NTS LogoSkeptical News for 13 May 2006

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Creationist discusses science with high school students


BY TIM TOWNSEND St. Louis Post-Dispatch

POTOSI, Mo. - It wasn't particularly unusual that a group of bored-looking high school students were rolling their eyes Monday morning at a geeky science dude making lame jokes like "It's `amino acids,' not `mean-old acids.'"

It was, however, unusual that the teenagers were sitting in their public school's library and that the geeky dude giving them a different perspective on science was not a scientist at all, but an evangelical Christian representing an organization promoting a literal interpretation of the Genesis story.

"I'm here to talk to you today about what we know and what we don't know in the world of science," Mike Riddle, a biblical creationist from Answers in Genesis, told the first of six groups of students he addressed. "And to talk about the possibilities there."

Riddle had been invited to Potosi High and John A. Evans Middle School by Randy Davis, superintendent of the Potosi-RIII school district, and his board to discuss science with science students. During an hour-long presentation, Riddle never said the words "Jesus" or "God" or even "religion." Over and over he prodded the students to question established scientific principals and theories and encouraged them to think about a career in science.

Science educators, public school administrators, church-state watchdog groups and the creationist movement's practitioners themselves all agree it's rare that an evangelical group gains front-door access to science students in a public school setting. Answers in Genesis said since its founding 12 years ago, it had been invited into a public school only five times.

Because of the constitutional issues involved, creationists have begun seeking entry through schools' back doors, via the students themselves. In conferences and workshop across the country, typically held in church halls, Answers in Genesis holds training sessions for 7th to 12th graders. Many of the students who participate come from Christian schools or are home schooled. But some parents pull their children out of public schools to attend the afternoon-long sessions, according to Mark Looy, a vice president and co-founder of Answers in Genesis.

"One of our major teaching themes is to encourage kids to foster critical thinking skills," said Looy. "Sadly public schools offer a one-sided view when it comes to science, and it's right for students to ask why they're only hearing one side."

Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center of Science Education, sees it differently. "They prepare students to ask questions to embarrass teachers when talking about evolution," he said.

Training kids to question their public school science teachers is part of a broader goal of Answers in Genesis. The organization says its mission is to equip Christians with the tools to explain and defend an interpretation of the origin of the universe based on the inerrancy of the Bible. The nonprofit, which had revenues of $10.5 million in 2004 according to tax records, is currently building a $25 million Creation Museum in Kentucky near the Cincinnati airport, which is scheduled to open next spring.

Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, said in talks he gives to middle and high school students, he "sets out to teach them how to think critically about the origins issue and the limitations of science." He tells them that by explaining the universe as a process of nature, public schools have made "an arbitrary decision" to consciously eliminate the possibility of supernatural intervention.

"All scientists start with presuppositions," he said. "If you're starting point is `we can explain the origin of the universe without the supernatural,' that's a bias."

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court said creationism was a form of religion and could not be taught in public schools.

"The issue is that the Supreme Court said creation science was not science and doesn't belong in a science classroom," said Edward J. Larson, a professor at the University of Georgia Law School and author of "Trial and Error: the American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution." "But they're not in the science classroom, they're in the library."

In his presentations in Potosi High's library on Monday, titled "Fascinating Facts About Origins," Riddle gave a sometimes complicated, often dry recitation of chemical processes that may or may not have contributed to the origin of life on earth.

Riddle talked about amino acids, proteins, DNA, telemers and thermodynamics. He used examples to challenge the idea that life began on land, and flashed more than a dozen quotations from scientists, some with ties to creationist or intelligent design organizations, up on the library's projection screen.

The idea to invite Riddle had come to Potosi superintendent Randy Davis when the minister of Potosi Community Church told him over a year ago that Answers in Genesis was sending a speaker to his church to host a conference on creationism. Davis, the son of a minister and brother of "several" more, said he talked to his administrators about the possibility of bringing Answers in Genesis into Potosi's schools for what he called "a factual discussion of science."

Davis said his own faith played no part in his decision to invite Riddle to speak to his science students. He said he thought it could be a "change of routine" for his students to bring in "a presenter with different perspective."

After the first presentation, Potosi High principal Rhonda Phares said she was happy to see Riddle encourage her students to seek out jobs in science.

"There's lots of research, lots of unknowns," she said. "We encourage our kids to investigate those unknowns." Students were given the option of attending Riddle's presentation, and about a dozen opted out of the first hour.

Bill Mayberry, Potosi High's science department chair, said he "expressed concerns about this program from day one."

But after seeing Riddle's presentation he was less concerned.

"The questions (Riddle) raised were exactly the kinds of questions I raise in class," he said. "I want these kids to think outside of the box. We can accept scientific fact, but we also accept that things can change. . . facts can change."

That concept is alarming to Branch. "There are a disturbing number of science teachers who are themselves creationists or teach creationism," he said. As a result, "kids are actively being misinformed about evolution."

Mayberry admitted that he "doesn't teach the e-word," referring to evolution. "We talk about natural selection instead," he said.

"Public school science classes don't have to cover evolution, just as English classes don't have to cover Shakespeare," said Larson. "Constitutional problems come if they teach something else instead."

One of Answers in Genesis's goals, according to Richard Katskee, an attorney for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is "to claim there is controversy in the scientific community about the status of evolution," he said. "That's false."

According to an August 2005 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 54 percent of Americans think there is general agreement among scientists that evolution has taken place, but 33 percent say no such scientific consensus exists. Among creationists, 46 percent think the scientific community is divided over the evolution question.

"Students need to know there's a significant minority of scientists who reject Darwinian evolution and accept creationist origins," said Looy.

Potosi is a Christian town, made up largely of Pentecostals and Baptist. Billboards heralding the Ten Commandments and others with messages like, "God is pro-life, so are we . . ." greet visitors on their way into town.

"Ever since they removed God from the schools they've gone downhill," said Debra Boyer, 46, as she had breakfast at Mama T's Country Cafe. Her son is in 6th grade and she said she wished he could learn more about his Pentecostal faith in the classroom. "God's needed in the schools . . . it gives kids something to think about."

At Strauser's Legendary Cuts, Don Strauser, owner and minister at Freewill Baptist Church, was working the barber chair.

"(Riddle) is just giving his theory on it, I don't know what the problem is," said Strauser. "Evolutionists give their theory all the time."

Ham insists that those who believe in the supernatural-less version of science begin the conversation with as many assumptions as he does.

"We admit the biases we have as Christians, but those who don't believe in the Bible have a bias, and that's their starting point."

It is for these reasons, that Answers in Genesis believes it can utilize students themselves to gain access to public schools.

Nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, of Americans support teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools, while 26 percent oppose it, according to Pew. About half of the population disagrees that creationism should be taught instead of evolution, yet 38 percent agree.

The day before he spoke to Potosi High students, Mike Riddle gave several presentations, unconstrained by the U.S. Constitution, at three Baptist churches in the Potosi area. Branch said that could further confuse Potosi High's science students.

"Some kids and their parents probably attended Riddle's presentations the day before at church," he said. "Then they see him at their school the next morning and the thought process is, `my school approves of him and so must approve of what he said in church on Sunday.'"

Such subtleties are of no concern to Answers in Genesis. "Evolution is a cruel and wasteful process," said Looy. "The Bible is the true and accurate history book of the universe."

