardly be the first time that science fiction had become science fact."

Although the result sounds counterintuitive, the problem will be familiar to anyone who ever spent time shrinking a digital photograph before trying to send it over the Internet through a dial-up connection. It would be much easier to drive a truck of photo albums across town or put them in an overnight-mail box than to go through the process of scanning and shrinking each photo.

The paper, Nature's cover article, is being received with bemusement by veterans of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.

Dr. Paul Horowitz, a Harvard physicist and SETI expert, called it "a fun and an enjoyable read, but I wouldn't turn off my radio telescope and go out with my butterfly net."

The new argument is based on a simple observation. The farther a light beam or radio wave is sent, the more it spreads out, and the smaller fraction of its energy is recaptured at the other end. Moreover, if the recipients are not looking in the right direction at the right frequency when the signal arrives, it will shoot past and be lost. A letter, by contrast, does not disperse in transit, and waits at its destination until it is read.

And with modern nanotechnology, the authors point out, that letter can contain quite a lot. Some 1022 bits of information - much more than the sum of all the written and electronic information on Earth - can be encoded into a cube weighing about 2.2 pounds, Dr. Rose and Dr. Wright say.

Even allowing for thousands of pounds of lead to protect the message from cosmic rays and the weight of fuel, they calculated that it would take 100 million times as much energy to radiate those bits from the world's largest radio telescope to an antenna 10,000 light-years away as to send it them in a "letter."

The hitch is that the package could not travel as fast as radio waves. At only one-thousandth the speed of light, it could take 20 million or 30 million years to reach distant stars, but that is still a blink compared with the galaxy's age, 10 billion years.

The main advantage of radio waves, the authors argue, is the possibility of two-way communication. But other beings could be so far away - hundreds or thousands of light-years - that even at the speed of light a reply would be impossible.

"If you're simply trying to say, 'Here we are,' a radio wave is the best way to do it," Dr. Rose said in an interview. But he added that any detailed information would require a long message. Still, he acknowledged that someone out there might be trying to communicate that way.

"We'd be goofy not to keep looking for radio waves," he said.

Dr. Jill Tarter, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, intends to keep on doing just that. "We've always reserved the right to get smarter and add new search strategies to our arsenals," she said. "For me personally, I'm sticking with radio."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

The Real Story Behind The Exorcist

Benjamin Radford


The new Exorcist film (Exorcist: The Beginning (http://exorcistthebeginning.warnerbros.com/) ) scared up some $18.2 million on its opening last weekend but has garnered universally horrific reviews so far.

The original story was allegedly "Based on a True Story!" It is a fair question to ask for some historical accuracy when a film (or book) is touted as having been based on real events. After all, if the story is too fictionalized, why bother to go with the "ripped-from-the-headlines" angle, except for marketing purposes?

The "real story" behind The Exorcist is a long and complicated one, but I' ll give the short version and direct readers to all the gory (and not-so-gory) details for further reading.

To Read More of This Column Visit:


Anti-evolution paper met with 'hysteria, name-calling'


'Intelligent design' defense published in peer-reviewed science journal

Posted: September 4, 2004
1:00 a.m. Eastern

© 2004 WorldNetDaily.com

The publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal of an article expounding and defending "Intelligent Design" was met with "hysteria, name-calling and personal attack," according to the report's author.

According to a story in The Scientist, Dr. Steven Meyer's article, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," published online Aug. 28, was greeted with widespread criticism from members of the society publishing the journal – the Biological Society of Washington.

According to its website, The Scientist is "an international news magazine published in print and on the Web. It reports on and analyzes the issues and events that impact the world of life scientists."

Intelligent Design – which one critic calls "the old creationist arguments in fancy clothes" – is the "idea that the origin of information is best explained by an act of intelligence rather than a strictly materialistic process," Meyer told The Scientist.

In his article, Meyer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, states: "What natural selection lacks, intelligent selection – purposive or goal-directed design – provides."

The Discovery Institute "supports research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design."

Many scientists reportedly expressed shock and outrage that an article questioning evolution would be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. According to The Scientist:

Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, said, "many members of the society were stunned about the article. … It's too bad the Proceedings published it," Scott added. "The article doesn't fit the type of content of the journal. The bottom line is that this article is substandard science."

The Panda's Thumb, a Web log dealing with evolutionary science, calls Meyer's article "a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, and tendentious interpretations."

However, National Center for Biotechnology Information staff scientist Richard Sternberg told The Scientist the three peer reviewers of Meyer's paper "all hold faculty positions in biological disciplines at prominent universities and research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, one at a major U.S. public university, and another at a major overseas research institute."

All found the paper "meritorious, warranting publication," he said.

Moreover, Sternberg told the journal he and Meyer have falsely been labeled creationists by the scientific community, noting: "It's fascinating how the 'creationist' label is falsely applied to anyone who raises any questions about neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. The reaction to the paper by some [anti-creationist] extremists suggests that the thought police are alive and well in the scientific community."

The Discovery Institute's communications director, Robert L. Crowther, explained the difference between intelligent design and creationism.

"Dr. Meyer is a well-known proponent of intelligent design and that is what his paper is about," Crowther told The Scientist. "To try and characterize him as a creationist is just an attempt to stigmatize him and marginalize his paper, all the while avoiding the scientific issues that it raises."

Meyer puts it even more bluntly: "I have received a number of private communications from scientists expressing their agreement or intrigue with the arguments that I develop in my article. Public reaction to the article, however, has been mainly characterized by hysteria, name-calling and personal attack."

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Creationists keen to fund Scots schools


McConnell plan lets investors shape curriculum
By Paul Hutcheon, Scottish Political Editor

FIRST Minister Jack McConnell's plan to encourage entrepreneurs to fund state schools was condemned last night after it emerged it was attracting the attention of Christian fundamentalists who have banned Harry Potter books from classrooms and who advance creationism.

The scheme, details of which are expected to be announced in the autumn, is expected to give the green light to successful business people who want to invest in struggling schools.

In exchange for an injection of cash, the tycoons will be allowed to influence their ethos, lend expertise and help develop specialisms in areas such as business.

McConnell believes working with the private sector is one way to modernise the comprehensive system and raise standards in secondary education.

The plan is loosely based on English city academies, which draw some funding from the private sector and select a small number of their pupils.

But the policy south of the Border has been embroiled in controversy after it was discovered that a number of the academies were funded by businessmen who used their influence to promote the teaching of creationism, which rejects Darwin's theory of evolution. The Sunday Herald can reveal that a number of individuals funding city academies in England are queuing up to get involved in Scotland.

David Vardy, who is project director of the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, which is sponsoring two city academies in the north of England, said he would like to discuss the scheme with McConnell.

"We'd be interested in talking," he said. "The conditions would have to be right, and local authorities would have to be supportive, as would parents and central government."

Vardy runs the foundation on behalf of his brother, Sir Peter Vardy, a millionaire car dealer and creationist. He said the schools, which specialise in business and enterprise, teach evolution as just another theory.

"They haven't proved it yet, so it's still a theory. The scientists are changing their minds on it all the time," he said. "In science lessons, we teach what the national curriculum requires, which is that children are expected to examine conflicting theories. What we encourage is to have people thinking about creation. Faith is respected, not denigrated or ignored."

Vardy added that "traditional" family values were central to the ethos of the schools. "We believe marriage is the best option for families and this is what is best for young people in the future. Sex education would include abstinence as a preferred option to contraception."

Steve Chalke, whose Oasis Trust organisation is sponsoring one city academy in north London, would also like to meet McConnell about the Scottish scheme. The Oasis City Academy, due to open in 2007, places Christianity at the heart of the school. "I'd be very keen to have a conversation with the First Minister," he said. "I know there are resources to be put into Scotland. We would invest."

