NTS LogoSkeptical News for 20 October 2004

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

UFO Figure Dies [Betty Hill]


10-18-04 15:36

By Associated Press

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) Betty Hill, who with her late husband claimed to have been abducted by UFO extraterrestrials in New Hampshire's White Mountains, has died at age 85.

She died at home Sunday after a battle with lung cancer.

Betty and Barney Hill claimed that on a return trip from Canada they were abducted for two hours on Sept. 19, 1961.

They gained international notoriety, traveled across the country and made numerous television and radio appearances telling their story, which was retold in the book "Interrupted Journey" and a television movie.

After returning home from their trip, the Hills were puzzled by Betty's torn and stained dress, Barney's scuffed shoes, shiny spots on their car, stopped watches, a broken binocular strap and no memory of two hours of the drive.

Under hypnosis three years later, they recounted being kidnapped and examined by aliens.

She retired from lecturing about UFOs in her 70s and complained that the quest for knowledge about extraterrestrials had become tainted with commercialism.

"I'm retiring because of my age, my disappointment in the way the UFO field is headed, and I want a little more leisure time for myself," she declared. "I'm tired of traveling."

Too many people with "flaky ideas, fantasies and imaginations" were making UFO and abduction reports, she said.

"If you were to believe the numbers of people who are claiming this, it would figure out to 3,000 to 5,000 abductions in the United States alone every night," she said. "There wouldn't be room for planes to fly."

She said she believed people who said they saw a crashed spaceship with five dead aliens aboard in Roswell, N.M., in 1947. But she said the annual UFO festival in Roswell had become too much for her.

"In the beginning, people were looking for information," she said. "Now, it certainly has turned commercial."

She also said media had fueled UFO fiction.

"The media presented them as huge craft, all brightly lighted and flashing, but they are not," she said. "They are small, with dim lights, and many times they fly with no lights."

Hill had gone a bit commercial herself, trying to fight UFO fantasies with a 1995 self-published book, "A Common Sense Approach to UFOs."

Tired of being rebuffed by the government, Hill had said in an interview that she and others serious about their sightings were united in a "silent network."

"We discuss our findings only with each other. We have no membership lists, no dues, no publications. We are unknown to the media, UFO organizations and the general public. And we are learning," she wrote.

Hill had been a state social worker specializing in adoptions and training foster parents.

She also was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a founding member of Rockingham County Community Action.

Hill is survived by a daughter, a son and niece.

Northwestern Researchers Pinpoint How False Memories Are Formed


EVANSTON --- False memories are the controversial subject of hotly contested arguments about the validity of repressed memories that can surface years after a traumatic event and about the credibility of eyewitness accounts in criminal trials.

Because memories are imperfect under ordinary circumstances -- forming, storing and retrieving them, with great variations in factors influencing those processes -- it is unlikely that a one-answer-fits-all will settle those controversies soon.

But a group of researchers from various disciplines at Northwestern University literally have peered into the brain to offer new evidence on the existence of false memories and how they are formed.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the new study used MRI technology to pinpoint how people form a memory for something that didn't actually happen.

"Our challenge was to bring people into the laboratory and set up a circumstance in which they would remember something that did not happen," said Kenneth A. Paller, professor of psychology and co-investigator of the study. (Brian Gonsalves, who was a doctoral student of Paller's and who now is a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University, is the first author of the paper.)

"We measured brain activity in people who looked at pictures of objects or imagined other objects that we asked them to visualize. Later we asked them to discriminate what they actually saw from what they imagined," Paller said.

Extending upon considerable Northwestern research on what happens in the brain when people remember versus forget, the researchers were interested in what happens differently in the brain when false memories are produced.

"We learned that the particular parts of the brain critical for generating visual images are highly activated when people imagine images such as those we presented to our study participants," said Paller.

Many of the visual images that the subjects were asked to imagine were later misremembered as actually having been seen.

"We think parts of the brain used to actually perceive an object and to imagine an object overlap," said Paller. "Thus, a vividly imagined event can leave a memory trace in the brain that's very similar to that of an experienced event. When memories are stored for perceived or imagined objects, some of the same brain areas are involved."

Take a real life example in which a police interrogator asks if you saw a particular person at a crime scene. That induces putting that person in your imagination and possibly corrupts later questioning.

"Just the fact of looking back into your memory and thinking about whether an event happened is tantamount to imagining that event happening," Paller said. "If I ask you if something happened, you imagine it happening. Later on -- a day or a year later -- if I ask about that event, you have the tough judgment of deciding what happened and what was imagined."

It is important to know that memory is fallible, Paller said. "We know that we forget quite a bit, but we're not always in touch with the idea that our memories can sometimes can be misleading."

For this procedure of measuring brain activity, people lay down in an MRI machine as they looked at a screen with a series of words, all concrete nouns, and pictures, and they wore head phones to hear what was being said. They were instructed to generate a visual image corresponding to each object that was named. For half the words, a photographic image of the object was presented. The subjects were told to make no response to photos, but only to look at each one while waiting for the next word.

They were told to make a size judgment about the objects they were to imagine. For example, if the word was cat, they were told to imagine the cat and decide if a cat is generally bigger or smaller than a video monitor.

The memory test was administered outside the scanner and began approximately 20 minutes after the scanning. Subjects heard a randomly ordered sequence of spoken words. One-third corresponded to photos they had seen, one-third to objects they had only imagined and one-third they had neither seen nor imagined. For each word, subjects decided whether or not they had viewed a photo of the named object during the study phase.

Three brain areas (precuneus, right inferior parietal cortex and anterior cingulate) showed greater responses in the study phase to words that would later be falsely remembered as having been presented with photos, compared to words that were not later misremembered as having been presented with photos. The words leading to false memories also tended to be slightly more concrete, on average, than those that did not. Presumably, people could generate a visual image more easily for the more concrete words.

"At any rate, the remarkable finding is that brain activity during the study phase could predict which objects would subsequently be falsely remembered as having been seen as a photograph," Paller said.

The flip side is that memory for viewed photographs was often correct. People gave many correct responses for objects they indeed viewed. Brain activity produced in response to viewed pictures and measured with functional MRI also predicted which pictures would be subsequently remembered. Two brain regions in particular -- the left hippocampus and the left prefrontal cortex -- were activated more strongly for pictures that were later remembered than for pictures that were forgotten. These two brain areas have previously been understood to play a central role in memory.

The new findings directly showed that different brain areas are critical for accurate memories for visual objects than for false remembering -- for forming a memory for an imagined object that is later remembered as a perceived object. The neuroanatomical evidence furthermore sheds light on the mental mechanisms responsible for forming accurate memories versus false memories.

"In the case of the false remembering emphasized here, the false memories were created when vivid visual imagery was engaged and a mental image was produced," Paller said. "These mental images left a trace in the brain that was later mistaken for the trace that would have been produced had that object actually been seen."

Listed as on the study, the co-investigators are Brian Gonsalves, post-doctoral fellow, Stanford University, and Northwestern researchers Paul J. Reber, associate professor of psychology, Darren R. Gitelman, associate professor of neurology, Todd B. Parrish, associate professor or radiology, M. Marsel Mesulam, Ruth and Evelyn Dunbar Professor, and Kenneth A. Paller, professor of psychology. The Northwestern researchers are affiliated with the department of psychology, the Institute for Neuroscience, the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, the department of neurology, the department of radiology and the Feinberg School of Medicine.

David W. Balsiger at it again

From: James J. Lippard

He has produced "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House" (critically reviewed by Christianity Today here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/reviews/georgewbush.html), which is being sold as an "Alternative" to Fahrenheit 9/11, even though it never mentions Moore or his movie by name. It is clear from the Christianity Today review that Balsiger is being just as honest as ever.

Balsiger is better known to members of this forum as the purveyer of all sorts of nonsense, including multiple books and movies based on hoaxes that Balsiger was either taken in by or (my theory) cynically profiting from. He was behind CBS's "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark" in 1993 which promoted George Jammal's ark hoax, which I debunked in Skeptic magazine:

"Sun Goes Down in Flames"
"Update on the Ark Hoax"

Balsiger is interviewed regarding his Bush documentary on NPR here (his name is misspelled): http://freshair.npr.org/day_fa.jhtml?todayDate=10/19/2004

'Intelligent design' voted in


As now written, Dover Area science curriculum will require the theory to be taught, said a biology teacher.

For the Daily Record/Sunday News
Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Dover Area School Board voted to add "Intelligent Design Theory" to the district's biology curriculum Monday evening just two weeks after Supt. Richard Nilsen assured former board member Lonnie Langione that wouldn't happen.

The change passed by a six-to-three margin after a heated discussion by the board and a dozen members of the community.

During the Oct. 4 board meeting, Langione asked Nilsen if teachers would be required to teach "intelligent design," after he allowed 50 copies of the book "Of Pandas and People," published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, to be used in science classrooms as reference books.

"No," replied Nilsen at the time. "A teacher can, but is not required."

But during Monday's meeting, district biology teacher Jen Miller said the new curriculum wording implies that she will be required to teach "intelligent design."

The new wording in the curriculum states: "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught."

For more than an hour, outgoing board member Noel Wenrich tried to amend the wording in an effort to remove the words, "intelligent design." But through each of his four attempts, his motions failed.