Freakonomics A Star Is Made


Published: May 7, 2006

The Birth-Month Soccer Anomaly

If you were to examine the birth certificates of every soccer player in next month's World Cup tournament, you would most likely find a noteworthy quirk: elite soccer players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the later months. If you then examined the European national youth teams that feed the World Cup and professional ranks, you would find this quirk to be even more pronounced. On recent English teams, for instance, half of the elite teenage soccer players were born in January, February or March, with the other half spread out over the remaining 9 months. In Germany, 52 elite youth players were born in the first three months of the year, with just 4 players born in the last three.

What might account for this anomaly? Here are a few guesses: a) certain astrological signs confer superior soccer skills; b) winter-born babies tend to have higher oxygen capacity, which increases soccer stamina; c) soccer-mad parents are more likely to conceive children in springtime, at the annual peak of soccer mania; d) none of the above.

Anders Ericsson, a 58-year-old psychology professor at Florida State University, says he believes strongly in "none of the above." He is the ringleader of what might be called the Expert Performance Movement, a loose coalition of scholars trying to answer an important and seemingly primordial question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?

Ericsson, who grew up in Sweden, studied nuclear engineering until he realized he would have more opportunity to conduct his own research if he switched to psychology. His first experiment, nearly 30 years ago, involved memory: training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. "With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20," Ericsson recalls. "He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers."

This success, coupled with later research showing that memory itself is not genetically determined, led Ericsson to conclude that the act of memorizing is more of a cognitive exercise than an intuitive one. In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person "encodes" the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.

Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichιs that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichιs just happen to be true.

Ericsson's research suggests a third clichι as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

"I think the most general claim here," Ericsson says of his work, "is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it." This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn't spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

Ericsson's conclusions, if accurate, would seem to have broad applications. Students should be taught to follow their interests earlier in their schooling, the better to build up their skills and acquire meaningful feedback. Senior citizens should be encouraged to acquire new skills, especially those thought to require "talents" they previously believed they didn't possess.

And it would probably pay to rethink a great deal of medical training. Ericsson has noted that most doctors actually perform worse the longer they are out of medical school. Surgeons, however, are an exception. That's because they are constantly exposed to two key elements of deliberate practice: immediate feedback and specific goal-setting.

The same is not true for, say, a mammographer. When a doctor reads a mammogram, she doesn't know for certain if there is breast cancer or not. She will be able to know only weeks later, from a biopsy, or years later, when no cancer develops. Without meaningful feedback, a doctor's ability actually deteriorates over time. Ericsson suggests a new mode of training. "Imagine a situation where a doctor could diagnose mammograms from old cases and immediately get feedback of the correct diagnosis for each case," he says. "Working in such a learning environment, a doctor might see more different cancers in one day than in a couple of years of normal practice."

If nothing else, the insights of Ericsson and his Expert Performance compatriots can explain the riddle of why so many elite soccer players are born early in the year.

Since youth sports are organized by age bracket, teams inevitably have a cutoff birth date. In the European youth soccer leagues, the cutoff date is Dec. 31. So when a coach is assessing two players in the same age bracket, one who happened to have been born in January and the other in December, the player born in January is likely to be bigger, stronger, more mature. Guess which player the coach is more likely to pick? He may be mistaking maturity for ability, but he is making his selection nonetheless. And once chosen, those January-born players are the ones who, year after year, receive the training, the deliberate practice and the feedback — to say nothing of the accompanying self-esteem — that will turn them into elites.

This may be bad news if you are a rabid soccer mom or dad whose child was born in the wrong month. But keep practicing: a child conceived on this Sunday in early May would probably be born by next February, giving you a considerably better chance of watching the 2030 World Cup from the family section.

U.S. Majority Picks Creationism over Evolution


Angus Reid Global Scan : Polls & Research
April 25, 2006

(Angus Reid Global Scan) – Many American adults support the principles of creationism, according to a poll by CBS News. 53 per cent of respondents believe God created human beings in their present form.

Conversely, 23 per cent of respondents believe human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, but God guided this process, while 17 per cent think God had no part in the evolution of man.

Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" was first published in 1859. The book details the British naturalist's theory that all organisms gradually evolve through the process of natural selection. Darwin's views were antagonistic to creationism, the belief that a more powerful being or a deity created life.

In the United States, the debate on the topic accelerated after the 1925 Scopes trial, which tested a law that banned the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. In 2004, Georgia's Cobb County was at the centre of a controversy on whether science textbooks that explain evolutionary theory should include disclaimer stickers.

The theory of intelligent design suggests certain biological mechanisms are too complex to have developed without the involvement of a powerful force or intelligent being.

In December, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III issued a ruling in a federal trial on whether intelligent design should be included as part of the high school biology curriculum. Jones wrote, "The evidence at trial demonstrates that intelligent design is nothing less than the progeny of creationism."

Polling Data

Which of these views do you agree with the most? 1. Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process; 2. Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, but God guided this process; or 3. God created human beings in their present form.

					Apr. 2006		Oct. 2005		Nov. 2004
God created humans in present form 		53%		51%		55%
Humans evolved, God guided the process	23%		30%		27%
Humans evolved, God did not guide process	17%		15%		13%

Source: CBS News
Methodology: Telephone interviews with 899 American adults, conducted from Apr. 6 to Apr. 9, 2006. Margin of error is 3 per cent.

Bush Faces Growing Dissent From Republicans on Climate Change


By Kim Chipman

April 24 (Bloomberg) -- Representative Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, says he ``pooh-poohed'' global warming until he trekked to the South Pole in January.

``Now, I think we should be concerned,'' says Inglis, who heads the U.S. House Science Research subcommittee. ``There are more and more Republicans willing to stop laughing at climate change who are ready to get serious about reclaiming their heritage as conservationists.''

U.S. companies including General Electric Co. and Duke Energy Corp. have come out in support of national limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions that scientists say contribute to global warming. They are now being joined by Republican lawmakers who have parted company with President George W. Bush on the issue.

In addition to Inglis, who says he saw evidence of heat- trapping gases in the atmosphere during his trip to Antarctica, the list includes Senators Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the chairman of the chamber's Energy Committee; Mike DeWine of Ohio; and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as well as Representative Jim Leach of Iowa.

``Resistance to action on climate change is crumbling,'' says Reid Detchon, an Energy Department official under former President George H.W. Bush who is now head of energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation. ``The business community has a number of prominent leaders arguing for action, and the science on climate change becomes clearer and more inescapable by the day.''

Republicans also are under pressure from one of their core constituencies: fundamentalist Christians. In February, 86 evangelical leaders called on the government to curb greenhouse gases emitted by cars, power plants and other sources, saying they felt a moral duty to speak out because global warming is endangering the earth.

`No Safe Ground'

``A lot has changed in the last year, largely because of a grassroots movement of people who for varied and sundry reasons care about this cause,'' says the Reverend Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based group that represents 30 million Christians. ``There's no safe ground anymore for Republicans to ignore this issue or call it a hoax.''

The shift has given fresh hope to lawmakers such as Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, who are co-sponsors of legislation to limit carbon emissions. McCain is expected to push for another Senate vote on the measure this year and says he's prepared to make climate change a campaign issue if he runs for president in 2008.