Another group, Christian Vision, is planning to sponsor three city academies in England. Founder Bob Edmiston dismisses evolution as a theory that "came from one guy called Darwin" and says his teachers must subscribe to "Christian values". He also insists his schools will not stock JK Rowling books.

"Harry Potter is about witchcraft and sorcery. Clearly we don't want to be teaching that in our academies," he said. Edmiston said he too would be happy to talk with McConnell.

Ewan Aitken, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities spokesman, said he would not like to see creationists fund Scottish schools. "I'd say, ‘don't bother coming'. I'd resist it both as a politician and as an ordained minister."

Educational Institute of Scotland general secretary Ronnie Smith said the revelations showed that McConnell had to clarify his proposals. "We won't condone the circumstances where a state school is shaped or influenced in what it teaches by those who put money into it. It would be useful if there were clear proposals from the First Minister," he said.

05 September 2004

New entry for SKEPTIC Bibliography

http://www.csicop.org/bib/672 Amelia Earhart Survived
Rollin C. Reineck
2003, Paragon Agency; 230p., photos
conspiracy:defense, crankery:defense

The 1937 Amelia Earhart disappearance in the Pacific has been a subject of much speculation. Reineck's book favors two older ideas, that (1) Earhart crash-landed in the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands and was captured by the Japanese; and (2) she reappeared in the US after World War II using the assumed name Irene Bolam. He adds a new "mission" (Earhart gave the US military an excuse to recon the Marshall Islands) and new photographic evidence (some photos of Bolam looked like Earhart). There are several gaps in logic and much of the detective work on Bolam is left undone. Reineck is not a professional author and it shows. For example, he leaves threads of evidence at loose ends so the reader can't tell what he intends. Reineck's claims, especially the outlandish Irene Bolam connection, demand much more rigorous evidence than he provides here.

[ Reviewed by Scott White, scottwlb@earthlink.net ]

Visit the full bibliography at http://www.csicop.org/bibliography/
Please consider submitting an entry yourself.

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC bibliographer


New entry for SKEPTIC Bibliography (Dembski: Design Revolution)


The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design
William A. Dembski
2004, InterVarsity, 334p.
creationism:defense, religion:defense, religion:philosophy

A valuable book which collects and clarifies much of what Dembski has said defining and defending "intelligent design" or "ID." In this sense, it is a useful resource, as Dembski is ID's leading theorist. This book should be a standard reference on the version of ID which claims information-rich structures only arise from design. Dembski is supremely confident, saying the intelligent design viewpoint can be readily defended against all "Darwinist" criticism, and that this book at least summarizes such defenses. On some counts, he is correct. Philosophical and theological objections to ID have been remarkably weak, and Dembski succeeds in showing ID cannot be dismissed out of hand. So *if* ID as a research program delivered the scientific goods Dembski promises, it could be a contender. But what this book also does is show how remarkably weak ID is in the scientific arena. Demsbki's design detection scheme is hardly impressive; it seems naive and unworkable as presented. His allusions to experimental support, or more often, hints at gross failures of Darwinian science, are either exaggerated or outright false. Worse, Dembski studiously ignores most of the best available scientific criticism of ID. This is terrible scholarship at least.

Visit the full bibliography at http://www.csicop.org/bibliography/
Please consider submitting an entry yourself.

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC bibliographer


Saturday, September 04, 2004

Hominids walked upright early in evolution


Friday, September 3, 2004 Posted: 10:09 AM EDT (1409 GMT)

Human's gait may date back another 3 million years before "Lucy," the earliest known pre-human to walk on two legs.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A chimp-sized human ancestor walked upright 6 million years ago, far earlier than anyone had been able to show before, researchers reported on Thursday.

Specialized X-rays called CAT scans of the top of a fossil thighbone show clear evidence that the creature walked upright, like pre-humans, and not like apes, the researchers said.

Their findings, published in Friday's issue of the journal Science, take the dawn of human gait back another 3 million years from "Lucy," the earliest known pre-human to have walked on two legs.

"We have solid evidence of the earliest upright posture and bipedalism securely dated to six million years," said Dr. Robert Eckhardt, a professor in the Laboratory of Comparative Morphology and Mechanics at Pennsylvania State University.

This older species, known scientifically as Orrorin tugenensis, lived in what is now the Kenyan Lukeino Formation.

The international team of researchers studied bones dug up nearly four years ago. One thighbone includes the intact head of the left thighbone -- the ball that is inserted into the hip socket joint.

The bones are about the same size as a modern chimpanzee's. But they look quite different.

The researchers ran computed tomography or CAT scans on the bones. These computer-enhanced X-rays create a three-dimensional image.

They found the neck connecting the ball to the shaft is thinner on top than it is on the bottom, a sign that the creature walked on two legs.

"In present day chimps and gorillas, the thicknesses in the upper and lower parts of that bone are approximately equal," Eckhardt said in a statement.

"In modern humans, the bone on top is thinner than on the bottom by a ratio of one to four or more. The ratio in this fossil is one to three."

Genetic evidence suggests that chimps and human diverged from a common ancestor 7 million years ago.

Cold Fusion Back From the Dead


U.S. Energy Department gives true believers a new hearing

Later this month, the U.S. Department of Energy will receive a report from a panel of experts on the prospects for cold fusion-the supposed generation of thermonuclear energy using tabletop apparatus. It's an extraordinary reversal of fortune: more than a few heads turned earlier this year when James Decker, the deputy director of the DOE's Office of Science, announced that he was initiating the review of cold fusion science. Back in November 1989, it had been the department's own investigation that determined the evidence behind cold fusion was unconvincing. Clearly, something important has changed to grab the department's attention now.

The cold fusion story began at a now infamous press conference in March 1989. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, both electrochemists working at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, announced that they had created fusion using a battery connected to palladium electrodes immersed in a bath of water in which the hydrogen was replaced with its isotope deuterium-so-called heavy water. With this claim came the idea that tabletop fusion could produce more or less unlimited, low-cost, clean energy.

In physicists' traditional view of fusion, forcing two deuterium nuclei close enough together to allow them to fuse usually requires temperatures of tens of millions of degrees Celsius. The claim that it could be done at room temperature with a couple of electrodes connected to a battery stretched credulity [see photo, "Too Good to Be True?"].

But while some scientists reported being able to reproduce the result sporadically, many others reported negative results, and cold fusion soon took on the stigma of junk science.

Today the mainstream view is that champions of cold fusion are little better than purveyors of snake oil and good luck charms. Critics say that the extravagant claims behind cold fusion need to be backed with exceptionally strong evidence, and that such evidence simply has not materialized. "To my knowledge, nothing has changed that makes cold fusion worth a second look," says Steven Koonin, a member of the panel that evaluated cold fusion for the DOE back in 1989, who is now chief scientist at BP, the London-based energy company.

Because of such attitudes, science has all but ignored the phenomenon for 15 years. But a small group of dedicated researchers have continued to investigate it. For them, the DOE's change of heart is a crucial step toward being accepted back into the scientific fold. Behind the scenes, scientists in many countries, but particularly in the United States, Japan, and Italy, have been working quietly for more than a decade to understand the science behind cold fusion. (Today they call it low-energy nuclear reactions, or sometimes chemically assisted nuclear reactions.) For them, the department's change of heart is simply a recognition of what they have said all along-whatever cold fusion may be, it needs explaining by the proper process of science.