Voting to approve the final version were William Buckingham, Alan Bonsell, Sheila Harkins, Heather Geesey, Jane Cleaver and Angie Yingling. Voting against it were Wenrich, Carol Brown and Jeff Brown.

At the end of the meeting, a tearful Carol Brown read a statement before resigning from the board. She said that on more than one occasion she had been asked if she were, "born again," referring to the Christian term for salvation.

"No one has — nor should have — the right to ask that of a fellow board member," she read. "An individual's religious beliefs should have no impact on his or her ability to serve as a school board director."

Eleven members of the community spoke before the vote with only one, Eric Riddle, encouraging the board to include "intelligent design" in the curriculum.

"It may cost us a little money to do what's right," Riddle said, referring to potential lawsuits that may ensue. "But maybe someday, I can feel good about putting my kids in this district."

Riddle currently homeschools his children.

Lawsuits were a fear of just about everyone speaking against the curriculum change. Buckingham said if a lawsuit were brought against the district, a firm would provide free representation for the district. But for the second meeting in a row, he did not mention the firm.

The district solicitor was not at the meeting.

Carol Brown said that just because a firm mentioned by Buckingham might be willing to represent the board, doesn't mean they would represent faculty members. She said if faculty asked, they would be entitled to representation from the district solicitor, Stock and Leader.

"If they requested Stock and Leader, they (the faculty) should be fired," said board member Heather Geesey. "They agreed to the book and the changes in curriculum."

But Miller and science department head Bertha Spahr said Geesey's statement wasn't true. Spahr said the faculty only agreed to the 'Pandas' book as a compromise to address Buckingham's concern that students have alternate materials to study in addition to their regular text.

Spahr also said that not only did her department not approve the new wording, they were not invited to help write it.

"We didn't know you were going to do this," she said.

The administration said it too did not support the change as it was written. The board recommended something very similar that did not include any reference to "intelligent design."

After the meeting ended, Wenrich, who in addition to Jane Cleaver, also resigned two weeks ago but for personal reasons, had a short shouting match with Buckingham who had challenged people's literacy, knowledge of American history and patriotism throughout the night.

"During my resignation speech, I said we needed to disagree without being nasty," he said. "But nasty is what we got."

Faith-Boosting Genes


September 27, 2004

A search for the genetic basis of spirituality

By Carl Zimmer

By page 77 of The God Gene, Dean H. Hamer has already disowned the title of his own book. He recalls describing to a colleague his discovery of a link between spirituality and a specific gene he calls "the God gene." His colleague raised her eyebrows. "Do you mean there's just one?" she asked.

"I deserved her skepticism," Hamer writes. "What I meant to say, of course, was 'a' God gene, not 'the' God gene."

Of course. Why, the reader wonders, didn't Hamer call his book A God Gene? That might not have been as catchy, but at least it wouldn't have left him contradicting himself.

Whatever you want to call it, this is a frustrating book. The role that genes play in religion is a fascinating question that's ripe for the asking. Psychologists, neurologists and even evolutionary biologists have offered insights about how spiritual behaviors and beliefs emerge from the brain. It is reasonable to ask, as Hamer does, whether certain genes play a significant role in faith. But he is a long way from providing an answer.

Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, wound up on his quest for the God gene by a roundabout route. Initially he and his colleagues set out to find genes that may make people prone to cigarette addiction. They studied hundreds of pairs of siblings, comparing how strongly their shared heredity influenced different aspects of their personality. In addition to having their subjects fill out psychological questionnaires, the researchers also took samples of DNA from some of them. Hamer then realized that this database might let him investigate the genetics of spirituality.

He embarked on this new search by looking at the results of certain survey questions that measured a personality trait known as self-transcendence, originally identified by Washington University psychiatrist Robert Cloninger. Cloninger found that spiritual people tend to share a set of characteristics, such as feeling connected to the world and a willingness to accept things that cannot be objectively demonstrated. Analyzing the cigarette study, Hamer confirmed what earlier studies had found: heredity is partly responsible for whether a person is self-transcendent or not. He then looked at the DNA samples of some of his subjects, hoping to find variants of genes that tended to turn up in self-transcendent people.

His search led him to a gene known as VMAT2. Two different versions of this gene exist, differing only at a single position. People with one version of the gene tend to score a little higher on self-transcendence tests. Although the influence is small, it is, Hamer claims, consistent. About half the people in the study had at least one copy of the self-transcendence-boosting version of VMAT2, which Hamer dubs the God gene.

Is the God gene real? The only evidence we have to go on at the moment is what Hamer presents in his book. He and his colleagues are still preparing to submit their results to a scientific journal. It would be nice to know whether these results can withstand the rigors of peer review. It would be nicer still to know whether any other scientists can replicate them. The field of behavioral genetics is littered with failed links between particular genes and personality traits. These alleged associations at first seemed very strong. But as other researchers tried to replicate them, they faded away into statistical noise. In 1993, for example, a scientist reported a genetic link to male homosexuality in a region of the X chromosome. The report brought a huge media fanfare, but other scientists who tried to replicate the study failed. The scientist's name was Dean Hamer.

To be fair, it should be pointed out that Hamer offers a lot of details about his study in The God Gene, along with many caveats about how hard it is to establish an association between genes and behavior. But given the fate of Hamer's so-called gay gene, it is strange to see him so impatient to trumpet the discovery of his God gene. He is even eager to present an intricate hypothesis about how the God gene produces self-transcendence. The gene, it is well known, makes membrane-covered containers that neurons use to deliver neurotransmitters to one another. Hamer proposes that the God gene changes the level of these neurotransmitters so as to alter a person's mood, consciousness and, ultimately, self-transcendence. He goes so far as to say that the God gene is, along with other faith-boosting genes, a product of natural selection. Self-transcendence makes people more optimistic, which makes them healthier and likely to have more kids.

These speculations take up the bulk of The God Gene, but in support Hamer only offers up bits and pieces of research done by other scientists, along with little sketches of spiritual people he has met. It appears that he has not bothered to think of a way to test these ideas himself. He did not, for example, try to rule out the possibility that natural selection has not favored self-transcendence, but some other function of VMAT2. (Among other things, the gene protects the brain from neurotoxins.) Nor does Hamer rule out the possibility that the God gene offers no evolutionary benefit at all. Sometimes genes that seem to be common thanks to natural selection turn out to have been spread merely by random genetic drift.

Rather than address these important questions, Hamer simply declares that any hypothesis about the evolution of human behavior must be purely speculative. But this is simply not true. If Hamer wanted, he could have measured the strength of natural selection that has acted on VMAT2 in the past. And if he did find signs of selection, he could have estimated how long ago it took place. Other scientists have been measuring natural selection this way for several years now and publishing their results in major journals.

The God Gene might have been a fascinating, enlightening book if Hamer had written it 10 years from now--after his link between VMAT2 and self-transcendence had been confirmed by others and after he had seriously tested its importance to our species. Instead the book we have today would be better titled: A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study.

© 1996-2004 Scientific American, Inc.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

New Book on Stem Cells

Last month, the Joseph Henry Press, general interest publisher for the National Academy of Sciences, published THE PROTEUS EFFECT: STEM CELLS AND THEIR PROMISE FOR MEDICINE by Ann B. Parson.

In The Proteus Effect, Ann Parson explains what stem cells are, tells the history of stem cell research, talks about what's being done right now in labs, details what stem cells might accomplish if we continue moving forward with research, and discusses the debate about embryonic vs. adult stem cell research.

The book was recently reviewed by the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS: "Parson does a thorough and thoughtful job of discussing the potentials of stem cell medicine and the challenges, both scientific and political, that it is facing. By providing readers with enough solid information to make up their own minds on stem cell research, The Proteus Effect should have a pretty good legacy of its own. It may well be the most important science book of the year."

Perhaps you would be willing to help us spread the word about this book by mentioning it in an upcoming issue of NORTH TEXAS SKEPTICS.

I would love to talk more with someone at your group about the possibilities. (FYI, we do have the full-text of this book up for free to read online at our website, http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11003.html.)

Robin Pinnel
Director of Publicity
Joseph Henry Press, trade imprint of the National Academies Press
500 Fifth Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001
phone: 202-334-1902
fax: 202-334-1210
e-mail: rpinnel@nas.edu
Internet: www.jhpress.org


Stem cells could be the key that unlocks cures to scores of diseases and illnesses. Their story is at once compelling, controversial, and remarkable. Part detective story, part medical history, The Proteus Effect recounts the events leading up to the discovery of stem cells and their incredible potential for the future of medicine.

What exactly are these biological wonders – these things called stem cells? They may be tiny, but their impact is earth shaking, generating excitement among medical researchers – and outright turmoil in political circles. They are reported to be nothing short of miraculous. But they have also incited fear and mistrust in many. Indeed, recent research on stem cells raises important questions as rapidly as it generates new discoveries.

The power of stem cells rests in their unspecialized but marvelously flexible nature. They are the clay of life waiting for the cellular signal that will coax them into taking on the shape of the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. With a wave of our medical magic wand, it's possible that stem cells could be used to effectively treat (even cure) diseases such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and even baldness.