McCain says he and his allies ``will make the Senate keep on voting and voting and voting'' and, in time, ``we will win.''

Matter of Time

The measure has twice failed to pass the Senate and, along with other climate-change legislation, lacks support in the House of Representatives. Still, many companies say they think it's just a matter of time before Congress approves a carbon cap.

``Two years ago, we weren't talking about it; it's a dramatic change,'' John Krenicki, head of Atlanta-based GE Energy, a unit of Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric, said in an interview. He predicts that a greenhouse gas limit will be in place in less than five years.

GE Energy, the world's biggest maker of power-plant equipment, and Charlotte, North Carolina-based Duke Energy, the largest U.S. utility owner, are among companies that told the Senate Energy Committee earlier this month they welcome carbon regulation.

The companies say they want certainty before making billions of dollars in investments in ``clean'' technologies. They also are wary of having to deal with a hodgepodge of state standards.

`Nightmare' for Business

``It's a nightmare for any business,'' says Christine Todd Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during President George W. Bush's first term. ``We need one standard nationally.''

GE and other companies also face carbon restrictions in Europe, Japan, Canada and other countries participating in the Kyoto Protocol that restricts carbon emissions from cars, power plants and other sources. Bush rejected the accord in 2001 because of concern that it would make U.S. businesses less competitive.

Instead, Bush has called on companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions voluntarily. His top adviser on climate change, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton, says the president also supports some mandatory policies that would reduce carbon emissions, including new fuel- economy standards and a requirement for more ethanol in gasoline.

Connaughton says activists merely are annoyed that Bush isn't talking nonstop about climate change. ``We don't need to say it three times in the same 15-minute speech,'' he said in an interview.

Mandatory Approach

Inglis insists more is needed and is drafting legislation that would make Bush's greenhouse-gas limits mandatory.

Former Vice President Al Gore, who has campaigned about the need to act against climate change for decades, says Republican support is critical.

``It may fall to us as Democrats to push the political consensus across the tipping point and I hope we will, but we need to bring Republicans along with us,'' Gore said at an April 10 Democratic fundraiser in New York.

Gore wants to persuade more Republicans and the general public about the dangers of climate change next month when Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures releases ``An Inconvenient Truth,'' a documentary about his campaign to get Americans to take global warming seriously.

`We Beg to Differ'

Not all Republicans are convinced. Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who in 2003 called man-made global warming a ``hoax,'' still opposes mandatory emission limits and says they could result in lost jobs and higher energy prices. ``To those out there saying a federal carbon cap is inevitable, we beg to differ,'' says Bill Holbrook, a spokesman for Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Nevertheless, Whitman says the time for legislative action may be right because ``being seen as against doing something on climate change isn't a place Republicans want to be.''

Last month, an ABC News-Time magazine-Stanford University poll showed 85 percent of Americans believe global warming probably is occurring, up from 80 percent in 1998.

The change is palpable in the Senate. Graham, who has said in the past that he was ``on the fence'' about climate-change legislation, became a stronger advocate for taking action after a trip to Alaska in August with McCain and Senators Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat. They heard from Native Alaskans who are experiencing melting permafrost, coastal erosion and other effects of climate change.

`Seeing is Believing'

``Seeing is believing,'' says Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop. Bishop says Graham believes global warming is a problem that must be addressed, while declining to say if Graham would support specific legislation such as the McCain-Lieberman measure.

``When you have the overwhelming evidence from eminent scientists on one side, and a few skeptics on the other, we are guided by the thoughts of the overwhelming, not the few,'' says Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York, who heads the House Science Committee.

Scientists Debunk Astrology

Link: http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20060424/astrology_hum_print.html

By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

April 24, 2006 β€" One of the largest studies of the possible link between human traits and astrology found little, if any, connection between the traditional sun signs of the zodiac and characteristics of individuals.

The study adds to the growing body of evidence that there is no scientific basis for star signs, such as Aries, Taurus and so on. These signs are based on the place of the sun in relation to the date of birth of the subject.

The researchers, however, leave open the question as to whether other, more detailed and personal forms of astrology hold any validity.

"When considering the current scientific standing with respect to sun signs, it becomes clear that there is little or no truth in sun signs," said Peter Hartmann, who led the study, which will be published in next month's Personality and Individual Differences journal.

Hartmann, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at Denmark's University of Aarhus, added, "This does not necessarily mean that all astrology is without truth, but only that the independent effect of sun signs is most likely to be irrelevant. As for the weekly horoscope based on mere sun signs, then according to the current scientific standing, there is probably more truth in the comic strips."

Hartmann and his colleagues used computer analysis and statistical methods to study possible astrological connections between over 15,000 individuals. They derived these test subjects from two sources.

The first was the Vietnam Experience Study, which gathered information about intelligence, personality and date of birth for male military veterans. The second was the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth, which included intelligence and date of birth information for males and females aged between 15 and 24 years.

If connections existed over a rate of five percent, they were considered to be valid and not the result of random links.

The scientists could find no relationship between the time and date of a person's birth and their personality traits, which the Vietnam study categorized using terms such as psychoticism, extraversion, neuroticism and social desirability.

The researchers, however, did determine that individuals from the Vietnam test who were born between the months of July and December were slightly more intelligent, by less than one IQ point, than those who were born between January through June.

That finding was reversed for the 1979 youth study. In that case, people who were born January through June had the minute intellectual edge.

Hartmann told Discovery News that although the information about intelligence passed the non-random restriction, he viewed the connection as irrelevant.

"An example: Assuming that you could buy a pill that would increase your IQ with one point, but it would cost you $10,000, would you do it? Probably not, but if you could buy a pill that would increase your IQ by 15 points that would be something else, simply because you get more value for your money," he said.

"The essence here is that there is a difference in determining whether a result is significant, hence whether it is a true effect, or just random occurrence, and then whether this significant effect is relevant and of any interest."

Geoffrey Dean, a former astrologist based in Australia who researches the possible scientific validity of astrology, tracked over 2,000 people who were born within minutes of each other.

The study, which spanned several decades, covered over 100 different characteristics, like marital status, IQ, anxiety, temperament and more. His findings were published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Dean came to a similar conclusion as Hartmann and his team, that date of birth does not affect an individual's personality.

Corrections don't fix problem


The Lariat published an article on Wednesday titled "In the Beginning." The paper contained errors about the Discovery Institute and Dr. Francis Beckwith. Thursday's paper submitted the appropriate corrections, but such errors are unacceptable.

For example, the Discovery Institute was called a "conservative Christian think tank."

They obviously did not know that at least a quarter of the institute's membership is Jewish. But hey, it's OK to make grossly offensive religious stereotypes on front-page stories as long as there is a small second page correction the next day.

And don't even get me started on the material concerning Dr. Beckwith.

Being a Christian, I am willing to forgive and forget such errors, but as all Christians know, forgiveness must be asked for first. I'm not suggesting a public apology, even though it would be nice, but at least changes need to be made.

Student writers should be required to do more research on what they're reporting, and editors should be more competent in discerning substance from slop.

One might respond: "But Paul ... everybody messes up once, and a long line of decent publishing shouldn't be discounted for one error."

Yeah, maybe you're right, but think of it this way: If a medical doctor never erred once in his whole career of delivering babies, would that make it OK if he dropped your baby? Even if he only did it once?