THE FIRST HINT that the tide may be changing came in February 2002, when the U.S. Navy revealed that its researchers had been studying cold fusion on the quiet more or less continuously since the debacle began. Much of this work was carried out at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, where the idea of generating energy from sea water-a good source of heavy water-may have seemed more captivating than at other laboratories.

Many researchers at the center had worked with Fleischmann, a well-respected electrochemist, and found it hard to believe that he was completely mistaken. What's more, the Navy encouraged a culture of risk-taking in research and made available small amounts of funding for researchers to pursue their own interests.

At San Diego and other research centers, scientists built up an impressive body of evidence that something strange happened when a current passed through palladium electrodes placed in heavy water.

And by 2002, a number of Navy scientists believed it was time to throw down the gauntlet. A two-volume report, entitled "Thermal and nuclear aspects of the Pd/D2O system," contained a remarkable plea for proper funding from Frank Gordon, the head of navigation and applied science at the Navy center. "It is time that this phenomenon be investigated so that we can reap whatever benefits accrue from scientific understanding. It is time for government funding agencies to invest in this research," he wrote. The report was noted by the DOE but appeared to have little impact.

Then, last August, in a small hotel near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, some 150 engineers and scientists met for the Tenth International Conference on Cold Fusion. Conference observers were struck by the careful way in which various early criticisms of the research were being addressed. Over the years, a number of groups around the world have reproduced the original Pons-Fleischmann excess heat effect, yielding sometimes as much as 250 percent of the energy put in.

To be sure, excess energy by itself is not enough to establish that fusion is taking place. In addition to energy, critics are quick to emphasize, the fusion of deuterium nuclei should produce other byproducts, such as helium and the hydrogen isotope tritium. Evidence of these byproducts has been scant, though Antonella de Ninno and colleagues from the Italian National Agency for New Technologies Energy and the Environment, in Rome, have found strong evidence of helium generation when the palladium cells are producing excess heat but not otherwise.

Other researchers are finally beginning to explain why the Pons-Fleischmann effect has been difficult to reproduce. Mike McKubre from SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif., a respected researcher who is influential among those pursuing cold fusion, says that the effect can be reliably seen only once the palladium electrodes are packed with deuterium at ratios of 100 percent-one deuterium atom for every palladium atom. His work shows that if the ratio drops by as little as 10 points, to 90 percent, only 2 experimental runs in 12 produce excess heat, while all runs at a ratio of 100 percent produce excess heat.

And scientists are beginning to get a better handle on exactly how the effect occurs. Stanislaw Szpak and colleagues from the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command have taken infrared video images of palladium electrodes as they produce excess energy. It turns out that the heat is not produced continuously over the entire electrode but only in hot spots that erupt and then die on the electrode surface. This team also has evidence of curious mini-explosions on the surface.

Fleischmann, who is still involved in cold fusion as an advisor to a number of groups, feels vindicated. He told the conference: "I believe that the work carried out thus far amply illustrates that there is a new and richly varied field of research waiting to be explored." (Pons is no longer involved in the field, having dropped from view after a laboratory he joined in southern France ceased operations.)

For Peter Hagelstein, an electrical engineer at MIT who works on the theory behind cold fusion and who chaired the August 2003 conference, the quality of the papers was hugely significant. "It's obvious that there are effects going on," he says. He and two colleagues believed the results were so strong that they were worth drawing to the attention of the DOE, and late last year they secured a meeting with the department's Decker.

It was a meeting that paid off dramatically. The review will give cold fusion researchers a chance-perhaps their last-to show their mettle. The department has yet to decide just what will be done and by whom. There is no guarantee of funding or of future support. But for a discipline whose name has become a byword for junk science, the DOE's review is a big opportunity.


Every Trail Tells A Story: Geologist finds Earth's history written in stone


By John O'Connell - Journal Writer

Paul Link looks down when he hikes, stops a lot and often leaves the trail. He's searching for evidence to piece together puzzles dating back hundreds of millions of years.

He finds proof where others see only junipers, sage brush, dirt and rocks.

When you know how to read the rocks, Link, an Idaho State University geology professor for the past 24 years, says each trail tells a story.

"Once you have a little bit of geology, you can't escape. You're hooked," Link says.

But the stories lack transitions. He works with an assortment of random facts - trying to fill in the gaps is part of the fun.

"Most of the geologic history is gone," Link says. "Take a movie that's 2 1/2 hours long, and this is an old movie on vinyl film. Cut it into 2,000 pieces, then throw 1,990 pieces away. Scatter the other 10 and try to tell the plot.

"Most of what happens on Earth is not recorded."

It's a warm and sunny Tuesday afternoon at the Slate Mountain trailhead, and Link opens the tailgate of his red pickup truck to let out his hiking buddies, his dogs Ruby and Moxie.

The trail he's picked tells a geologic story with an ironic plot twist - Slate Mountain is actually made of quartzite.

He believes the name comes from the abandoned slate quarry by the trailhead.

He grabs his rock hammer and heads through the brush to that quarry for a Slate Mountain geology orientation before starting the hike.

Thin shards of greenish slate clank beneath his hiking boots as he steps toward a large slate slab, where he points out the even layers.

Link uses the metaphor of a layer cake to describe the Earth.

The slate in the quarry, formed from hardened mud and clay, is part of a layer called the Inkom Formation.

Some of the slate, which was mined around the turn of the century, can be found on the facades of local homes.

Mining didn't continue long because of the poor quality of the slate.

"If it were good slate, they would have had a pretty valuable resource," Link says

Geologists can date rocks in each formation by comparing them with comparable rocks in other areas where the layers weren't disturbed. Younger layers are stacked above older layers.

The Inkom Formation is 630 million years old, Link says.

Since he knows he's standing in the Inkom Formation, Link also knows the next hillside contains purple and red quartzite from the overlying layer, the 625-million-year-old Mutual Formation.

Higher up the trail, toward Slate Mountain, the rock is Elkhead limestone from the Cambrian Period, 530 million years ago.

Slate Mountain itself is made of the quartzite layer below the Elkhead limestone and above the Mutual Formation quartzite. The Slate Mountain rock is from the Camelback Mountain Formation and is 570 to 590 million years old.

From the distance, it's easy to spot how faults tilted layers on Slate Mountain eastward.

After a steep, quarter-mile climb up the dusty Slate Mountain Trail, Link stops and smiles. He's found what he's been looking for.

"We're in luck," Link says after briefly scanning the trail.

There's no crack in the ground or depression to mark it, but to Link, it's as clear as if someone left a sign labeled "fault line."

He can tell because he's standing where the small shards of greenish slate stop and the dull, gray limestone chunks begin, proof that it's a meeting point of two different layers of the Earth.

"If you're mountain biking of course you know this part of the trail because it's much rougher," Link says.

He explains the fault became active between nine and 10 million years ago, when the strain on the layers exceeded the strength of the rocks. Once the strain relaxed - Link estimates that happened about six million years ago, in the days when the Yellowstone hot spot was below Pocatello - the fault went dormant.

A bowling ball-sized rock on the side of the trail catches his interest. He explains the rock is fault breccia - a broken-off piece from when the faults moved. He can tell by the veins of calcite scratched into its side.

He knows the limestone is 530 million years old because of the fossils found in it.

He takes out his rock hammer and chips off a flake to prove his point. He examines the flake through an eye glass.

"That is a piece of a trilobite," Link says while continuing his inspection.

Identical fossils have been found in places elsewhere in the world where the geologic record is less shuffled, enabling geologists to date the Elkhead limestone.

After hiking a bit further, Link picks up another rock with a different story. It's more gray limestone, but it's interspersed with yellow rock, called siltite.