But should scientists be allowed to pick apart four-day-old embryos in order to retrieve stem cells? And when stem cells whisper to us of immortality – they can divide and perpetuate new cells indefinitely – how do we respond? Stem cells are forcing us to not only reexamine how we define the beginning of life but how we come to terms with the end of life as well.

Meticulously researched, artfully balanced, and engagingly told, Ann Parson chronicles a scientific discovery in progress, exploring the ethical debates, describing the current research, and hinting of a spectacular new era in medicine. The Proteus Effect is as timely as it is riveting.


"Parson does a thorough and thoughtful job of discussing the potentials of stem celln medicine and the challenges, both scientific and political, that it is facing. By providing readers with enough solid information to make up their own minds on stem cell research, The Proteus Effect should have a pretty good legacy of its own. It may well be the most important science book of the year."
-- San Jose Mercury News, October 3, 2004

"...a well-researched, highly readable book... Parson wonderfully describes the discovery of both types [embryonic and adult] of cells."
-- The New York Post, August 8

"[Parson] has the rare ability to make the complex world of science understandable for the general reader. ... Ms. Parson clarifies for the non-scientist what stem cells are, how they differentiate, what cell transplantation is, and explains the difference between embryonic and adult stem-cell research. ... The great virtue of The Proteus Effect is that it makes this complex and awe-inspiring scientific endeavor commonsensical to her readers, too."
-- The Standard-Times, October 16, 2004

"...[an] engaging and well-researched account of stem-cell research ... Most current books on stem-cell research are technical, somewhat biased, or told from one point of view. Parson has presented a fair, well-rounded view of the subject."
-- Library Journal, September 15, 2004

"Arguably the most exciting, promising and controversial medical research being performed today explores the potential of stem cells, unique cells that, when dividing, can produce either more cells like themselves or other specialized cells, such as heart cells, skin cells and neurons… science journalist Parson takes us through [the] history, ranging from 18th-century natural philosophers' discovery of seemingly immortal organisms to the exploration, two centuries later, of curious mouse tumors, called teratomas, that may unlock the secrets of the human embryo."
-- Publishers Weekly, July 26, 2004

"Stem cell research lies at the center of a confused and overwrought political debate. What a relief, then, that Ann Parson has produced such a clear-eyed book on the subject. She's an easy-going and knowledgeable guide who takes us through the history of stem cells research, the current scientific landscape and the realistic prospects for the decades ahead. This book is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand one of the most intriguing medical developments of our time."
-- Douglas Starr, author of BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce and co-director, The Center for Science and Medical Journalism, Boston University

"Ann Parson is one of the best science writers of our time, with mastery of both technical details and personal biography. How fortunate for us to have this study at a time when stem cell research has been severely handicapped by religious ideology."

-- David S. Landes, professor emeritus of history and economics at Harvard University and the author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations and The Unbound Prometheus

Author Bio
Ann B. Parson is a science journalist who has covered a range of topics in the areas of medicine, technology, and the environment. She is co-author of Decoding Darkness; The Search for the Genetic Causes of Alzheimer's Disease. Published in 2000, Decoding Darkness was hailed by Publisher's Weekly as a "fascinating story" and "not just another sterile account of scientific discovery." Parson is co-author as well of Menopause. She has written dozens of articles for a range of publications, among them The Boston Globe, The New York Times, McCalls, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Harvard Health Letter. From 1990 to 1998, she taught in Boston University's graduate program in science journalism. She currently resides in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

Is God in Our Genes?


A provocative study asks whether religion is a product of evolution. Inside a quest for the roots of faith

By Jeffrey Kluger

It's not hard to see the divinity behind the water temples that dot the rice terraces of Bali. It's there in the white-clad high priest presiding in the temple at the summit of a dormant volcano. It's there in the 23 priests serving along with him, selected for their jobs when they were still children by a bevy of virgin priestesses. It's there in the rituals the priests perform to protect the island's water, which in turn is needed to nurture the island's rice.

If the divine is easy to spot, what's harder to make out is the banal. But it's there too—in the meetings the priests convene to schedule their planting dates and combat the problem of crop pests; in the plans they draw up to maintain aqueducts and police conduits; in the irrigation proposals they consider and approve, the dam proposals they reject or amend. "The religion has a temple at every node in the irrigation system," says David Sloan Wilson, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. "The priests make decisions and enforce the code of both religion and irrigation."

Ask true believers of any faith to describe the most important thing that drives their devotion, and they'll tell you it's not a thing at all but a sense—a feeling of a higher power far beyond us. Western religions can get a bit more doctrinaire: God has handed us laws and lore, and it's for us to learn and practice what they teach. For a hell-raising species like ours, however—with too much intelligence for our own good and too little discipline to know what to do with it—there have always been other, more utilitarian reasons to get religion. Chief among them is survival. Across the eons, the structure that religion provides our lives helps preserve both mind and body. But that, in turn, has raised a provocative question, one that's increasingly debated in the worlds of science and religion: Which came first, God or the need for God? In other words, did humans create religion from cues sent from above, or did evolution instill in us a sense of the divine so that we would gather into the communities essential to keeping the species going?

Just as a hurricane spins off tornadoes, this debate creates its own whirlwind of questions: If some people are more spiritual than others, is it nature or nurture that has made them so? If science has nothing to do with spirituality and it all flows from God, why do some people hear the divine word easily while others remain spiritually tone-deaf? Do such ivied-hall debates about environment, heredity and anthropology have any place at all in more exalted conversations about the nature of God?

Even among people who regard spiritual life as wishful hocus-pocus, there is a growing sense that humans may not be able to survive without it. It's hard enough getting by in a fang-and-claw world in which killing, thieving and cheating pay such rich dividends. It's harder still when there's no moral cop walking the beat to blow the whistle when things get out of control. Best to have a deity on hand to rein in our worst impulses, bring out our best and, not incidentally, give us a sense that there's someone awake in the cosmic house when the lights go out at night and we find ourselves wondering just why we're here in the first place. If a God or even several gods can do all that, fine. And if we sometimes misuse the idea of our gods—and millenniums of holy wars prove that we do—the benefits of being a spiritual species will surely outweigh the bloodshed.

Far from being an evolutionary luxury then, the need for God may be a crucial trait stamped deeper and deeper into our genome with every passing generation. Humans who developed a spiritual sense thrived and bequeathed that trait to their offspring. Those who didn't risked dying out in chaos and killing. The evolutionary equation is a simple but powerful one.

Nowhere has that idea received a more intriguing going-over than in the recently published book The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes by molecular biologist Dean Hamer. Chief of gene structure at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, Hamer not only claims that human spirituality is an adaptive trait, but he also says he has located one of the genes responsible, a gene that just happens to also code for production of the neurotransmitters that regulate our moods. Our most profound feelings of spirituality, according to a literal reading of Hamer's work, may be due to little more than an occasional shot of intoxicating brain chemicals governed by our dna. "I'm a believer that every thought we think and every feeling we feel is the result of activity in the brain," Hamer says. "I think we follow the basic law of nature, which is that we're a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag."

Even for the casually religious, such seeming reductionism can rankle. The very meaning of faith, after all, is to hold fast to something without all the tidy cause and effect that science finds so necessary. Try parsing things the way geneticists do, and you risk parsing them into dust. "God is not something that can be demonstrated logically or rigorously," says Neil Gillman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. "[The idea of a God gene] goes against all my personal theological convictions." John Polkinghorne, a physicist who is also Canon Theologian at England's Liverpool Cathedral, agrees: "You can't cut [faith] down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking."

Is Hamer really guilty of such simplification? Could claims for a so-called God gene be merely the thin end of a secular wedge, one that risks prying spirituality away from God altogether? Or, assuming the gene exists at all, could it somehow be embraced by both science and religion, in the same way some evolutionists and creationists—at least the less radicalized ones—accept the idea of a divinely created universe in which evolving life is simply part of the larger plan? Hamer, for one, hopes so. "My findings are agnostic on the existence of God," he says. "If there's a God, there's a God. Just knowing what brain chemicals are involved in acknowledging that is not going to change the fact."

Whatever the merits of Hamer's work, he is clearly the heir of a millenniums-long search for the wellsprings of spirituality. People have been wrestling with the roots of faith since faith itself was first codified into Scripture. "[God has] set eternity in the hearts of men," says the Book of Ecclesiastes, "yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."

To theologians in the 3rd century B.C., when Ecclesiastes is thought to have been written, that passage spoke to the idea that while all of us are divinely inspired to look for God, none of us are remotely capable of fully comprehending what we are seeking. Scientists in the 21st century may not disagree, provided that "hearts of men" is replaced with "genes of men." The key for those researchers is finding those genes.

Hamer began looking in 1998, when he was conducting a survey on smoking and addiction for the National Cancer Institute. As part of his study, he recruited more than 1,000 men and women, who agreed to take a standardized, 240-question personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory (tci). Among the traits the tci measures is one known as self-transcendence, which consists of three other traits: self-forgetfulness, or the ability to get entirely lost in an experience; transpersonal identification, or a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe; and mysticism, or an openness to things not literally provable. Put them all together, and you come as close as science can to measuring what it feels like to be spiritual. "This allows us to have the kind of experience described as religious ecstasy," says Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and the designer of the self-transcendence portion of the tci.