The issue of standards really needs to be addressed, so I finish by asking the university a question. How does a Christian university, which threatens to punish its students for merely associating with Playboy, expect its students to maintain any Christian integrity when its newspaper staff can get away breaking the ninth commandment?

Paul Ryan Godfrey
Philosophy and
political science 2008

Biologist Ayala on the trajectory of evolution


Eminent biologist Francisco Ayala explains the complexities of The Plausibility of Life and why they matter

By Francisco J. Ayala (May 12, 2006)

The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma.
Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart.
New Haven, Conn. Yale University Press, 2005.
336 pages. $30 hardcover.

In 1896, the evolutionist James Mark Baldwin formulated a hypothesis that he further developed in 1902 and which later became known as the "Baldwin effect." The hypothesis, which has received considerable attention since it was first proposed, asserts that adaptive responses of organisms to extreme environments may become genetically fixed if the conditions persist. The idea is that learned behaviors can become innate or instinctual under the right selection pressures.

Think of adaptation to high altitude. When a person travels from near sea level to a high mountain, the body increases the production of red blood cells because more are needed for respiration where the air has a low concentration of oxygen.

For travelers from low to very high altitudes, this adaptation occurs gradually and takes several days to reach a satisfactory concentration of red blood cells. For people who have moved permanently to live at high altitude, natural selection favors genetic mutations that increase red blood cell production, which now will be the case even without the environmental challenge. This happened with indigenous South American populations living in the high Andes. Under the same circumstances, they produce more red blood cells than people who habitually live at lower altitudes.

The mechanism that accounts for the Baldwin effect became known in the mid-1900s. It was discovered that diverse adaptations in various organisms occur first as "learned" responses to their environment. Such responses are known as "norm of reaction" and represent an environmentally shaped set of possible configurations that the genetic makeup of an organism can take as it becomes exposed to different environments. These various and differing configurations are known as "phenotypes."

Later, these adaptations become fixed by natural selection, promoting genetic mutations that make the adaptation permanent, if the environmental conditions persist. This process is what essentially makes up the Baldwin effect, which transforms a temporary response generated by environmental factors into a permanent response generated by genetic factors.

The Baldwin effect today

More recently, the Baldwin effect has been confirmed in all sorts of organisms and has become understood in terms of specific control gene-circuit switches. One interesting case is the chromosomal mechanisms of sex determination. In humans, as in other mammals, males have two different sex chromosomes, designated X and Y, while females have two identical sex chromosomes, XX. In some animals, however, the sex of an individual depends on the environment. In lizards and turtles, sex is determined by the temperature at which the egg develops. In some alligator species, eggs invariably produce females when incubated at up to 86 F and males when incubated at 91 F or above.

Early in development, the developing sex organs are similar in all individuals. During a critical week within the nine-week development period, the sex organs differentiate into that of males or females depending on the temperature. At temperatures between 87 F and 90 F, hermaphrodites or intersexes are not produced but rather intermediate proportions of males and females.

This process is also under hormonal control. If alligator eggs developing at a male-yielding temperature are exposed to the hormone estradiol, they develop into females. Similarly, inhibiting estradiol yields males from eggs developing at the female-determining temperature. This effect is because of a gene known as SF-1. At high levels of the SF-1 protein, enzymes — or the catalysts that control chemical reactions in living beings — are produced that synthesize testosterone, and males result. At lower levels of the SF-1 protein, an enzyme is made that converts testosterone to estrogen, and females result.

In mammals, the mechanism determining sex is also under the control of factors like the SF-1 protein. In mammals, the Y chromosome is a relic of an ancient X chromosome that began to lose most of its genes millions of years ago. The much-reduced Y chromosome retained male-determining genes, so that individuals inheriting the Y chromosome invariably develop into males. In the evolution of birds, the diminishing chromosome retained female-determining genes, so that the females have an unequal pair of sex-determining chromosomes, while the males have two identical chromosomes. As the evolutionary lineages evolved — one leading from reptiles to birds and the other to mammals — sex-determining genes became fixed, so that sex was no longer dependent on the unpredictable changes of the environment.

The Baldwin effect has been ascertained in many other instances, including the likes of caste-determination in social insects — like ants, termites and honeybees — and the affinity of hemoglobin for oxygen. The Baldwin effect is also often involved in the origin of evolutionary novelties. Evolutionary novelties are reorganizations of pre-existing phenotypes, which first arise in response to environmental challenges — given that genotypes have enormous plasticity, that is, a wide norm of reaction, but eventually become genetically determined if the particular environmental challenges persist and the adaptation importantly contributes to survival and reproductive success.

In The Plausibility of Life, co-authors Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart explain in considerable detail that the genetic changes that account for evolutionary novelty involve complex circuits of gene-control switches, which are numerous — but often very short — DNA sequences. This goes much beyond what was known in Darwin's time. He would have welcomed this knowledge.

The past of 'Plausibility'

The Plausibility of Life is an up-to-date review and theoretical elaboration of the enormous advances that have taken place within the last century, particularly during the last two decades, toward understanding the egg-to-adult transformation — or as I like to call it, the conundrum of ontogenetic decoding. The issue is how the unidimensional genetic information encoded in the sequence of letters of the DNA of a single fertilized egg cell becomes transformed into a four-dimensional being — an individual that grows, matures and dies. Cancer, disease and aging are epiphenomena of ontogenetic decoding.

The instructions that guide the ontogenetic process, or the egg-to-adult transformation, are carried in the hereditary material. The theory of biological heredity was formulated by the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel in 1866 but became generally known by biologists only in 1900. Genetic information is contained in genes that exist in pairs, one received from each parent.

The next step toward understanding the nature of genes was completed during the first quarter of the 20th century. Genes are parts of the chromosomes, filamentous bodies present in the nucleus of the cell, linearly arranged along the chromosomes. It took another quarter-century to determine the chemical composition of genes — or DNA. DNA consists of four kinds of chemical components — known as nucleotides — which are organized in long, double-helical structures. Genetic information is contained in the linear sequence of nucleotides in the same way that semantic information of an English sentence is conveyed by the particular sequence of the 26 letters of the alphabet.

The first important step toward understanding how genetic information is decoded came in 1941. It was discovered that genes determine the synthesis of enzymes — the mechanisms that set off all chemical reactions in the body. But chemical reactions in organisms must occur in an orderly manner. Organisms must have ways of switching genes on and off because different sets of genes are active in different cells. The first control system was discovered in 1961 for a gene that encodes an enzyme that digests sugar in the bacterium Escherichia coli. The gene is turned on and off by a system of several switches consisting of short DNA sequences adjacent to the coding part of the gene. The switches acting on a given gene are activated or deactivated by feedback loops that involve molecules synthesized by other genes.

The investigation of gene-control mechanisms in mammals — and other complex organisms — became possible in the mid-1970s with the development of recombinant DNA techniques. This technology made it feasible to isolate single genes and to multiply them, or "clone" billions of copies, in order to obtain the quantities necessary for ascertaining their nucleotide sequence.

Kirschner and Gerhart summarize and integrate the daunting discoveries of some prototypes of mammalian gene-control systems, but much remains to be unraveled. Moreover, understanding the control mechanisms of individual genes is but the first major step toward solving the mystery of ontogenetic decoding. The second major step is the puzzle of differentiation.