When it was deposited during the Cambrian Period, a shallow sea covered Pocatello. The gray limestone was formed from animal remains. The yellow part was formed from mud. He runs his index finger over smooth burrows in the rock carved by ancient worms.

Before the hike is over, he examines two more good finds: An oolite, a shiny rock with a gritty appearance containing tiny calcite balls, and a conglomerate, a rock which appears to have chunks knocked out of it made of pieces of limestone cemented together.

He hikes to a ledge overlooking the valley below with a beautiful view of Scout Mountain.

"Between here and Scout, there's probably three more faults," Link says. "The geology of the Pocatello area is especially complex. That's why we like it here."

The geologic record gets murky prior to 540 million years ago because of the scarcity of well-preserved fossils, and Link has dedicated himself filling in the missing pieces.

Link left for Australian National University two years ago with rocks from the Pocatello area to test in an elaborate machine which analyzes zircon, a mineral containing trace amounts of uranium. The machine measures ages of crystal more precisely than previous rock-dating methods.

A volcanic tuff found above glacial till east of the Portneuf Gap he brought to Australia proves ancient glaciers existed in the area some 667 million years ago, give or take three million years.

Zircons he dated in Australia from the Snake River Plain represent every known Yellowstone volcanic episode.

Since returning from Australia about a year ago, Link has been writing papers on his numerous findings.

Locally, he's known for writing the most complete geologic history of the Pocatello area, "Rocks, Rails and Trails." He says he picked the title because the three topics are intertwined.

"The rocks allowed the trails to be built. The rails followed the trails. The geology of Pocatello has controlled its destiny," Link says.

Each Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m., Link's Science and American Society class will be broadcast on Cable Channel 4.

The class is intended to teach potential geology teachers how to deal with difficult issues which are bound to come up in the classroom, including creationism, global warming, energy shortage, environmental disasters, meteorite impacts and why so many Americans don't understand science.

Creationism is a hot topic, but Link believes there is room for both God and science to coexist.

"It's selling the Bible short to believe it with a literal interpretation. There certainly is room for acceptance and belief in God and Christianity and also for understanding the world in a logical fashion," Link says.

John O'Connell covers courts, law enforcement and local government for the Journal. He can be reached by calling 239-3128 or by e-mail at joconnell@journalnet.com.

Unintelligent Debate


Christianity Today, September 2004

It's time to cool the rhetoric in the Intelligent Design dispute.
By John Wilson | posted 09/03/2004 9:00 a.m.

A couple years ago at a Christian publishing convention, I was talking trends with an astute industry veteran. We happened to be standing near a table on which several books relating to evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) were arrayed. "Well," my friend said with a dismissive backhand wave, "at least that seems to be just about played out."

My friend was guilty of wishful thinking. Like many Christian intellectuals, he was weary of the evolution debate, which had seemed not so long ago to have settled down to a low murmur. Then Phillip Johnson and his crowd of ID troublemakers came along, challenging the Darwinian establishment head-on (couldn't they have been less confrontational about it?), and then there was a flurry of school cases (mostly in Bible Belt regions), and before you knew what hit you it was starting all over again, like an embarrassing family episode brought to light. (For an account of the rise of ID and its salient arguments, see Edward Larson's review of Thomas Woodward's Doubts About Darwin on p. 89 of this issue.)

At the moment, at least, there are no signs that the debate is cooling downâ€"on the contrary. And there is a good deal to celebrate in that. In particular, the ID movement has performed an invaluable service in highlighting the way in which much Darwinian thinking rests on philosophical assumptions that have no scientific warrant. At the same time, the aggressive ID attacks on Christian scientists who have not rejected evolutionary theory lock, stock, and barrelâ€""accommodationists," as they are called in ID literature, where they are treated rather like collaborationists with the Nazis during World War IIâ€"have pushed theistic evolutionists to formulate their own views more cogently. And of course the attention garnered by the ID movement has also provoked a vigorous range of responses from hardcore Darwinians that are often inadvertently revealingâ€"especially of the extraordinary arrogance that still infests the fieldâ€"but which also at times score telling points against ID weaknesses.

In short, there is real engagement (see for example the just-published volume, Debating Design, from Cambridge University Press, edited by William Dembski and Michael Ruse). And yet for all that, the state of the debate is deeply unsatisfactory, often obscuring more than it clarifies. Certainly the fiercely anti-Christian wing of the Darwinian establishmentâ€"headed by Richard Dawkins, who has just been named Britain's #1 public intellectual in a widely publicized poll conducted by Prospect magazineâ€"bears the greatest responsibility for this murkiness. (It was Dawkins who notoriously wrote in his bestseller The Blind Watchmaker: "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insaneâ€"or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that." There is a good deal of this ritual strutting in the Darwinist camp.)

But Christian participants in the evolution debate are guilty as well. What's needed most right now is a step back from the fray, a reorienting. What follows are some suggestions for that next stage.

What We All Share Let's begin with the admirably concise opening question from the old Baltimore Catechism, on which generations of Catholics were nurtured: "Who made me?" The answer minced no words: "God made me." Protestants and indeed all Christians, whether or not they practice formal catechesis, will readily agree. God made us; God made our world; God made the unimaginably vast universe in which our world is but a speck.

Implicit in the question and its answer is the strange compound of smallness and greatness that is the essence of our human nature. As creatures we will never grasp the fullness of Creation, but as creatures made in the Creator's image we are designed to learn, to seek to understand, even (as Tolkien put it) to be "sub-creators." And as we think explicitly about Creation, we must keep in mind that tension between our limitations and our high calling. Let either end slacken and we are sure to go awry.

This suggests priorities. As Christians we all acknowledge that God made us. But we may differâ€"we will differâ€"in our understanding of how that making unfolded. Some of those differences may be significant (though we must remember our limitations, the fallibility of our knowledge, even as we forcefully argue our case). They may have far-reaching implications. And yet they must be seen as subordinate to the affirmation that unites us, the recognition of the source of our being.

Seen in this light, one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the evolution debate is the acrimony between ID proponents and theistic evolutionists (some of whom, notably Howard Van Till, don't like that term; let their objection be duly noted). Both sides, it should be obvious, see "intelligent design" at work in the universe. Van Till's "robust formative economy principle" is a case in point: The creation is endowed with the capacity to evolve. Moreover, Van Till and some others in his campâ€"like the ID thinkersâ€"emphasize God's ongoing action in the world. (Their God doesn't simply build in complexity at the moment before the Big Bang and then take himself off, like the Absentee Landlord of the Deists.)

To note these affinities is not to trivialize the differences between the two factions (in which there are further internal differences: neither side is monolithic). Let them pursue their differences with passion and rigor. But it is time for the ID crowd to stop suggesting that their "accommodationist" rivals are largely driven by fear and careerism and other craven motives rather than by intellectual conviction. ("The path of least resistance," Phillip Johnson writes in The Right Question in a typically patronizing analysis of biology professors at Christian colleges, "is to pretend that there is no conflict between evolutionary naturalism and Christian theism.") It is time for the iders to stop suggesting that theistic evolutionism is functionally equivalent to Dawkins's rabid naturalism. It is time, on the other side, for the theistic evolutionists to stop treating the ID movement as either a conspiracy or a jokeâ€"or simply ignoring ID as beneath contempt. And it's time for them to mount more sustained critiques of naturalistic dogmas.

The mutual slanders exchanged in this ongoing debate are especially harmful as they are absorbed and further dumbed down by a larger audience of Christians who want to know what side they should take. Again, there is no need to apologize for sharp disagreement. But the disagreements should clarify, not obscure, what is really at stake.