Hamer decided to use the data he gathered in the smoking survey to conduct a little spirituality study on the side. First he ranked the participants along Cloninger's self-transcendence scale, placing them on a continuum from least to most spiritually inclined. Then he went poking around in their genes to see if he could find the dna responsible for the differences. Spelunking in the human genome is not easy, what with 35,000 genes consisting of 3.2 billion chemical bases. To narrow the field, Hamer confined his work to nine specific genes known to play major roles in the production of monoamines—brain chemicals, including serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, that regulate such fundamental functions as mood and motor control. It's monoamines that are carefully manipulated by Prozac and other antidepressants. It's also monoamines that are not so carefully scrambled by ecstasy, lsd, peyote and other mind-altering drugs—some of which have long been used in religious rituals.

Studying the nine candidate genes in dna samples provided by his subjects, Hamer quickly hit the genetic jackpot. A variation in a gene known as vmat2—for vesicular monoamine transporter—seemed to be directly related to how the volunteers scored on the self-transcendence test. Those with the nucleic acid cytosine in one particular spot on the gene ranked high. Those with the nucleic acid adenine in the same spot ranked lower. "A single change in a single base in the middle of the gene seemed directly related to the ability to feel self-transcendence," Hamer says. Merely having that feeling did not mean those people would take the next step and translate their transcendence into a belief in—or even a quest for—God. But they seemed likelier to do so than those who never got the feeling at all.

Hamer is careful to point out that the gene he found is by no means the only one that affects spirituality. Even minor human traits can be governed by the interplay of many genes; something as complex as belief in God could involve hundreds or even thousands. "If someone comes to you and says, 'We've found the gene for X,'" says John Burn, medical director of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Newcastle in England, "you can stop them before they get to the end of the sentence."

Hamer also stresses that while he may have located a genetic root for spirituality, that is not the same as a genetic root for religion. Spirituality is a feeling or a state of mind; religion is the way that state gets codified into law. Our genes don't get directly involved in writing legislation. As Hamer puts it, perhaps understating a bit the emotional connection many have to their religions, "Spirituality is intensely personal; religion is institutional."

At least one faith, according to one of its best-known scholars, formalizes the idea of gene-based spirituality and even puts a pretty spin on it. Buddhists, says Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, have long entertained the idea that we inherit a spirituality gene from the person we were in a previous life. Smaller than an ordinary gene, it combines with two larger physical genes we inherit from our parents, and together they shape our physical and spiritual profile. Says Thurman: "The spiritual gene helps establish a general trust in the universe, a sense of openness and generosity." Buddhists, he adds, would find Hamer's possible discovery "amusing and fun."

The Buddhist theory has never been put to the scientific test, but other investigations into the biological roots of belief in God were being conducted long before Hamer's efforts—often with intriguing results. In 1979, investigators at the University of Minnesota began their now famous twins study, tracking down 53 pairs of identical twins and 31 pairs of fraternal twins that had been separated at birth and raised apart. The scientists were looking for traits the members of each pair had in common, guessing that the characteristics shared more frequently by identical twins than by fraternal twins would be genetically based, since identical twins carry matching dna, and those traits for which there was no disparity between the identicals and fraternals would be more environmentally influenced.

As it turned out, the identical twins had plenty of remarkable things in common. In some cases, both suffered from migraine headaches, both had a fear of heights, both were nail biters. Some shared little eccentricities, like flushing the toilet both before and after using it. When quizzed on their religious values and spiritual feelings, the identical twins showed a similar overlap. In general, they were about twice as likely as fraternal twins to believe as much—or as little—about spirituality as their sibling did. Significantly, these numbers did not hold up when the twins were questioned about how faithfully they practiced any organized religion. Clearly, it seemed, the degree to which we observe rituals such as attending services is mostly the stuff of environment and culture. Whether we're drawn to God in the first place is hardwired into our genes. "It completely contradicted my expectations," says University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas Bouchard, one of the researchers involved in the work. Similar results were later found in larger twin studies in Virginia and Australia.

Other researchers have taken the science in a different direction, looking not for the genes that code for spirituality but for how that spirituality plays out in the brain. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has used several types of imaging systems to watch the brains of subjects as they meditate or pray. By measuring blood flow, he determines which regions are responsible for the feelings the volunteers experience. The deeper that people descend into meditation or prayer, Newberg found, the more active the frontal lobe and the limbic system become. The frontal lobe is the seat of concentration and attention; the limbic system is where powerful feelings, including rapture, are processed. More revealing is the fact that at the same time these regions flash to life, another important region—the parietal lobe at the back of the brain—goes dim. It's this lobe that orients the individual in time and space. Take it off-line, and the boundaries of the self fall away, creating the feeling of being at one with the universe. Combine that with what's going on in the other two lobes, and you can put together a profound religious experience.

Even to some within the religious community, this does not come as news. "In India in Buddha's time, there were philosophers who said there was no soul; the mind was just chemistry," says Thurman. "The Buddha disagreed with their extreme materialism but also rejected the 'absolute soul' theologians." Michael Persinger, professor of behavioral neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., puts the chemistry argument more bluntly. "God," he says, "is an artifact of the brain."

Even if such spiritual deconstructionism is true, some scientists—to say nothing of most theologians—think it takes you only so far, particularly when it comes to trying to determine the very existence of God. Simply understanding the optics and wiring of the eyes, after all, doesn't mean there's no inherent magnificence in the Rembrandts they allow us to see. If human beings were indeed divinely assembled, why wouldn't our list of parts include a genetic chip that would enable us to contemplate our maker?

"Of course, concepts of God reside in the brain. They certainly don't reside in the toe," says Lindon Eaves, director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "The question is, To what is this wiring responsive? Why is it there?"

Says Paul Davies, professor of natural philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia: "I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that if you explain something, you explain it away. I don't see that at all with religious experience."

Those religious believers who are comfortable with the idea that God genes are the work of God should have little trouble making the next leap: that not only are the genes there but they are central to our survival, one of the hinges upon which the very evolution of the human species turned. It's an argument that's not terribly hard to make.

For one thing, God is a concept that appears in human cultures all over the globe, regardless of how geographically isolated they are. When tribes living in remote areas come up with a concept of God as readily as nations living shoulder to shoulder, it's a fairly strong indication that the idea is preloaded in the genome rather than picked up on the fly. If that's the case, it's an equally strong indication that there are very good reasons it's there.

One of those reasons might be that, as the sole species—as far as we know—capable of contemplating its own death, we needed something larger than ourselves to make that knowledge tolerable. "Anticipation of our own demise is the price we pay for a highly developed frontal lobe," says Persinger. "In many ways, [a God experience is] a brilliant adaptation. It's a built-in pacifier."

But the most important survival role religion may serve is as the mortar that holds a group together. Worshipping God doesn't have to be a collective thing; it can be done in isolation, disconnected from any organized religion. The overwhelming majority of people, however, congregate to pray, observing the same rituals and heeding the same creeds. Once that congregation is in place, it's only a small step to using the common system of beliefs and practices as the basis for all the secular laws that keep the group functioning.

One of the best examples of religion as social organizer, according to Binghamton University's Wilson, is early Calvinism. John Calvin rose to prominence in 1536 when, as a theologian and religious reformer, he was recruited to help bring order to the fractious city of Geneva. Calvin, perhaps one of the greatest theological minds ever produced by European Christianity, was a lawyer by trade. Wilson speculates that it was Calvin's pragmatic genius to understand that while civil laws alone might not be enough to bring the city's deadbeats and other malefactors into line, divine law might be.

Calvin's catechism included the familiar Ten Commandments—which, with their injunctions against theft, murder, adultery and lying, are themselves effective social organizers. Added to that were admonitions to pay taxes, perform civic duties, behave in a civil manner and submit to the authority of magistrates. "You must understand religions very thoroughly in relation to their environments," says Wilson. "And one problem for Calvin was to make his city function."

The heirs to Calvinism today—Presbyterians, many Baptists and believers in the Reformed tradition in general—see the roots of their faith as something far more divine than merely good civic management. But even some theologians seem to think that a deep belief in the laws of God can coexist with the survival demands of an evolving society. "Calvin had a reverence for the Scriptures, which then became institutionalized," says James Kay, professor of practical theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary. "The Bible is concerned about justice for the poor, equity and fairness, and all of those things were seen to in Calvin's Geneva."

Other struggling cultures have similarly translated godly law into earthly order and in doing so helped ensure their survival. The earliest Christians established a rough institutional structure that allowed them to transmit their ideas within a generation of Christ's death, and as a result succeeded in living through the Roman persecution; the Jews of the Diaspora moved as a cultural whole through the nations of Europe, finding niches wherever they could but maintaining their identity and kinship by observing the same rites. "All religions become a bit secular," says Wilson. "In order to survive, you have to organize yourselves into a culture."

The downside to all this is that often religious groups gather not into congregations but into camps—and sometimes they're armed camps. In a culture of Crusades, Holocausts and jihads, where in the world is the survival advantage of religious wars or terrorism? One facile explanation has always been herd culling—an adaptive way of keeping populations down so that resources aren't depleted. But there's little evolutionary upside to wiping out an entire population of breeding-age males, as countries trying to recover from wars repeatedly learn. Why then do we so often let the sweetness of religion curdle into combat?