Human bodies are beautiful things. They consist of one trillion cells of some 300 different kinds, all derived by sequential division from the fertilized egg, which is a single cell 0.1 millimeters in diameter. The first few cell divisions yield a spherical mass of amorphous cells. Successive divisions are accompanied by the appearance of folds and ridges in the mass of cells and, later on, of the variety of tissues, organs and limbs characteristic of a human individual.

The full complement of genes duplicates with each cell division, so that two complete genomes are present in every cell. Yet different sets of genes are active in different cells. This must be so in order for cells to differentiate: A nerve cell, a muscle cell and a skin cell are vastly different in size, configuration and function. The differential activity of genes must continue after differentiation because different cells fulfill different functions, which are controlled by different genes. Nevertheless, experiments with other animals — and some with humans — indicate that all the genes in any cell have the potential of becoming activated, even though many of them have been effectively shut down during differentiation. The sheep Dolly, for example, was conceived using the genes extracted from a cell in an adult sheep.

The information that controls cell and organ differentiation is ultimately contained in the DNA sequence but mostly in very short segments of it. In mammals, insects and other complex organisms, there are control circuits that operate at higher levels than the control mechanisms that activate and deactivate individual genes. These higher-level circuits — such as the so-called homeobox genes — act on sets of genes rather than individual genes. Many details of how these sets are controlled, how many control systems there are, and how they interact as well as many other related questions remain to be elucidated. Experiments with stem cells are likely to provide important knowledge as scientists ascertain how embryonic cells become brain cells in one case but muscle cells in another, or how some cells become the heart and others the liver.

The benefits that the elucidation of ontogenetic decoding will bring to mankind are enormous. This knowledge will make it possible for us to understand the modes of action of complex genetic diseases — including cancer — and, therefore, their cures. It will also bring an understanding of the process of aging, the unforgiving malady that kills all those who have won the battle against other infirmities.

Francisco J. Ayala is University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.

Neanderthals and Humans: Perhaps They Never Met


By Robin Lloyd

Special to LiveScience posted: 08 May 2006 12:33 am ET

The number of years that modern humans are thought to have overlapped with Neanderthals in Europe is shrinking fast, and some scientists now say that figure could drop to zero.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and western Asia from 230,000 to 29,000 years ago, petering out soon after the arrival of modern humans from Africa.

There is much debate on exactly how Neanderthals went extinct. Theories include climate change and inferior tools compared to those made by modern humans. Anthropologists also disagree on whether modern humans and Neanderthals are the same species and interbred.

And now, some scientists dispute whether they lived side-by-side at all in Europe.

Timeline of Human Evolution

The timeline of human evolution is long and controversial, with significant gaps. Experts do not agree on many of the start and end points of various species. So this chart involves significant estimates.

Zero overlap?

The overlap figure shrank in February with new research by Paul Mellars of Cambridge University based on improved carbon-14 dating to show that modern humans started encroaching from Israel upon Neanderthal territory in the Balkans 3,000 years sooner than previously thought. This rate suggests Neanderthals succumbed sooner to big climate shifts or competition from modern humans for resources and that they might have overlapped for only 1,000 years at sites in western France.

Try zero years, says anthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

There is no longer any biological evidence of overlap between Neanderthals and non-Neanderthals in Europe, Hawks wrote recently in his blog. Many anthropologists are aware of this but "would like to sweep it under a rug," Hawks told LiveScience.

Lack of fossils

While a blog is not the traditional place where scientific advances are first published, Hawks is not alone in questioning conventional wisdom on this point.

William Davies, of the Center for Human Origins at the University of Southampton, recently told The Associated Press that he thinks the "dates we have relating to interaction (of Neanderthals with modern humans in Europe) will keep getting shorter."

Humans & Neanderthals

How They Were Similar

Anthropologists ideally rely on a combination of fossil and archaeological evidence to piece together how populations of early and modern humans evolved and dispersed globally. For one key culture though, called the early Aurignacian, there are no fossils, just sophisticated jewelry and stone and bone tools that many claim could only be made by modern humans with their advanced technologies relative to Neanderthals.

A number of scientists recently have agreed that the carbon-14 dates on numerous fossils of modern humans should be shifted 2,000 to 7,000 years earlier. The recent Mellars research is one example of this work.

'Big hole'

The trouble is that this trend leaves "a great big hole" in the fossil record when it comes to the early Aurignacian, Hawks said. The only group in Europe at the right time and place to have made the jewelry and tools attributed to early Aurignacian culture is the Neanderthals, he said.

So even if Neanderthals failed to outlast modern humans, we might have to give them more credit for their handiness with tools.

Most likely, the later Aurignacian "was made by a population with genetic input from both Neandertals and modern humans from outside Europe, because the skeletal remains of later Aurignacian people have the features of both groups," Hawks says. "I would predict that the early Aurignacian people were actually more Neanderthal-like. Until we have skeletal remains, we won't know."

Friday, May 12, 2006

Evolution education update: May 12, 2006

A leader of Ohio Citizens for Science is honored with a First Amendment award; the practical applications of evolution are emphasized in a New York Times op-ed; Eugenie C. Scott's lecture "The challenge of intelligent design" is now available on-line; and the two antievolution bills in the Alabama legislature are officially dead.


Patricia Princehouse, a prominent defender of evolution education in Ohio, was among eight people to receive a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award from the Playboy Foundation on May 11, 2006. A philosopher of science and evolutionary biologist at Case Western Reserve University, Princehouse was instrumental in founding, organizing, and leading Ohio Citizens for Science, the coalition of scientists, teachers, clergy, and concerned citizens in general that successfully fought to preserve the integrity of science education in Ohio's public schools. The award, which includes a $5000 honorarium and a specially designed crystal plaque, honors "individuals who have made significant contributions to protect and enhance First Amendment rights of Americans," according to a Playboy Foundation press release. Princehouse also received NCSE's Friend of Darwin award in 2003.

For the Playboy Foundation press release, visit:

For Ohio Citizens for Science, visit:

For NCSE's coverage of previous events in Ohio, visit:


In his op-ed "Evolution's bottom line," published in The New York Times (May 12, 2006), Holden Thorp emphasizes the practical applications of evolution, writing, "creationism has no commercial application. Evolution does," and citing several specific examples. In places where evolution education is undermined, he argues, it isn't only students who will be the poorer for it: "Will Mom or Dad Scientist want to live somewhere where their children are less likely to learn evolution?" He concludes, "Where science gets done is where wealth gets created, so places that decide to put stickers on their textbooks or change the definition of science have decided, perhaps unknowingly, not to go to the innovation party of the future. Maybe that's fine for the grownups who'd rather stay home, but it seems like a raw deal for the 14-year-old girl in Topeka who might have gone on to find a cure for resistant infections if only she had been taught evolution in high school." Thorp is chairman of the chemistry department at the University of North Carolina.

To read "Evolution's bottom line," visit:


Eugenie C. Scott's "The challenge of intelligent design," originally delivered as the Society of the Study of Evolution's Public Understanding of Evolution lecture at the Evolution 2003 conference held at California State University, Chico, is now available on-line, as the QCShow Author lecture of the week for May 8, 2006. Scott explained, "Proponents of 'intelligent design' have argued that their 'theory' is distinguishable from creation science, yet convergence in philosophy, content, and methodology is apparent," and posed the questions, "Where does the ID movement stand, and what are promoters of good science education to do about it?"