The Need for Intellectual Honesty Neither Intelligent Design nor theistic evolutionism, alas, is the most influential position among the evangelical rank and file, where Young Earth creationism still holds sway. Hence another unsatisfactory aspect of the current debate is the strategic refusal of the ID movement to engage in constructive criticism of the Young Earth view.

But haven't I just been calling for mutual recognition among Christians of their unity in affirming God as Creator, and for mutual respect? Yes, and there's no contradiction here. What is needed from the ID movement is principled disagreement. Whereas whole books published by various ID figures have been devoted to meticulously unpacking some of the errors perpetuated in the Darwinist literature (see for example the work of Jonathan Wells), they are virtually silent about the egregious intellectual errors that abound in Young Earth literature. By contrast, Hugh Ross, who has some affinities both with ID and with the theistic evolutionists, has been more forthright; his work could serve as a model in this respect.

The decision of the ID movement not to engage critically with the Young Earth view is one aspect of ID's much-discussed "Wedge" strategy: ID is presenting a united front against the enemy, naturalismâ€"and indeed, a handful of Young Earth figures have been involved in ID projects. Here the strategy comes at a great cost. Many Christians are raised to believe that they are faced with a stark choice: Either they accept the most literal Young Earth account of Creation or they abandon their faith. The ID movement includes a number of penetrating thinkers who could show that these are not the only alternativesâ€"while maintaining respect for fellow Christians who believe otherwise. And now is the perfect time for them to do so, as ID has begun to gain credibility in some of the circles where Young Earth creationism is the default position.

In some cases, however, the reluctance on the ID side may not be attributable solely to the Wedge strategy. There were indications in Johnson's recent book, The Right Questions, that he is sympathetic to a Young Earth reading of Genesis. For instance, he suggests that the great age of the early patriarchs mayâ€"may, he emphasizesâ€"be accounted for "on the assumption that the basic 'constants' of physics may have changed over time." Johnson writes that, while he makes "no dogmatic claims," he does "predict that scientists who are genuinely trying to find a set of physical constants that would permit greatly extended human lifespans will be able to do so in good faith." It's hard to know how seriously to take this proposal, no doubt calculated to administer a salutary shock to the Enlightened and set their tongues a-wagging. In any case, others will have to explain what form such a "research project" might actually take.

In the same passage from which I have just quoted, Johnson observes that "the accuracy of any prediction can be determined only in the light of what actually transpires." It's a good reminder especially today in a media environment where this basic principle is routinely violated. And it may remind some readers of the astonishing rhetoric coming from the Darwinian establishment, where it is asserted categorically that ID "simply isn't science" and moreover can never be science. Evidently there is no need to wait and see what actually transpires.

But this is also a reminder of another unsatisfactory aspect on the Christian side of the evolution debate: the boastful triumphalism of much ID rhetoric. If ID is going to foster the pursuit of first-rate scientific work "on a philosophically liberated basis," it would be more becoming to do some of the work first and boast later.

Fleshing out the design How much of the "evolution debate" is really about science, anyway? Consider the evolutionary roots of vertebrate immunity, the subject of the cover package in the July 8 issue of Nature. (This British-based journal and its American equivalent, Science, are the two leading English-language science journals, meaning the two most influential, period.) The cover photo is a close-up of lampreys, looking cheerfully hideous as usual. A brief article (a summary of sorts for those who won't make their way through the full-dress research paper also in the issue) explains that the lamprey and its cousin, the hagfish, are anomalies: They are jawless vertebrates, presumed to be the remnants of a much larger such group "deep in vertebrate family history." They are of interest to immunologists because they have seemed to lack one part of the two-part immune system characteristic of vertebrates, the "adaptive system." The article summarizes new research suggesting that the lamprey has an alternative adaptive immune system.

Let me interrupt for a moment to suggest that your attention may already be wanderingâ€"indeed you may have already skipped ahead. Vertebrate immunity? Lampreys? Antigen receptors and lymphocytes? No offense, but you aren't really interested in this technical stuff.

But that's the stuff of science. Built into this research are many assumptions based on the latest generation of evolutionary theory, ranging from fundamental governing assumptions to those more specific to this branch of study. So, for example, on a basic level, there's the assumption of common ancestry (hard to deny, it seems to me, though most of the ID people disagree, as does the formidable philosopher Alvin Plantinga) and an evolutionary conception of the family history of vertebrates.

How would an ID immunologist interact with this material? What assumptions would he accept? Which ones would he reject? What sort of work might he be doing alongside or in contrast to the research reported here? Those are the kinds of questions that need to be answered in the next stage, if ID is going to do science. "Design" needs to be fleshed out.

At the same time, the big questions that the ID movement has taken on are indispensable. As it happens, the author of the brief article in Nature, Martin F. Flajnik, who is in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland, issues a provocation in the title of his piece: "Another Manifestation of GOD." Having explained how the vertebrate adaptive immune system typically operates, generating "a huge repertoire of antigen receptors" to marshal the body's defenses, Flajnik comments: "Immunologists irreverently refer to this process as GOD (generation of diversity)."

So Flajnik tweaks a certain slackness in many Christian claims to see God's hand evident in his world. And don't we have to plead guilty as charged, at least on occasion? We all have suffered through some of the same slide shows (now converted to PowerPoint) in churchy gatherings over the years: magnificent mountain peaks, waterfalls, leafy glades, gamboling lambs and pink-cheeked babies, with voiceovers from the Psalms. I like babies and waterfalls as much as the next man, but don't these kitschy versions of God's manifest presence in his creationâ€"however well intendedâ€"subtly suggest that we can domesticate him? Next time, include a shot of the lamprey, and maybe a diagram of its adaptive immune system.

God's designs will always elude our expectations, blow away our tidy, settled theories. And yet this uncontainable force is personal, cares for us, and has arranged his creation so that we know everything we absolutely need to know, even as our hunger to understand will never be quieted.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and a Christianity Today editor at large.

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today

The Question of God


By Werner Reyneke
Sept. 2, 2004

The primordial existential subject that has been argued over for millennia on the grounds of philosophy, science and theology is the problem of divine purpose versus the absence thereof.

The argument for the existence of divine purpose is in essence the following: The universe was created by a God or an omnipotent intelligent being (call it what you will) in the most absolute of all dimensions. There is also no origin to this God and he exists outside the realm of space-time.

In the religion of Christianity God is said to have created the whole universe out of nothing. At the end of the creation act, God said that it was all good. God saw everything as perfect and needing no improvement, thus kicking the need for evolution out of the door. This stamp of approval by God over his own work forms the inner most center around which the entire idea of Creationism revolves.

Creationism stands in direct opposition to Evolutionism. Just by studying the definitions of the two words: Create and Evolve, we can see the utter distinction in their meaning: Create means to create something new out of nothing and rendering it into a final, polished and finished form, comparable to a work of art; Evolve means simply the reverse: it implies change, constant alteration or development into another form. If a God created the universe as a perfect work in his own image then obviously, as God is perfect, his creation must also be perfect – he did after he finished creating say that everything is good, and "good" means just that - no visible change in the development of species or cosmic constellations would have been present if everything was as "good" and "perfect" as only a God can create it. And so, when we understand this we can see that there is no God, as there is evolution all around us – everything seems imperfect and to struggle all around us – things are changing shape and new species are appearing constantly!