The simple answer might be that just because we're given a gift, we don't necessarily always use it wisely. Fire can either light your village or burn down the one next door, depending on your inclination. "Religions represent an attempt to harness innate spirituality for organizational purposes—not always good," says Macquarie University's Davies. And while spiritual contemplation is intuitive, says Washington University's Cloninger, religion is dogmatic; dogma in the wrong hands has always been a risky thing.

Still, for every place in the world that's suffering from religious strife, there are many more where spirituality is doing its uplifting and civilizing work. A God who would equip us with the genes and the smarts to cooperate in such a clever way is a God who ought to be appealing even to religious purists. Nonetheless, sticking points do remain that prevent genetic theory from going down smoothly. One that's particularly troublesome is the question of why Hamer's God gene—or any of the others that may eventually be discovered—is distributed so unevenly among us. Why are some of us spiritual virtuosos, while others can't play a note? Isn't it one of the central tenets of religion that grace is available to everybody? At least a few scientists shrug at the question. "Some get religion, and some don't," says Virginia Commonwealth University's Eaves.

But this seeming inequity may be an important part of the spiritual journey.

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Death Puts Spotlight on a Doctor and Regulators


Posted on October 06, 2004

New York Times

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C., Sept. 29 - Katherine Bibeau came here in March, to a red-brick doctor's office tucked between a furniture store and a steel factory, looking to slow her physical decline from multiple sclerosis.

Ms. Bibeau, a 53-year-old laboratory technician from Minnesota, met Dr. James Shortt, who practices alternative medicine. He is, according to a sign on the front of the building, a "longevity physician."

"Hydrogen peroxide would be very good to kill whatever's in there," Dr. Shortt had told Ms. Bibeau over the phone in February, according to a transcript of his taped recording of the call, "because, right now, we don't know what it is."

On March 9, Dr. Shortt administered the hydrogen peroxide, intravenously. Over the next five days, Ms. Bibeau bled to death.

The coroner here has called Ms. Bibeau's death a homicide, her family has filed a civil suit, and law enforcement officials have raided Dr. Shortt's office and seized his files.

But the Web site of the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners has this to say about Dr. Shortt: "The above licensee is in good standing."

The case has focused attention not just on the danger of an unorthodox therapy but also on the conduct of the state medical board, which regulates doctors and provides information about them to the public.

Medical regulators often move slowly, out of concern for doctors who make innocent mistakes.

"The balancing act," said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a co-author of a book about patient safety, "is that when we have a dangerous doctor, we don't have a good mechanism to throw him out of the system or at the very least inform patients about him while not casting the net so wide that the innocent, compassionate, caring physician who makes an error once in a while is tarred by the same brush."

South Carolina's approach is a representative one, Dr. Wachter said. "Most states are in about the same situation," he said. "The bias is still tilted toward protecting the providers."

A receptionist at Dr. Shortt's office referred a reporter to his lawyer, Ward Bradley.

"We have a nice man who is engaged in cutting-edge, outside-the-box, not-widely-accepted-by-the-medical-establishment practices for a woman who could not find relief from traditional medicine," Mr. Bradley said.

He said the true cause of death had yet to be determined, noting that Ms. Bibeau was taking powerful drugs for her disease. "It's a very dilute form of hydrogen peroxide," he said. "There are thousands of doctors who do this."

Dr. Michael J. Olek, director of the multiple sclerosis center at the University of California, Irvine, said he had never heard of the therapy.

"It doesn't make any sense at all," Dr. Olek said. "It sounds very, very dangerous."

Doctors in North Carolina, Missouri and Tennessee have had their licenses suspended or revoked for treating patients with intravenous hydrogen peroxide. Adherents of the treatment call it "oxidative therapy" and say it can help cure cancer, AIDS, asthma and other conditions. Because the causes of multiple sclerosis are poorly understood and its symptoms are unpredictable, patients are often eager to experiment with any treatment that might help. But medical experts said there was no scientific evidence to suggest that hydrogen peroxide was an effective treatment. They added that the substance, an antiseptic and bleaching agent, should generally be harmless if it was sufficiently diluted.

In August, the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners said the infusion of hydrogen peroxide "is unacceptable and constitutes unprofessional conduct as it is likely to harm the public" and ordered Dr. Shortt "to immediately cease and desist from any further intravenous infusion."

But that order has been rescinded, said Jim Knight, a spokesman for the medical board. "The confidentiality rules set up by state law about the disciplinary proceedings prohibit me from saying anything further," he said.

[On Thursday, the board filed an administrative complaint to suspend Dr. Shortt's license. The Web site continued to say that he was in good standing as of Tuesday.]

"The regulators are asleep at the switch," said Richard Gergel, who represents Ms. Bibeau's family in a civil suit against Dr. Shortt filed in federal court in Columbia on Sept. 22. "They've got a charlatan on their hands, and they're not set up to regulate charlatans."

Gary Watts, the county coroner who ruled Ms. Bibeau's death a homicide, also found fault with the state medical board.

"A doctor or a dentist can have his license revoked for touching a woman's breast," Mr. Watts said. "He killed this woman. She would be here today if he did not infuse her with hydrogen peroxide."

Dr. Clay A. Nichols, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Ms. Bibeau, said Dr. Shortt gave the medical profession a bad name.

"He's selling hope to the hopeless, at a very high price," Dr. Nichols said.

Dr. Shortt charged Ms. Bibeau about $3,000, but that is not the price Dr. Nichols meant. The therapy cost Ms. Bibeau her life, he said, and her death was not a pretty one.

"People have compared this to becoming a hemophiliac," Dr. Nichols said. "You just keep bleeding."

David L. Thomas, a state senator from Greenville, S.C., and a partner in the law firm that represents Dr. Shortt, said that he, his wife and his mother had all been to see Dr. Shortt for the intravenous hydrogen peroxide therapy, to good effect.

"My wife had been diagnosed with probable onset of M.S.," he said, referring to the same degenerative disease that Ms. Bibeau had. The treatment has improved her condition, he said. "She's walking again," he added, referring to his wife, Fran Thomas.

In a telephone interview from his home in Cottage Grove, Minn., David Bibeau lapsed into the present tense in talking of his late wife. They had been together for 25 years.

"She likes to cook, and she loves to do crafts," said Mr. Bibeau, a salesman. "She was June Cleaver, but with an attitude."

Brain cell study alters Huntington's theories



October 14, 2004

A new robotic microscope that follows a brain cell in the lab from a normal state to its death has led researchers to a surprising finding that appears to debunk a long-standing theory about Huntington's disease.

Like many degenerative brain diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, proteins targeted in the disease process begin misfolding and clumping in or around brain cells, which are called neurons.

It has long been thought that the sticky protein triggers the death of brain cells.

But Dr. Steve Finkbeiner and colleagues at the University of California in San Francisco and the university's Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease have discovered that the mutant protein that clumps inside the brain cells of Huntington's patients actually saves cells from dying.

"This process appears to be protective," said Finkbeiner, an assistant professor in the department of neurology and physiology.

Today, a major treatment strategy is aimed at developing medicines to stop this abnormal protein from clumping. If Finkbeiner is right, this could worsen matters.

"This has been an area of great controversy," said Dr. Christopher Ross, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutes in Baltimore. "It's an important finding."

The study is published today in Nature.

While proteins that cause Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are different, the pathology - these deposits in or around brain cells - is similar.

A few years ago Finkbeiner and colleagues published a paper in the journal Cell showing that when these protein clumps, called inclusion bodies, disappear, neurons got worse.

He decided to build a microscope that would allow scientists to follow brain cells over a long period, akin to videotaping a neuron's life.

In the experiment, they took neurons from the striatum, the brain region hard hit by Huntington's.

In a lab dish, they added either the normal Huntington gene, or the mutant form that causes the disease.

"Inclusion-body formation actually prolonged survival and protected neurons," Dr. Harry Orr of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota wrote in an accompanying editorial.

He said the scientific approach could serve the field well.

Some scientists now think the vulnerable neurons sweep the abnormal protein "to get it out of the way," explained Hopkins' Ross.

Normally, neurons have enzymes that actually work like garbage disposals to get rid of material floating around a cell.

But in this case, it's more like a recycling bin.

The problem, Ross said, "is that no one ever comes to pick up the garbage."

Huntington's is an inherited, fatally degenerative disease of the central nervous system that appears on average at age 35.

Complete mental and physical deterioration progresses slowly, with death resulting in 10 to 15 years.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.

A Field Guide to Critical Thinking


by James Lett

There are many reasons for the popularity of paranormal beliefs in the United States today, including:

As a college professor, I am especially concerned with this third problem. Most of the freshman and sophomore students in my classes simply do not know how to draw reasonable conclusions from the evidence. At most, they've been taught in high school what to think; few of them know how to think.

In an attempt to remedy this problem at my college, I've developed an elective course called "Anthropology and the Paranormal." The course examines the complete range of paranormal beliefs in contemporary American culture, from precognition and psychokinesis to channeling and cryptozoology and everything between and beyond, including astrology, UFOs, and creationism. I teach the students very little about anthropological theories and even less about anthropological terminology. Instead, I try to communicate the essence of the anthropological perspective, by teaching them, indirectly, what the scientific method is all about. I do so by teaching them how to evaluate evidence. I give them six simple rules to follow when considering any claim, and then show them how to apply those six rules to the examination of any paranormal claim.