The lecture was prepared for its on-line presentation with AICS Research's QCShow Author, an inexpensive authoring tool that translates PowerPoint and Adobe PDF files into high-quality audio and image slideshows at very low bandwidths, which may be displayed with the freely downloadable QCShow Player. Also available in the same format are a number of presentations from the Evolution 2003 and Evolution 2004 conferences (Elizabeth Kellogg, Susan Epperson, Michael Sanderson, and Rick Grosberg) and from the Ernst Mayr Centenary event (Douglas Futuyma, Andrew Knoll, Axel Meyer, and Ernst Mayr).

For "The challenge of intelligent design" in QCShow format, visit:

For the free downloadable QCShow Player, visit:

For information about QCShow Author, visit:

For the Evolution 2003, Evolution 2004, and Mayr Centenary presentations, visit:


When the Alabama legislature adjourned on April 18, 2006, House Bill 106 and Senate Bill 45 died. These identical bills purported to protect the right of teachers to "present scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views in any curricula or course of learning" and the right of students not to be "penalized in any way because he or she may subscribe to a particular position on any views." In language reminiscent of the Santorum language removed from the No Child Left Behind Act, they specified that "[t]he rights and privileges contained in this act apply when topics are taught that may generate controversy, such as biological or chemical origins." HB 106 and SB 45 closely resembled previous antievolution bills in Alabama -- three bills introduced in 2005 (HB 352, SB 240, and HB 716) and two bills introduced in 2004 (HB 391 and SB 336) -- all of which failed.

For NCSE's coverage of previous events in Alabama, visit:

If you wish to subscribe, please send:

subscribe ncse-news your@email.com

again in the body of an e-mail to majordomo@ncseweb2.org.

Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site: http://www.ncseweb.org where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism is now available: http://www.ncseweb.org/evc

Polygraph Results Often in Question

CIA, FBI Defend Test's Use in Probes

By Dan Eggen and Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 1, 2006; A01

The CIA, the FBI and other federal agencies are using polygraph machines more than ever to screen applicants and hunt for lawbreakers, even as scientists have become more certain that the equipment is ineffective in accurately detecting when people are lying.

Instead, many experts say, the real utility of the polygraph machine, or "lie detector," is that many of the tens of thousands of people who are subjected to it each year believe that it works -- and thus will frequently admit to things they might not otherwise acknowledge during an interview or interrogation.

Many researchers and defense attorneys say the technology is prone to a high number of false results that have stalled or derailed hundreds of careers and have prevented many qualified applicants from joining the fight against terrorism. At the FBI, for example, about 25 percent of applicants fail a polygraph exam each year, according to the bureau's security director.

The polygraph has emerged as a pivotal tool in the CIA's aggressive effort to identify suspected leakers after embarrassing disclosures about government anti-terrorism tactics. The agency fired a veteran officer, Mary O. McCarthy, on April 20, alleging that she had shared classified information and operational details with The Washington Post and other news organizations, a charge her lawyer disputes.

CIA officials have said that McCarthy failed more than one polygraph examination administered by the CIA, but the details surrounding those interviews remain unclear. Dozens of senior-level CIA officials have been subjected to polygraph tests as part of the inquiry, which is aimed at identifying employees who may have talked to reporters about classified programs, including providing information about the agency's network of secret prisons for terrorism suspects.

"The reason an officer at CIA was terminated was for having unauthorized contact with the media and the improper release of classified information," said Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman. "Don't think in terms of a failure of a polygraph being the reason for termination -- the polygraph is one tool in an investigative process."

In the popular mind, fueled by Hollywood representations, polygraphs are lie-detection machines that can peer inside people's heads to determine whether they are telling the truth.

The scientific reality is far different: The machines measure various physiological changes, including in blood pressure and heart rate, to determine when subjects are getting anxious, based on the idea that deception involves an element of anxiety. But because an emotion such as anxiety can be triggered by many factors other than lying, experts worry that the tests can overlook smooth-talking liars while pointing a finger at innocent people who just happen to be rattled.

In settings in which large numbers of employees are screened to determine whether they are spies, the polygraph produces results that are extremely problematic, according to a comprehensive 2002 review by a federal panel of distinguished scientists. The study found that if polygraphs were administered to a group of 10,000 people that included 10 spies, nearly 1,600 innocent people would fail the test -- and two of the spies would pass.

"Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies," the panel concluded.

Polygraph test results are also generally inadmissible in federal courts and in most state courts because of doubts about their reliability. Statements or admissions made by test subjects during a polygraph session, however, can often be used by prosecutors at trial, according to legal experts.

But even critics of the polygraph concede that it can help managers learn things about employees that would otherwise remain hidden. That aspect of polygraph testing lies at the heart of its continuing appeal, said Alan Zelicoff, a former scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who quit because he believed that polygraphs are unethical.

Although polygraph tests involving national security are supposed to be about a handful of questions involving espionage, Zelicoff said the tests take hours: "In each and every test, what happens is after question two or three the questioner will pause and very deliberately take a long hard look at the chart and take a deep breath and sigh and say, 'You did really well on question one, but on the second question, about whether you released classified information, I am getting a strange reading. Tell you what -- I am going to turn the machine off and I am going to ask whether there is something you want to get off your chest.' "

"That is what the polygraph is about," said Zelicoff, who has testimony from several employees who are angry about the tests. "It is about an excuse to conduct a wide-ranging inquisition."

The subjective opinions of polygraph examiners play a huge role in whether people are said to pass or fail, said William Iacono, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who has extensively studied the technique. As evidence, Iacono said that polygraph tests rarely find problems among senior staff members at organizations, even as 30 to 40 percent of applicants for entry-level positions fail.

"The director of the CIA just took a test," said Iacono. "How would you like to be the examiner who gave him a test and say he failed? What kind of a career would you have?"

The president of the American Polygraph Association, T.V. O'Malley, said polygraph technology is held to an unfair standard in many cases, and he compared it to mammograms and other medical screening procedures that are imperfect but valuable in detecting problems. He also acknowledged that some of the polygraph's value is simply in prompting people to tell the truth.

"It's kind of like confessing . . . to a priest: You feel a little better by getting rid of your baggage," O'Malley said. "The same thing often happens with a polygraph examination."

Charles S. Phalen Jr., the FBI's assistant director for security, said the polygraph is a vital component of the bureau's security program.

"This is the most effective collection tool that we have in our arsenal of security tools to identify disqualifying behavior and disqualifying activities," Phalen said. "I will never sit here and say this is a perfect tool because it's not. . . . In and of itself it won't produce the truth, but it's a way at getting at the truth."

The ubiquity of polygraph testing in the federal government is due in large part to spy scandals that rocked the government over the past dozen years, including those involving Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert P. Hanssen at the FBI. Ames was allowed to continue working despite questionable polygraph results, whereas Hanssen was never given a lie-detector exam during his long FBI career.

Previous efforts to implement wide-scale testing were met with fierce opposition not only from rank-and-file employees but also from senior government officials. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan scaled back an order requiring thousands of government employees to submit to polygraphs after Secretary of State George P. Shultz threatened to resign if ordered to take one.