Moreover, even if one argues that everything seems too much planned and mathematical to be a mere result of chance and that there simply must be a higher dimensional intelligent being that created everything, the weight is just shifted. Now with God as the cause of everything the problem of plan; order; origin and meaning has just shifted onto the shoulders of God. Where does God come from? Did he also have a God who created him? Where does his order and existence come from? What ever the dimension of God is, it still must have a cause. And if God has a cause, he fails to be a God anymore. If one explains the three dimensional realm of human life in terms of being a creational result of a higher dimension – what ever that dimension may be – the problem still remains: where does that dimension come from? It is totally ridiculous to say that the universe must have a cause or a creator (as it is simply to complicated and ordered not to have been created) and then saying that there is a creator even more complicated and ordered who created the universe but who doesn't have a cause himself?! It is a simple contradiction. In essence, what religious people are saying is: an uncaused first cause which is also intelligence with no creator has created another intelligence called human beings. Saying there is a God is saying there's no God, because that very God or dimension that created our dimension has no creator himself! God or no God amounts effectively to the same thing, because the purpose of postulating a God is to explain existence, but we leave God out of the picture – we are still left with something unexplained – the problem of explaining existence has remained with us!

About the author Werner Reyneke: I am a 23 year old passionate writer/poet in my spare time and a computer programmer by proffession. Visit my website to see my first published book. I live in South Africa and have been published in a local newspaper (some poems in Haiku form) for the first time in February 2000. I have also been selected for publication in a VoicesNet Anthology (visit www.Voicesnet.org) and a Poetry.com (ILP Publishers) anthology called "Eternal Portraits").

Visit my website at:


Email: wreyneke@absamail.co.za

Friday, September 03, 2004

Intelligent design study appears


Publication of paper in peer-reviewed journal sparks controversy | By Trevor Stokes

The publication in a peer-reviewed biology journal of an article which sounds themes often heard in discussions of "intelligent design"--a theory one critic calls "the old creationist arguments in fancy clothes"--has drawn criticism from the members of the society that publishes the journal, and from others.

In an article entitled "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," which was made available online on August 28 by the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Stephen Meyer concludes: "what natural selection lacks, intelligent selection--purposive or goal-directed design--provides." Meyer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which, according to its Web site "supports research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design."

Intelligent design, or the design hypothesis, is the "idea that the origin of information is best explained by an act of intelligence rather than a strictly materialistic process," Meyer told The Scientist.

Eugenie C. Scott, executive director at the National Center for Science Education, learned of the article when several members of the Biological Society of Washington called her office. "Many members of the society were stunned about the article," she said, describing it as "recycled material quite common in the intelligent design community." Intelligent design, she said, is "an evolved form of creationism that resulted from legal decisions in the 1980s ruling that creationism can't be taught in schools."

"There hasn't been anything in peer-reviewed literature about intelligent design," Scott said. "Members of the intelligent design community are very hungry to get articles in peer-reviewed journals."

The article was the subject of a detailed critique on Panda's Thumb, a Web log that focuses on issues in evolutionary science. The critique calls Meyer's article "a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, and tendentious interpretations."

"It's too bad the Proceedings published it," Scott said. "The article doesn't fit the type of content of the journal. The bottom line is that this article is substandard science."

The Biological Society of Washington has about 250 members. The journal has an impact factor of 0.284, according to Thomson Scientific, giving it a rank of 2678 out of 3110 scored journals in all science disciplines. Scott described the journal as a "tiny fairly descriptive journal read by people in museums and systematics."

Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information who was an editor of the Proceedings at the time, told The Scientist via E-mail that the three peer reviewers of the paper "all hold faculty positions in biological disciplines at prominent universities and research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, one at a major US public university, and another at a major overseas research institute."

"The reviewers did not necessarily agree with Dr. Meyer's arguments but all found the paper meritorious, warranting publication," Sternberg said.

Sternberg said he was concerned that some in the science community have labeled him and Meyer as creationists. "It's fascinating how the 'creationist' label is falsely applied to anyone who raises any questions about neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory," he said. "The reaction to the paper by some [anti-creationist] extremists suggests that the thought police are alive and well in the scientific community."

Sternberg has ties to the intelligent design community, but he identifies himself as "a structuralist who has given several papers and presentations critiquing creationism." He is on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group at Bryan College, Dayton, Tenn. Baraminology, a term introduced in 1990, views biological creation as happening instantly, rather than through evolutionary descent. Sternberg is slated to attend a meeting in October entitled "Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Future of Biology." The meeting's Web site describes Sternberg's talk as an explanation of why "biology is better understood as a product of intelligent design."

Robert L. Crowther, director of communications at the Discovery Institute, drew a clear distinction "between the scientific theory of intelligent design and creationism."

"Dr. Meyer is a well-known proponent of intelligent design and that is what his paper is about," Crowther wrote in an E-mail to The Scientist. "To try and characterize him as a creationist is just an attempt to stigmatize him and marginalize his paper, all the while avoiding the scientific issues that it raises."

Meyer said: "I have received a number of private communications from scientists expressing their agreement or intrigue with the arguments that I develop in my article. Public reaction to the article, however, has been mainly characterized by hysteria, name-calling and personal attack." Labels, he said, "are ultimately a diversion."

Links for this article Meyer, S.C. "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117[2]:213-239, August 4, 2004. Republished online August 28, 2004 at http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view& id=2177

N.S. Greenspan, "Not-so-intelligent design," The Scientist, 16[5]:12, March 4, 2002.

B. Palevitz, "Designing science by politics," The Scientist, 16[11]:25, May. 27, 2002.

National Center for Science Education

A. Gishlick et al., "Meyer's hopeless monster," The Panda's Thumb, August 24, 2004.

Additional information about The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington
http://apt.allenpress.com/aptonline/?request=get-moreinfo&issn= 0006-324X

Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group, Bryan College, Dayton, Tenn.

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Future of Biology seminar information

Creationism session planned for children


Posted on Fri, Sep. 03, 2004


GLEN ROSE - Carl Baugh, who teaches creationism on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, will lead a daylong session on creation research for children Saturday at the Somervell County Expo Center.

The event is sponsored by Baugh's Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose. It will include exhibits, games and demonstrations.

Baugh and others will discuss questions such as "What was it like in the beginning?" and "Did dinosaurs and man coexist?"

Baugh teaches that God created the Earth and humans within the past 10,000 years. Baugh's beliefs are widely discredited by scientists and are debated by Christian scholars who believe that God created the universe millions of years ago.

If you go

• The session is from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday for children in grades 1-8. They must be accompanied by adults.

• At Somervell County Expo Center, 202 Bo Gibbs Drive, Glen Rose.

• Call the Creation Evidence Museum, (254) 897-3200.

MIOS MEETING Metroplex Institute of Origin Science

View An Extraordinary Video Documentary
The Privileged Planet

Today's headlines claim many planets similar to the earth are being found. Is Earth merely a speck of dust lost without significance in the universe? Or, is our planet the product of intelligent design? Today, scientific evidence indicates that the many factors that make Earth suitable for complex life also provide the best conditions for astronomical discovery. The Privileged Planet explores this intriguing correlation and its implications on our understanding of the origin and purpose of the cosmos.

Utilizing stunning computer animation and the visual archives of NASA, the Hubble Space Telescope Institute, the European Space Agency, and leading observatories throughout the world, the program will present a spectacular view of our planet, galaxy, and the entire cosmos. Astronomers and physicists including Paul Davies, Robert Jastrow, and Donald Brownlee will share their insights and opinions.

The result is a documentary of unrivaled professionalism and a fascinating look at a timeless question: “What is our significance within the grand scheme of the universe?”

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Tuesday, September 7th, 7:30 PM

A wee cure


September 3, 2004

Drinking urine can eliminate sinus trouble, turn grey hair black and even cure cancer, a Thai academic says, citing a study of local Buddhists who engage in the unorthodox practice.