The six rules of evidential reasoning are my own distillation and simplification of the scientific method. To make it easier for students to remember these half-dozen guidelines, I've coined an acronym for them: Ignoring the vowels, the letters in the word "FiLCHeRS" stand for the rules of Falsifiability, Logic, Comprehensiveness, Honesty, Replicability, and Sufficiency. Apply these six rules to the evidence offered for any claim, I tell my students, and no one will ever be able to sneak up on you and steal your belief. You'll be filch-proof.


It must be possible to conceive of evidence that would prove the claim false. It may sound paradoxical, but in order for any claim to be true, it must be falsifiable. The rule of falsifiability is a guarantee that if the claim is false, the evidence will prove it false; and if the claim is true, the evidence will not disprove it (in which case the claim can be tentatively accepted as true until such time as evidence is brought forth that does disprove it). The rule of falsifiability, in short, says that the evidence must matter, and as such it is the first and most important and most fundamental rule of evidential reasoning.

The rule of falsifiability is essential for this reason: If nothing conceivable could ever disprove the claim, then the evidence that does exist would not matter; it would be pointless to even examine the evidence, because the conclusion is already known -- the claim is invulnerable to any possible evidence. This would not mean, however, that the claim is true; instead it would mean that the claim is meaningless. This is so because it is impossible -- logically impossible -- for any claim to be true no matter what. For every true claim, you can always conceive of evidence that would make the claim untrue -- in other words, again, every true claim is falsifiable.

For example, the true claim that the life span of human beings is less than 200 years is falsifiable; it would be falsified if a single human being were to live to be 200 years old. Similarly, the true claim that water freezes at 32° F is falsifiable; it would be falsified if water were to freeze at, say, 34° F. Each of these claims is firmly established as scientific "fact," and we do not expect either claim ever to be falsified; however, the point is that either could be. Any claim that could not be falsified would be devoid of any propositional content; that is, it would not be making a factual assertion -- it would instead be making an emotive statement, a declaration of the way the claimant feels about the world. Nonfalsifiable claims do communicate information, but what they describe is the claimant's value orientation. They communicate nothing whatsoever of a factual nature, and hence are neither true nor false. Nonfalsifiable statements are propositionally vacuous.

There are two principal ways in which the rule of falsifiability can be violated -- two ways, in other words, of making nonfalsifiable claims. The first variety of nonfalsifiable statements is the undeclared claim: a statement that is so broad or vague that it lacks any propositional content. The undeclared claim is basically unintelligible and consequently meaningless. Consider, for example, the claim that crystal therapists can use pieces of quartz to restore balance and harmony to a person's spiritual energy. What does it mean to have unbalanced spiritual energy? How is the condition recognized and diagnosed? What evidence would prove that someone's unbalanced spiritual energy had been -- or had not been -- balanced by the application of crystal therapy? Most New Age wonders, in fact, consist of similarly undeclared claims that dissolve completely when exposed to the solvent of rationality.

The undeclared claim has the advantage that virtually any evidence that could be adduced could be interpreted as congruent with the claim, and for that reason it is especially popular among paranormalists who claim precognitive powers. Jeane Dixon, for example, predicted that 1987 would be a year "filled with changes" for Caroline Kennedy. Dixon also predicted that Jack Kemp would "face major disagreements with the rest of his party" in 1987 and that "world-wide drug terror" would be "unleashed by narcotics czars" in the same year. She further revealed that Dan Rather "may [or may not] be hospitalized" in 1988, and that Whitney Houston's "greatest problem" in 1986 would be "balancing her personal life against her career." The undeclared claim boils down to a statement that can be translated as "Whatever will be, will be."

The second variety of nonfalsifiable statements, which is even more popular among paranormalists, involves the use of the multiple out, that is, an inexhaustible series of excuses intended to explain away the evidence that would seem to falsify the claim. Creationists, for example, claim that the universe is no more than 10,000 years old. They do so despite the fact that we can observe stars that are billions of light-years from the earth, which means that the light must have left those stars billions of years ago, and which proves that the universe must be billions of years old. How then do the creationists respond to this falsification of their claim? By suggesting that God must have created the light already on the way from those distant star at the moment of creation 10,000 years ago. No conceivable piece of evidence, of course, could disprove that claim.

Additional examples of multiple outs abound in the realm of the paranormal. UFO proponents, faced with a lack of reliable physical or photographic evidence to buttress the claims, point to a secret "government conspiracy" that is allegedly preventing the release of evidence that would support their case. Psychic healers say they can heal you if you have enough faith in their psychic powers. Psychokinetics say they can bend spoons with their minds if they are not exposed to negative vibrations from skeptic observers. Tarot readers can predict your fate if you're sincere in your desire for knowledge. The multiple out means, in effect, "Heads I win, tails you lose."


Any argument offered as evidence in support of any claim must be sound. An argument is said to be "valid" if its conclusion follows unavoidably from its premises; it is "sound" if it is valid and if all the premises are true. The rule of logic thus governs the validity of inference. Although philosophers have codified and named the various forms of valid arguments, it is not necessary to master a course in form logic in order to apply the rules of inference consistently and correctly. An invalid argument can be recognize by the simple method of counterexample: If you can conceive of a single imaginable instance whereby the conclusion would not necessarily follow from the premises even if the premises were true, then the argument is invalid. Consider the following syllogism for example: All dogs have fleas; Xavier has fleas; therefore Xavier is a dog. That argument is invalid because a single flea-ridden feline named Xavier would provide an effective counterexample. If an argument is invalid, then it is, by definition, unsound. Not all valid arguments are sound, however. Consider this example: All dogs have fleas; Xavier is a dog; therefore Xavier has fleas. That argument is unsound, even though it is valid, because the first premise is false: All dogs do not have fleas.

To determine whether a valid argument is sound is frequently problematic; knowing whether a given premise is true or false often demands additional knowledge about the claim that may require empirical investigation. If the argument passes these two tests, however -- if it is both valid and sound -- then the conclusion can be embraced with certainty.

The rule of logic is frequently violated by pseudoscientists. Erich von Däniken, who singlehandedly popularized the ancient-astronaut mythology in the 1970s, wrote many books in which he offered invalid and unsound arguments with benumbing regularity (see Omohundro 1976). In Chariots of the Gods? he was not above making arguments that were both logically invalid and factually inaccurate -- in other words, arguments that were doubly unsound. For example, von Däniken argues that the map of the world made by the sixteenth-century Turkish admiral Piri Re'is is so "astoundingly accurate" that it could only have been made from satellite photographs. Not only is the argument invalid (any number of imaginable techniques other than satellite photography could result in an "astoundingly accurate" map), but the premise is simply wrong -- the Piri Re'is map, in fact, contains many gross inaccuracies (see Story 1981).


The evidence offered in support of any claim must be exhaustive -- that is all of the available evidence must be considered.

For obvious reasons, it is never reasonable to consider only the evidence that supports a theory and to discard the evidence that contradicts it. This rule is straightforward and self-apparent, and it requires little explication or justification. Nevertheless, it is a rule that is frequently broken by proponents of paranormal claims and by those who adhere to paranormal beliefs.

For example, the proponents of biorhythm theory are fond of pointing to airplane crashes that occurred on days when the pilot, copilot, anchor navigator were experiencing critically low points in their intellectual, emotional, and/or physical cycles. The evidence considered by the biorhythm apologists, however, does not include the even larger number of airplane crashes that occurred when the crews were experiencing high or neutral points in their biorhythm cycles (Hines 1988:160). Similarly, when people believe that Jeane Dixon has precognitive ability because she predicted the 1988 election of George Bush (which she did, two months before the election, when every social scientist, media maven, and private citizen in the country was making the same prognostication), they typically ignore the thousands of forecasts that Dixon has made that have failed to come true (such as her predictions that John F. Kennedy would not win the presidency in 1960, that World War III would begin in 1958, and that Fidel Castro would die in 1969). If you are willing to be selective in the evidence you consider, you could reasonably conclude that the earth is flat.


The evidence offered in support of any claim must be evaluated without self-deception.

The rule of honesty is a corollary to the rule of comprehensiveness. When you have examined all of the evidence, it is essential that you be honest with yourself about the results of that examination. If the weight of the evidence contradicts the claim, then you are required to abandon belief in that claim. The obverse, of course, would hold as well.

The rule of honesty, like the rule of comprehensiveness, is frequently violated by both proponents and adherents of paranormal beliefs. Parapsychologists violate this rule when they conclude, after numerous subsequent experiments have failed to replicate initially positive psi results, that psi must be an elusive phenomenon. (Applying Occam's Razor, the more honest conclusion would be that the original positive result must have been a coincidence.) Believers in the paranormal violate this rule when they conclude, after observing a "psychic" surreptitiously bend a spoon with his hands, that he only cheats sometimes.

In practice, the rule of honesty usually boils down to an injunction against breaking the rule of falsifiability by taking a multiple out. There is more to it than that, however: The rule of honesty means that you must accept the obligation to come to a rational conclusion once you have examined all the evidence. If the overwhelming weight of all the evidence falsifies your belief, then you must conclude that the belief is false, and you must face the implications of that conclusion forthrightly. In the face of overwhelmingly negative evidence, neutrality and agnosticism are no better than credulity and faith. Denial, avoidance, rationalization, and all the other familiar mechanisms of self-deception would constitute violations of the rule of honesty.