As part of changes implemented after Hanssen's arrest in 2001, the FBI now conducts about 8,000 polygraph tests each year, most of which involve current employees, applicants and contractors. All applicants and new employees undergo a polygraph at the FBI, and nearly every employee -- including the director -- is subject to a new test every five years, officials said.

The CIA enacted broader testing policies after Ames's unmasking. At the Department of Energy, which implemented changes as a result of the Wen Ho Lee case, about 20,000 employees are currently eligible for mandatory polygraph screening tests. (Lee, a former nuclear weapons scientist, was held by the government for purportedly smuggling weapon-design secrets to China; all but one charge was dropped.)

The Department of Energy is considering scaling back its program to focus on 4,500 employees with access to the most sensitive information, in large part because of the 2002 analysis by the federal panel, according to a congressional report released last week.

Many scientists who criticize polygraphs as a screening tool say the machines can be effective when used as part of a "guilty-knowledge test." In a bank robbery investigation, for example, suspects could be quizzed in multiple-choice tests on whether they knew if the weapon used was a gun or a knife, whether the money taken was $10, $1,000 or $10,000.

Focused questions that test whether people have memory of an event yield far more reliable results than open-ended screening tests that rely on emotions that can be triggered by a wide range of factors, said Iacono, who added that the federal government has resolutely refused to use the guilty-knowledge test. Officials have declined to describe the kind of tests McCarthy underwent at the CIA.

Iacono said conventional polygraph tests have little scientific validity but allow examiners to say, "I am getting the sense you are holding something back; is there something you want to tell me?"

"When people hear that, they admit things it would be difficult to get in any other way," he said. "People will confess to crimes or make admissions about themselves or other people. They may reveal suspicions about a co-worker or explain they did something they should not have done. The government loves that."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


Researchers get warm in quest to solve evolutionary mystery


Ian Sample, science correspondent
Tuesday May 2, 2006 The Guardian

Scientists believe they have cracked one of the most enduring mysteries since Charles Darwin returned from the Galapagos islands: why is there such a variety of life in the tropics? The bunching up of much of the world's biodiversity along the equatorial regions contrasts with the rapid drop-off in organisms that eke out a living in more temperate and polar regions. But well-known as the pattern is, a full explanation has so far proved elusive.

Scientists have proposed that evolution, the natural process that saw modern life develop out of a primitive broth, speeds up at the equator, so more species are able to flourish there. One theory is that creatures living along the equator are more likely to evolve into different species for two reasons: firstly, they have a higher rate of metabolism, which leads to more genetic mutations; secondly, they have shorter generations, so genetic changes can be rapidly passed down.

"It gives you a double whammy, because you have more genetic variability and with a shorter generation time, you increase the rate of natural selection," said Shane Wright, a plant geneticist at the University of Auckland.

Dr Wright tested the theory by counting up the number of genetic mutations in a collection of closely related plants. The pairs were picked so that one variety lived along the equator while the other lived at a higher latitude. Species showing a high number of mutations are more likely to pass genetic changes on to the next generation, and through natural selection ultimately give rise to new species.

The study, which looked at varieties of conifers, flowering plants and other tree varieties, found that on average equatorial plants evolved at twice the rate of more temperate species. In one case, a plant evolved 13 times faster than a close relative living in a temperate climate.

Tropical plants were taken from New Guinea, north-eastern Australia, Borneo, India, Tahiti and South America, with temperate species plucked from North America, southern Australia, New Zealand and Eurasia.

Dr Wright said the study supported the idea that the equator was home to the lion's share of the world's species because organisms there respond to the warm conditions by speeding up their metabolism and reproducing faster.

"If we're right, it suggests there is a gradient of faster-rate evolution to slower-rate evolution across the kind of energy gradient we see from the equator the poles," he said. The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today.

The finding explains why 4 billion years of evolution has given rise to biodiversity hotspots in rainforests, including Brazil's Atlantic forest, which is believed to be home to millions of insect species, 20,000 plant species and more than 1,000 species of vertebrate.

"Biodiversity is always much higher in the tropics. The closer you go to the equator, the more species you have and that is true for viruses, bacteria, plants, mammals, the whole lot," said Francois Balloux, a geneticist at Cambridge University. "In many cases, these ecosystems are very complex, so this offers many niches and it is easier for populations to split."

Will Blue Cross cover ancient healing methods?


By: GARY PULEO, Times Herald Staff 05/07/2006

For at least half its existence, acupuncture has been the main system of medicine for more than one-third of the world's population. With numerous western studies showing its effectiveness in recent years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) came out in 1997 and requested that acupuncture be made available to all Americans through their health networks.

As a result, if you happen to live in California, New Jersey, Maine and at least a dozen other states, your health insurance will cover the cost of treatment.

Here in Pennsylvania, however, you'll be digging into your own pockets if you decide to try the ancient, natural approach, which won the aforementioned FDA's ruling as a safe medical treatment in 1996. And don't even think about getting reimbursed any time soon.

"I hear the complaints all the time," said acupuncturist Kate Pietrowski. "It's a shame, because so many people benefit from acupuncture and so many are on a fixed income and can't afford to pay for it out of pocket. When you're working to help people feel better you want to feel like you're serving your whole community, not just people who can afford it."

The literal meaning of acupuncture is "needles piercing," according to www.therapyinfo.org. As the name suggests, acupuncture involves penetrating the skin - with long, metallic, thin needles. Chinese medicine maintains that the body transmits energy - or 'qi' (pronounced 'chee') - through a network of more than 2,000 pathways. Acupuncture targets these pathways to help induce an unimpeded flow of energy, along with a balanced Yin and Yang for overall good health.

Pietrowski, whose Acupuncture for Health is based in King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting, has helped patients suffering with cancer, multiple sclerosis, migraine headaches, back pain and a variety of ailments feel better and more capably deal with their illnesses.

A consensus panel for NIH backs up those claims, having concluded that acupuncture treatment is effective for all types of body aches, including post-operative and chemotherapy-induced pain.

"I've worked with some really hard cases," Pietrowski said. "Everybody's different in how they respond, but I think it's always worth a try."

Pietrowski, a registered nurse, was working in traditional medicine when she first dabbled in alternative healing.

"I got frustrated as a nurse just telling people to take drugs all the time," she said.

Possibly the most dramatic recuperative powers of acupuncture were demonstrated in one of Pietrowski's patients who was considering a hip replacement.

"After several sessions, the acupuncture actually helped regenerate her hip, so she no longer needed the replacement," Pietrowski noted.

As the tide increasingly turns in the mainstream acceptance of alternative medicine, more and more doctors are recommending acupuncture to their patients, as well as herbs, supplements, chiropractic and a host of nontraditional therapies, Pietrowski said.

"Getting the insurance to pay for it is another story," she admitted. "That's especially difficult with something like acupuncture, which, in most cases, requires weekly sessions that could go on for months."

In the U.S., the cost of undergoing the needles for a single session ranges from $45 to $100. All acupuncture practitioners must be certified and licensed, Pietrowski said.

Plymouth Meeting resident Boby Havlena, 73 - but looking at least a decade younger - credits acupuncture with helping to restore her energy after a third bout with breast cancer left her feeling drained of her usual vitality last May.