Ratree Cheepudomwit, of the Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine Development Department, said hundreds of urine drinkers attested that consuming a daily cup worked wonders for their overall health and helped slow the ageing process.

She said that in June she queried 250 members of Santi Asoke, a strict indigenous Buddhist movement believed to have thousands of followers, and 204 respondents said they had learned from ancient Buddhist manucripts that drinking one's urine improved health.

"Of the respondents, 87 per cent confirmed that it had head-to-toe benefits for them, including for example reduction of dandruff, grey hair, sinus problems and cancer," Ratree told AFP.

The medical elixir was not easy on everyone's system, as about one in 10 urine drinkers suffered diarrhoea afterwards, but the practice should not be viewed with disgust, she said.

"Other groups of people who drank urine were Buddhist monks who practised in accordance to scriptures which are more than 2500 years old," she said.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Scientists tune in to 'radio message from the aliens'

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/09/02/walien02.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/09/02/ixworld.html

(Filed: 02/09/2004)

A radio signal picked up by a search for extraterrestrial intelligence marks the best candidate yet for "first contact" by aliens.

The signal was traced to a point between the constellations Pisces and Aires, according to New Scientist.

Astronomers who have been scanning the universe for years seeking contact with intelligent life said it stood out as being "unusual".

The signal has been observed for only about a minute, not long enough to allow astronomers to analyse it in detail.

It is unlikely to be the result of any obvious radio interference or noise, and does not bear the hallmark of any known astronomical object.

Although it is the best candidate yet for contact with an alien life form, the astronomers say that it may turn out to be an unknown astronomical phenomenon, or simply a blemish produced by the telescope.

For six years, the SETI@home project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), has used programs running as screensavers on millions of PCs worldwide to sift signals picked up by the Arecibo telescope, in Puerto Rico. David Anderson, the project's director, said he was intrigued by the signal but sceptical.

According to a new paper in Nature, we might be more successful searching our own backyard for clues to other life forms.

The article by Dr Gregory Wright and Christopher Rose, the professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, suggests that to discover if we are alone, we should look for signs in our planetary backyard, akin to the monolith in Arthur C Clarke's 2001.

They calculate that inscribing information and physically sending it to some location in deep space is more energy-efficient than using radio waves, which disperse.

"Think of a flashlight beam," says Prof Rose. "Its intensity decreases as it gets farther from its source." The same goes for radio waves.

However, a physical message stays where it lands. As for the form of alien messages, he speculates that it could be anything from text in a real language to, more likely, organic material embedded in an asteroid or in a crater.

Prof Rose suggests that there may be many messages, perhaps millions.

Herbal hardsell


Madhumathi D.S.

They are widely accepted, rationally priced and are believed to be safe and devoid of side-effects. Herbal products are the new business opportunity.

TURMERIC, aloe, brahmi, neem, ginger, gooseberry, or tulsi - what would you have please? Take your pick from today's exotic herbal concoctions, these are your new do-good, feel-good things. They also call them pharmaceuticals, cosmeceuticals and nutraceuticals.

Perched colourfully on shop shelves, some of these brands simply hit you in the eye. The pundits call herbals the new sunrise industry; some would want a ride back to Mother Nature; to others they are simple business sense for cutting their losses before the WTO regime of product patents hits next year. They are there from tiny cough drops, headache roll-ons, skin and hair care items to therapies for stress, diabetics and HIV-positives. And the way companies and consumers have been rushing at these products, the herbal way is surely `in' and here to stay.

It cannot be a fad. For the companies, the story is just unfurling. For starters:

In 2002, modest-sized bulk drugs company Ozone Pharmaceuticals forays into uncharted herbal skin care. Two years later, its cream scripts a fairy-tale success and leaves an indelible, Rs 30-crore mark on skincare counters.

Capsules of powdered herbs from southern major Himalaya Drug Co are rolling off the shelves and adding at least Rs 15 crore to the company coffers each year.

Soaps, detergents and personal care giant Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL) has tied up with an ayurvedic company to create its own herbal brands and space.

The herbal scene is too vast and beauty, health and medicine would just be the cream of it. One such glowing tale is that of New Delhi-based Ozone Pharmaceuticals which hitched its growth to the ayurveda/ herbal wagon and set up Ozone Ayurvedics in 2001. Nomarks, its first product, is now a Rs 30-crore brand in the Rs 32-crore young subsidiary. It has spawned several competitors in its market. The scale of success with its herbal foray was so big that the company now has added three more specialised Nomarks products, one of them even for the elbows!

Parminder Sandhu, Vice-President, Ozone Ayurvedics, says, "Nomarks and Itis (herbal eye drops) have pioneered the mark-removal and daily eye care categories. We will be launching some more products and expect Nomarks to become a Rs 60-crore brand this year."

If Ozone chose the popular skin and beauty way, Bal Pharma of Bangalore ventured into the new herbal game in April last year by setting up Bal Vedics. Twelve therapeutic products and the appetite is still growing. HLL has tried to work up for itself a whole new lather with Ayush. It tied up with Arya Vaidya Pharmacy of Coimbatore for its expertise and has drawn up big retailing plans for the products.

What draws companies to the herbal magic is the lure of the $62-billion global herbal market that is growing at 15-20 per cent a year and the nearly Rs 3,500-crore domestic market, says Ravi Prasad, President & CEO of old warhorse Himalaya.

"The global consumer as well as the medical fraternity are realising the limitations of the present mainstream healthcare system. Those who earlier looked at the herbal system as just an alternative are now making it complementary to the mainstream healthcare system." And at the rate at which it is going, the future for the herbal industry across the world looks green and bright.

With its 5,000-year history, ayurvedic medicine (which includes herbs as also minerals and animal parts) has always been a credible solution for healthcare management in India, says Dr R. K. Agarwal, Chairman of Natural Remedies, Bangalore.

Where herbals are concerned, their scope and acceptance among consumers are vast universally, says Archana Dubey Maitra, Senior Sales & Marketing Manager, Bal Vedics. "People ask for alternative medicine like ayurveda due to its edge over allopathy in many areas, besides its cost-effectiveness." An increasing demand for ayurveda / herbal products has brought in the giants.

Armed with plans to expand the portfolio and reach, Bal Vedics projects a turnover of Rs 10 crore by end-2007. It currently has 12 products including Prostowin, Stonex, Ayursulin and Immuwin to tackle problems ranging from those of the prostate and kidneys to HIV and diabetes. "Our first year of operation has been significant in terms of acceptance and awareness," says Dubey Maitra. "We would like to have our herbal products parallel to our main division products and take our range to 15-20 by end-2006 and take it across the country in a year after that." For now, though, these can be promoted only as food supplements in the West.

According to Dr Agarwal, an authority on the subject, this only reflects a growing worldwide demand for nutraceuticals - substances not registered as drugs, but sold over the counter as nutritional and dietary supplements. The Ayurveda Drug Manufacturers' Association of India, which he heads, puts the size of the Indian market at Rs 5,000 crore. "This is very modest and could be enhanced substantially. If not in the near term, there is a distinct possibility of herbal products growing in the long term to a size comparable to the non-herbal market." That is just what the companies are banking on.

The worry is that there are 8,000-plus manufacturers of whom 7,000 have sales of less than Rs 1 crore a year. "Though the laws are not very stringent in the domestic market, the export markets are fraught with stringent regulations, which render exports difficult," says Dr Agarwal.

Which, according to Himalaya's Ravi Prasad, makes it a game cut out for the bigger and organised players; because to enter, succeed and sustain in herbal healthcare, for instance, a company should have strong R&D backing to create innovative products, good manufacturing practices to bring out products of consistently good quality and investments for all these.