In my view, this rule alone would all but invalidate the entire discipline of parapsychology. After more than a century of systematic, scholarly research, the psi hypothesis remains wholly unsubstantiated and unsupportable; parapsychologists have failed, as Ray Hyman (1985:7) observes, to produce "any consistent evidence for paranormality that can withstand acceptable scientific scrutiny." From all indications, the number of parapsychologists who observe the rule of honesty pales in comparison with the number who delude themselves. Veteran psychic investigator Eric Dingwall (1985:162) summed up his extensive experience in parapsychological research with this observation: "After sixty years' experience and personal acquaintance with most of the leading parapsychologists of that period I do not think I could name a half dozen whom I could call objective students who honestly wished to discover the truth."


If the evidence for any claim is based upon an experimental result, or if the evidence offered in support of any claim could logically be explained as coincidental, then it is necessary for the evidence to be repeated in subsequent experiments or trials.

The rule of replicability provides a safeguard against the possibility of error, fraud, or coincidence. A single experimental result is never adequate in and of itself, whether the experiment concerns the production of nuclear fusion or the existence of telepathic ability. Any experiment, no matter how carefully designed and executed, is always subject to the possibility of implicit bias or undetected error. The rule of replicability, which requires independent observers to follow the same procedures and to achieve the same results, is an effective way of correcting bias or error, even if the bias or error remains permanently unrecognized. If the experimental results are the product of deliberate fraud, the rule of replicability will ensure that the experiment will eventually be performed by honest researchers.

If the phenomenon in question could conceivably be the product of coincidence, then the phenomenon must be replicated before the hypothesis of coincidence can be rejected. If coincidence is in fact the explanation for the phenomenon, then the phenomenon will not be duplicated in subsequent trials, and the hypothesis of coincidence will be confirmed; but if coincidence is not the explanation, then the phenomenon may be duplicated, and an explanation other than coincidence will have to be sought. If I correctly predict the next roll of the dice, you should demand that I duplicate the feat before granting that my prediction was anything but a coincidence.

The rule of replicability is regularly violated by parapsychologists, who are especially fond of misinterpreting coincidences. The famous "psychic sleuth" Gerard Croiset, for example, allegedly solved numerous baffling crimes and located hundreds of missing persons in a career that spanned five decades, from the 1940s until his death in 1980. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of Croiset's predictions were either vague and nonfalsifiable or simply wrong. Given the fact that Croiset made thousands of predictions during his lifetime, it is hardly surprising that he enjoyed one or two chance "hits." The late Dutch parapsychologist Wilhelm Tenhaeff, however, seized upon those "very few prize cases" to argue that Croiset possessed demonstrated psi powers (Hoebens 1986a:130). That was a clear violation of the rule of replicability, and could not have been taken as evidence of Croiset's psi abilities even if the "few prize cases" had been true. (In fact, however, much of Tenhaeff's data was fraudulent -- see Hoebens 1986b. )


The evidence offered in support of any claim must be adequate to establish the truth of that claim, with these stipulations:

the burden of proof for any claim rests on the claimant, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and evidence based upon authority and/or testimony is always inadequate for any paranormal claim

The burden of proof always rests with the claimant for the simple reason that the absence of disconfirming evidence is not the same as the presence of confirming evidence. This rule is frequently violated by proponents of paranormal claims, who argue that, because their claims have not been disproved, they have therefore been proved. (UFO buffs, for example, argue that because skeptics have not explained every UFO sighting, some UFO sightings must be extraterrestrial spacecraft.) Consider the implications of that kind of reasoning: If I claim that Adolf Hitler is alive and well and living in Argentina, how could you disprove my claim? Since the claim is logically possible, the best you could do (in the absence of unambiguous forensic evidence) is to show that the claim is highly improbable -- but that would not disprove it. The fact that you cannot prove that Hitler is not living in Argentina, however, does not mean that I have proved that he is. It only means that I have proved that he could be -- but that would mean very little; logical possibility is not the same as established reality. If the absence of disconfirming evidence were sufficient proof of a claim, then we could "prove" anything that we could imagine. Belief must be based not simply on the absence of disconfirming evidence but on the presence of confirming evidence. It is the claimant's obligation to furnish that confirming evidence.

Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence for the obvious reason of balance. If I claim that it rained for ten minutes on my way to work last Tuesday, you would be justified in accepting that claim as true on the basis of my report. But if I claim that I was abducted by extraterrestrial aliens who whisked me to the far side of the moon and performed bizarre medical experiments on me, you would be justified in demanding more substantial evidence. The ordinary evidence of my testimony, while sufficient for ordinary claims, is not sufficient for extraordinary ones.

In fact, testimony is always inadequate for any paranormal claim, whether it is offered by an authority or a layperson, for the simple reason that a human being can lie or make a mistake. No amount of expertise in any field is a guarantee against human fallibility, and expertise does not preclude the motivation to lie; therefore a person's credentials, knowledge and experience cannot, in themselves be taken as sufficient evidence to establish the truth of a claim. Moreover, a person's sincerity lends nothing to the credibility of his or her testimony. Even if people are telling what they sincerely believe to be the truth, it is always possible that they could be mistaken. Perception is a selective act, dependent upon belief context, expectation, emotional and biochemical states, and a host of other variables. Memory is notoriously problematic, prone to a range of distortions, deletions, substitutions and amplifications. Therefore the testimony that people offer of what they remember seeing or hearing should always be regarded as only provisionally and approximately accurate; when people are speaking about the paranormal, their testimony should never be regarded as reliable evidence in and of itself. The possibility and even the likelihood of error are far too extensive (see Connor 1986).


The first three rules of FiLCHeRS -- falsifiability, logic, and comprehensiveness -- are all logically necessary rules of evidential reasoning. If we are to have confidence in the veracity of any claim whether normal or paranormal, the claim must be prepositionally meaningful, and the evidence offered in support of the claim must be rational and exhaustive.

The last three rules of FiLCHeRS -- honesty, replicability, and sufficiency -- are all pragmatically necessary rules of evidential reasoning. Because human beings are often motivated to rationalize and to lie to themselves, because they are sometimes motivated to lie to others, because they can make mistakes, and because perception and memory are problematic, we must demand that the evidence for any factual claim be evaluated without self-deception, that it be carefully screened for error, fraud, and appropriateness, and that it be substantial and unequivocal.

What I tell my students, then, is that you can and should use FiLCHeRS to evaluate the evidence offered for any claim. If the claim fails any one of these six tests, then it should be rejected; but if it passes all six tests, then you are justified in placing considerable confidence in it.

Passing all six tests, of course, does not guarantee that the claim is true (just because you have examined all the evidence available today is no guarantee that there will not be new and disconfirming evidence available tomorrow), but it does guarantee that you have good reasons for believing the claim. It guarantees that you have sold your belief for a fair price, and that it has not been filched from you.

Being a responsible adult means accepting the fact that almost all knowledge is tentative, and accepting it cheerfully. You may be required to change your belief tomorrow, if the evidence warrants, and you should be willing and able to do so. That, in essence, is what skepticism means: to believe if and only if the evidence warrants.


Connor, John W. 1984. Misperception, folk belief, and the occult: A cognitive guide to understanding. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, 8:344-354, Summer.

Dingwall, E. J. 1985. The need for responsibility in parapsychology: My sixty years in psychical research. In A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology, 161-174, ed. by Paul Kurtz. Buffalo, N Y. Prometheus Books.

Hines, Terence. 1988. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal Buffalo, N.Y Prometheus Books.

Hoebens, Piet Hein. 1981. Gerard Croiset: Investigation of the Mozart of "psychic sleuths." SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, 6(1):1728, Fall.

-- -- -- . 1981-82. Croiset and Professor Tenhaeff Discrepancies in claims of clairvoyance. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, (2):21-40, Winter.

Hyman, Ray. 1985. A critical historical overview of parapsychology. In A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology, 3-96, ed. by Paul Kurtz Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus Books.

Omohundro, John T. 1976. Von Däniken's chariots primer in the art of cooked science. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, 1(1):58-68, Fall.

Story, Ronald D. 1977 Von Däniken's golden gods, SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, 2(1):22-35, Fall/Winter.

About the Author

James Lett is a Professor of Anthropology, Department of Social Sciences, Indian River Community College, 3209 Virginia Avenue, Ft. Pierce, FL 34981. He is author of The Human Enterprise: A Critical Introduction to Anthropologcal Theory and Science, Reason, and Anthropology: The Principles of Rational Inquiry (1997, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers).
Posted on Saturday, October 16 @ 16:22:52 EDT by kube

ID is not real science


Sunday, October 17, 2004

In his opinion piece (Oct. 3), Richard Cleary states that "if scientists ever manage to show how . . . bacterial flagellum could have been produced . . . through the action of purely non-intelligent processes, then ID (intelligent design creationism) would be, if not technically falsified, at least deeply discredited." (Old) News flash! It has been shown. See, for example, "The Flagellum Unspun" by Kenneth Miller (2003, http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/design2/article.html), or "Evolution in (Brownian) Space: A Model for the Origin of the Bacterial Flagellum," by N.J. Matzke (2003), (http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/flagellum.html). Evolutionary scientists have been able to propose a mechanism for the development of the flagellum; intelligent design creationists have not been able to do so.