His worry is that an assortment of unorganised players is thriving in the ayurveda/ herbal domain, not all of them offering safe and validated products. The sector needs newer and established entrants with good marketing and communication back-up to strengthen it.

Citing a recent study done by the Exim Bank, Bal Vedics' Dubey Maitra says the global market is growing much faster than the home scene. In spite of many big players rushing in with their cosmetics brands and special retail outlets, she says it is nutraceuticals that are making a mark.

As one who came in early and has seen it all, Dr Muhammed Majeed, Chairman and Managing Director, Sami Labs Ltd, would agree. He says the herbal wave and the shift towards ayurveda, Chinese and other alternative medicine started 15-20 years ago because of the high cost of medication in the US. And thus was born the nutraceuticals genre - of food as medicine. From exporting standardised herbal products, Sami itself decided to jump into the ring, first with its herbal selenium supplement. In the first year, SelenoCare yielded some Rs 2 crore and is being tested by the US National Cancer Institute on HIV patients. More are to follow.

From its dozen-odd Pure Herbs capsules alone, Himalaya rakes in around Rs 15 crore annually. Sold `OTX' (a combination of dispensing products over the counter with advice on usage) at its outlets, the powders are meant to attack infections, arthritis, diabetes and cholesterol. Dabur's Chyavanprash is a story by itself in fast-moving health goods (FMHG).

Sami, a supplier of herbal actives to the likes of JK Helene Curtis, Avon, Estee Lauder, Amway, Godrej, HLL and L'Oreal, also has some big plans in the skin care segment. It plans to launch its Johora range of cosmeceuticals, a success in the Gulf, in the domestic market. "With the WTO regime coming into force from January 1, 2005, product patents will come into force in India," says Dr Majeed. "Hence, a number of pharmaceutical companies recognise that `new products' which are patented will not be available to them for marketing." Herbal products will not be patentable.

Marketing is the key problem area for herbal medicines. They all agree that for effective marketing, scientific back-up is needed. Natural Remedies' Dr Agarwal says that as R&D is a costly and low-priority area for the majority of the 8,000-odd manufacturers, it saps their sales efforts of a key input. "Further, export regulations render our herbal products suitable only in the nutraceutical category."

As CEO of Pill & Powder chain of pharmacy stores, Suresh A. P. Rao keeps seeing a growing brood of herbal seekers, cutting across gender or age. Interestingly, he says, Indian herbal companies, their brands pitted against MNC products, are now ever more aggressive with their range and have significantly scaled up electronic media adspends and point-of-sale push.

"We have over the past two years seen a marked shift by companies towards marketing these herbal products across all the categories," he says. "Companies, especially those that made early entries (and tasted quick successes), are validating the results through various studies in India and abroad. This, in fact, is pushing the medical fraternity and the consumers to prescribe or take these medicines."

Even with 44 per cent of the market share for Nomarks, Ozone's Sandhu says the company will be spending Rs 12 crore this year on advertising and promotions. Definitely, herbal companies with good practices, he believes, need not be shy of MNC brands. No wonder that after its scrub soap, face pack and elbow cream, Ozone has lined up a moisturiser and a body lotion for its loyalists.

The hardsell also includes patient education, use of exclusive outlets and beauty and health consultants posted at the points of sale.

The bad - or good - news from Dr Agarwal is: the country's herbal products makers have actively used barely 120 herbs or 1.6 per cent of the 7,500 Indian medicinal varieties. Could mean some happy digging for companies!

International prayer research office created


BARCELONA, Spain -- At the inauguration of the Parliament of the World's Religions, one of the largest and oldest prayer ministries announced the opening of the Office of Prayer Research, a think tank dedicated to broadening our knowledge of the scientific effects of prayer.

At the Office of Prayer Research, men and women of science and spirit will work toward a common goal: learning more about the power of prayer. Besides using science to better understand the practice of religion, participants in the parliament also flipped the issue upside down.

At a symposium titled "Food Justice and Food Safety," specialists in agriculture, intellectual property rights and biotechnology addressed issues of food scarcity and genetic engineering and argued that without a more religious or spiritual approach to modern science, the human species could be committing itself and the Earth to vast and unalterable changes.

To balance our increasing scientific certainty, experts said, we need to be able to still ask ourselves whether what we're doing is right or wrong — especially in the debate over genetically modified foods.

"Bioethics is looking to supplant religion by teaching us what we 'ought' to do [about food scarcity]," said Sol Katz, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, adding that religion has been in steady retreat from the science-heavy field of bioengineering. "Never has there been a greater challenge to the world's religions," he said.

Symposium organizers from the Chicago-based Zygon Center for Religion and Science invited freelance agricultural consultant and intellectual property rights expert Geoff Tansey to give an account of the present trends in bioengineering.

Experiments in agriculture and genetic engineering are leading mankind into a frighteningly new and unpredictable era, Tansey said.

Most unsettling, he said, is the way we're going about it, with mega-powers like the World Trade Organization and the pharmaceutical industry hording humanity's knowledge, using intellectual property rights to guard patents on discoveries that are "equivalent to the creation of nuclear energy," while rewarding scientists for discoveries that often have little to do with society's needs.

"Science is about spreading knowledge. Now, discoveries are met with a conservative, protectionist response: rather than spread new knowledge, it is being horded for the economic benefits of a few," Tansey said. "This is the antithesis of science."

In abandoning religion and trespassing on the biological frontiers of a cosmos we do not understand, humans have "taken on the role of what we used to describe as deities," and so much hubris puts us at great risk, Tansey said. "We are redesigning the living organisms on the planet. Within the next 20 years, any commercially valuable organism will have been redesigned."

Theologians' response to science has always been ambivalent. Now, though, it's up to religious leaders to play a central role in the food debate, Antje Jackelén, director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, said, calling on the world's religions to promote education and communicate the values and risks of genetic engineering to a secular society.

"Religious communities have the potential to ask the right questions that scientists are unable to ask," said Jackelén.

Vandana Shiva, one of the most outspoken critics of biotechnology and genetically modified foods in India, failed to appear at the symposium. Instead, Antje Lorch from Germany spoke against the use of GM crops in the developing world. Lorch, who has been studying the effects of genetic engineering for 13 years, said developing nations must resist the push of biotechnology into their farming communities.

"Genetic engineering is often judged on promises of saving the world," Lorch said. "People see it almost in a religious way, and the vocabulary is similar: It's a system promising salvation, promising a solution to feed everyone and deal with all the disease."

But truth hasn't lived up to fantasy, she said.

"I haven't come across any GM crops that fulfill the promises" of solving hunger and food scarcity, Lorch said. On the contrary, crops such as virus-resistant sweet potatoes in Kenya, herb-resistant canola in Canada and pest-resistant soy in Argentina have proven neither environmentally sustainable nor cost effective, she said.

Lorch applauded Zimbabwe's rejection of the GM products that came as aid from the United States. "They said, 'We're not going to be guinea-pigs just because you give us food.'"

She indicated it took European consumer advocates eight years of lobbying to get the first labels placed on GM foods in the mid-1990s. Stricter labeling regulations on the meat and dairy industries can be expected in the future, Lorch said.

The United States has so far not adopted any similar measures on labeling GM products.

However, Lorch said she sees a hopeful sign in religions' changing their views on the food debate -- even if sometimes it's hard to know what side of the fence they're on.

"Sometimes the pope is for GM crops, and sometimes he's against them. Maybe he shouldn't talk about issues he doesn't understand," she said.

Michael Levitin is a freelance writer living in Barcelona, Spain.

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