Mr. Cleary made numerous other assertions that have been refuted, that misrepresent what scientists do and what constitutes science, or are factually incorrect. For example: No scientists think ideas such as atomic fusion should not be discussed in public schools because it cannot be confirmed by an experiment performed in a high school classroom. Biologists really do have models of how many biomolecular cellular components have come to be. And there really is evidence that natural processes can explain our world (once upon a time, unnatural processes were credited with producing thunder and lightning and other now well-understood phenomena).

We are confident in the scientific method for the simple reason that it works so well. Supernatural explanations, on the other hand, do not lead to an improved understanding of the world. So many of the theories and hypotheses of science are testable (and others become testable as new technology becomes available), whereas intelligent design creationism avoids making testable predictions, and those it has made have been refuted. Science thrives on criticism, but it must be rational, honest criticism, not disingenuous fallacies and pseudoscience.


Creationism issue stirs discussion at Case


Sunday, October 17, 2004
Angela D. Chatman
Plain Dealer Reporter

Ohio teachers will teach good science despite scientists' fears that a state school board vote earlier this year has opened the door to the study of creationism, a member of the state board said Saturday.

Martha Wise, a longtime member of the Ohio Board of Education, said that the state's high school science teachers will teach what students need to know and what they need for taking state standardized tests.

She said she does not expect teachers to use a controversial model lesson plan, entitled "Critical Analysis of Evolution," that some scientists say opens the door to teaching creationism in the state's public schools.

"It is there as an option. It's not mandatory," Wise said during an interview following a panel discussion at Case Western Reserve University's Strosacker Auditorium on the quality of science education in Ohio.

In early March, the state board narrowly approved including the 22-page, 10th-grade biology lesson plan as part of its 547 pages of model science lesson plans. Critics viewed the vote as a victory for proponents of "intelligent design," the concept that life is so complex that a higher being must have created it.

Wise, of Avon, was among those who opposed the plan. Saturday she questioned whether any teacher would rely on the plan, which she said is full of inaccuracies.

Wise was one of three state school board members on a panel discussing "Quality Education in Ohio's Public Schools." Other participants were Virgil Brown, who represents the district including Cleveland, and Robin Hovis of Millersburg.

The talk is part of Case's weekend-long conference called "Evolution & God: 150 Years of Love and War Between Science and Religion."

About 50 people attended the talk in which Lawrence Krauss, chairman of Case's physics department, raised questions that caused the board members to review the issues and events surrounding the March vote.

Brown stressed that the lesson plans are not mandatory. He said he did not view the inclusion of the lesson plan as a victory for supporters of creationism.

But Hovis said he believed it was a short step from including the lesson plan to requiring that creationism be part of standardized tests. "I'm afraid that it's going to become mandatory in that fashion," he said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

achatman@plaind.com, 216-999-4115

Copyright 2004 cleveland.com.

"The Ancestor's Tale": You Are Here

October 17, 2004

I once attended a conference about systematics -- the classification of species -- and felt as if I were looking at Mount Rushmore with a magnifying glass. The names alone -- Tetraconata, Amoebozoa, Ecdysozoa, Oomycota, Neomeniomorpha -- were overwhelming. Speaker after speaker hypothesized about how various species were related -- whether springtails or bristletails were the closest relatives of winged insects, whether sponges all descended from a common ancestor, whether slime molds are really molds. I stumbled out of the lecture hall desperate for the big picture. And suddenly I saw it, on a five-foot-square poster taped to a wall.

It showed an evolutionary tree by David Hillis of the University of Texas and his colleagues. The tree displayed the relationships of 3,000 species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes. The scientists drew it as a kind of a surreal bicycle wheel, each species represented as a tip of a branch along its rim. As my eye moved toward the center of the tree, I moved back through time, our own branch joining together with that of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. Farther in, all living mammals merged into a common ancestor, and then all vertebrates, and then all animals. The deepest branches of the tree met at the very center, which represented the common ancestor of all living things. Hillis's tree included only a sampling of life's diversity, which has been estimated at 10 million to 100 million species. Yet its tiny branch tips were so densely packed that it was hard to find our own. Fortunately, the poster included a big arrow pointing to Homo sapiens, reading: ''You are here.''

The tree of life was Darwin's greatest and most dislocating discovery. Our species is not the center of nature; it is one among millions of branches, its ancestry mingled with that of pufferfish and puffballs. Yet outside of systematics circles, few people understand how scientists assemble the tree of life, or use it to learn how life has evolved. In ''The Ancestor's Tale,'' the Oxford University zoologist Richard Dawkins offers a tour through the tree's thickety depths. Dawkins, the author of the scientific classics ''The Selfish Gene'' and ''The Blind Watchmaker,'' is an excellent guide, both a profoundly original scientific thinker and a marvelously adept explainer.

He organizes ''The Ancestor's Tale'' as a pilgrimage, leading readers from the tip of our own branch down to the base of the tree of life. He moves back through time, stopping occasionally so we humans can be joined by related species -- first by chimpanzees, which share a common ancestor with us six million to seven million years ago, then by gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, Old World monkeys and so on. Dawkins patterns his book on ''The Canterbury Tales'' of Chaucer, breaking it up into ''The Marsupial Mole's Tale,'' ''The Elephant Bird's Tale'' and many others. In each tale he looks at an aspect of the tree of life or at evolution in general.

Together, the tales add up to an encyclopedia that sheds light on some of the stranger features of the tree of life. For example, it is tempting to look at the platypus, a duck-billed mammal that lays eggs, as a living fossil trapped in the past. In fact, the platypus is no more primitive than we are. True, its ancestors branched off from our own some 180 million years ago, before our more recent ancestors evolved placentas and live births. But the ancestors of today's platypuses were not frozen in time. They evolved sophisticated adaptations of their own, like sense organs in their bills that can detect faint electric fields produced by other animals. From this perspective, it is humans who are the living fossils. Dawkins not only makes an important point here, but does it with flair. He eloquently describes how platypuses combine information from electric-sense organs with signals from mechanical sensors in their bills, likening the process to our measuring how far away a lightning bolt strikes by comparing the flash to the thunder. ''When you think of a platypus, forget duck,'' he writes. ''Think huge hand feeling its way, by remote pins and needles; think lightning flash and thunder rumbling, through the watery mud of Australia.''

As enlightening as ''The Ancestor's Tale'' is, it could have been better. Dawkins clearly wanted it to be more literary, evocative and personal than his previous books. But his efforts are often awkward and halfhearted, as when he writes about earthworms. ''I am privileged to have seen giant earthworms (Megascolides australis), in Australia, said to be capable of growing to four meters long,'' he announces. Cool, the reader thinks -- let's hear what that was like. But Dawkins abruptly abandons earthworms altogether.

The structure of ''The Ancestor's Tale'' could have been better as well. The backward pilgrimage is a brilliant inspiration, which allows Dawkins to ease us into our kinship with the rest of life. Neanderthals come early in the book because of all other species they were our closest relatives. It's not too much of a stretch to see a bond in Neanderthals because they look so much like us. A jellyfish, on the other hand, doesn't exactly seem like family. In part, that's because the common ancestor of jellyfish and humans lived perhaps a billion years ago. But Dawkins introduces us to jellyfish only deep in the book, after we've met many closer relatives.

At the same time, though, the book is wildly lopsided. Dawkins spends nearly 500 pages on animals, and 100 on all other life forms. Fungi, estimated to total 1.5 million species, get four pages. The vast bulk of life, whether measured by sheer biomass or by genetic diversity, lies outside the animal kingdom. And not all the lessons about evolution that the animal kingdom offers apply outside its borders. While animals generally evolve into new species when populations become isolated, plants can also form a new species when two existing species interbreed. Fungi are even weirder. They can form vast subterranean networks of threadlike growths, which sometimes fuse with other networks, mingling their DNA so that they wind up as strange genetic chimeras, defying our notion of what it means to be a genetically distinct individual. Bacteria and other microbes are even more casual with their genes, trading them like baseball cards.

Evolution not only has a different flavor outside the animal kingdom; it also may give the tree of life a different shape. Some scientists today argue that early life did not follow the regular branching pattern of evolution seen in animals. Instead of a tree, a better metaphor might be a ring or a web. These are some of the most important, most fascinating lines of research in evolutionary biology, but Dawkins skims over them.

Despite these shortcomings, this is an ambitious, important book rich with fascinating insights. Also, it couldn't come at a better time. Evolutionary trees have become the lingua franca of biology. Virus hunters draw them to find the origin of SARS and H.I.V. Conservation biologists draw them to decide which endangered species are in most urgent need of saving. Geneticists draw them to pinpoint the genes that have made us uniquely humans. Genome sequencers draw them to discover new genes that may lead to new technologies and medical treatments. If you want to understand these trees -- and through them, the nature of life -- ''The Ancestor's Tale'' is an excellent place to start.

Carl Zimmer's books include ''Soul Made Flesh'' and ''Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea.'' He also writes ''The Loom,'' a blog about evolution.


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