After undergoing conventional medical treatments to rid herself of cancer, Havlena, a longtime devotee of yoga, meditation and other holistic practices, knew there was nothing mainstream medicine could offer her to alleviate the brutal fatigue.

A friend who had sought the energy-boosting potential of acupuncture therapy following heart surgery, suggested she give the needle thing a shot.

The needles didn't hurt, he assured her. At most she'll feel a slight pinch.

"He recommended Dr. Yin in Philadelphia, who helped him get his energy back," Havlena recalled. "He also told me about a woman who had had metastatic breast cancer who went to Dr. Yin, and now seven years later she is cancer free. She'd had surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and her doctors had told her there was nothing else they could do for her. I figured he could probably help me too."

For nearly a year now, Havlena has been making the sojourn into the city twice a week for acupuncture sessions with Yin. At home, she brews tea with the Chinese herbs he gives her. Gradually the self-described "high energy person" started to feel like her old self again.

"Dr. Yin's goal with me is to rebuild the immune system so it can fight any cancer cells," she noted.

Though Havlena was feeling healthier by the week, her wallet was beginning to groan from the pain of shelling out over $3,000 for the treatments.

"Dr. Yin thinks it's horrible that health insurance in Pennsylvania won't cover this, because New York does, and so do New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland," Havlena said.

Each attempt to enlighten her insurers, Independence Blue Cross and Medicare, about the wonders of acupuncture, while seeking reimbursement, fell on deaf ears.

"In some states where insurance does cover it, the drug companies and medical associations were fighting the idea of acupuncture being covered, because they didn't want to lose any business," Havlena noted. "But there was such a strong outreach from the public to have it covered, that they got the mandate passed anyway."

Though armed with stacks of documentation a corporate- merger attorney would envy, Havlena saw appeal after appeal land her nowhere.

"Medicare's stance is that acupuncture is a 'new thing' in the U.S., though they recognize that the Orient and Europe have used it for thousands of years. They feel it hasn't proven itself in the United States yet."

Some potential salvation for acupuncture supporters living in Pennsylvania may now be emerging on the political front.

"Boby came to see me with some folks that had been successfully treated with acupuncture and wanted to see if I'd be willing to sponsor a bill that would make acupuncture treatment mandatory for insurance coverage," said State Representative Kate Harper.

Harper, who noted that the legislature is reluctant to make any insurance coverage mandatory "because it tends to drive up the cost of insurance for everyone," was impressed by Havlena's enthusiasm.

"Boby and her group make a good argument that it would be cost effective for Blue Cross if the acupuncture treatment works and saves people money by not requiring more expensive conventional methods," Harper said. "If Blue Cross offered it, the other insurers in Pennsylvania probably would too."

A meeting between Havlena, Harper, a group of acupuncture advocates and bigwigs from Independence Blue Cross, the state's largest insurance provider, is set for June 8.

"We are hoping to avoid a mandate and just convince Blue Cross that covering acupuncture is good idea. That's our first option," Harper said.

"Traditionally, the legislature is leery about requiring all insurance companies to carry a coverage, and the reason is that in Pennsylvania we have a high percentage of people covered by insurance - much higher than other states. But most are covered either through current or past employment, so if we make the cost of insurance more expensive, the employers may drop it ... and we don't want to do that."

If petitioning Blue Cross doesn't work, Havlena said she is prepared to take her mission to federal court.

"If that happened, it would set a precedent and benefit people all over the country," Havlena said. "I know that one person can make a difference."

Gary Puleo can be reached at 610-272-2500, ext. 205, or at gpuleo@timesherald.com.

©The Times Herald 2006

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Evolution's Bottom Line

May 12, 2006 Op-Ed Contributor


Chapel Hill, N.C.

THE usefulness of scientific theories, like those on gravity, relativity and evolution, is to make predictions. When theories make practicable foresight possible, they are widely accepted and used to make all of the new things that we enjoy — like global positioning systems, which rely on the theories of relativity, and the satellites that make them possible, which are placed in their orbits thanks to the good old theory of gravity.

Creationists who oppose the teaching of evolution as the predominant theory of biology contend that alternatives should be part of the curriculum because evolution is "just a theory," but they never attack mere theories of gravity and relativity in the same way. The creationists took it on their intelligently designed chins recently from a judge in Pennsylvania who found that teaching alternatives to evolution amounted to the teaching of religion. They prevailed, however, in Kansas, where the school board changed the definition of science to accommodate the teaching of intelligent design.

Both sides say they are fighting for lofty goals and defending the truth. But lost in all this truth-defending are more pragmatic issues that have to do with the young people whose educations are at stake here and this pesky fact: creationism has no commercial application. Evolution does.

Since evolution has been the dominant theory of biology for more than a century, it's a safe statement that all of the wonderful innovations in medicine and agriculture that we derive from biological research stem from the theory of evolution. Recent, exciting examples are humanized antibodies like Remicade for inflammation and Herceptin for breast cancer, both initially made in mice. Without our knowledge of the evolution of mice and humans and their immune systems, we wouldn't have such life-saving and life-improving technologies.

Another specific example is resistant bacterial infections, one of the scariest threats to public health. The ones that are resistant to antibiotics are more reproductively successful than their non-resistant relatives and pass the new resistance genes on to more offspring. Just as Darwin said 150 years ago.

The creationists have devised a tortuous work-around for this phenomenon, which endorses natural selection and survival of the fittest, but says that evolution doesn't explain the original development of species. The problem is, there are hundreds of genes that occur in both bacteria and humans. It's hard to see why a designer would do it that way, since having the same genes in bacteria and humans makes infections harder to treat: drugs that act on bacterial gene products act on the human versions as well, so those drugs could kill both the bacterium and the human host. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So evolution has some pretty exciting applications (like food), and I'm guessing most people would prefer antibiotics developed by someone who knows the evolutionary relationship of humans and bacteria. What does this mean for the young people who go to school in Kansas? Are we going to close them out from working in the life sciences? And what about companies in Kansas that want to attract scientists to work there? Will Mom or Dad Scientist want to live somewhere where their children are less likely to learn evolution?

One Kansas biology teacher, a past president of the National Association of Biology Teachers, told Popular Science magazine that students from Kansas now face tougher scrutiny when seeking admission to medical schools. And companies seeking to innovate in the life sciences could perhaps be excused for giving the Sunflower State a miss: one Web site that lists companies looking for workers in biotechnology has more than 600 hiring scientists in California and more than 240 in Massachusetts. Kansas has 11.

In his most recent State of the Union address, President Bush mentioned our problems in science education and promised to focus on "keeping America competitive" by increasing the budget for research and spending money to get more science teachers. I hope he delivers, but we can't keep America competitive if some states teach science that has no commercial utility. Those smart youngsters in India and China whom you keep hearing about are learning secular science, not biblical literalism.

The battle is about more than which truth is truthier, it's about who will be allowed to innovate and where they will do it. Sequestering our scientists in California and Massachusetts makes no sense. We need to allow everyone to participate and increase the chance of finding the innovations to improve society and compete globally.

Where science gets done is where wealth gets created, so places that decide to put stickers on their textbooks or change the definition of science have decided, perhaps unknowingly, not to go to the innovation party of the future. Maybe that's fine for the grownups who'd rather stay home, but it seems like a raw deal for the 14-year-old girl in Topeka who might have gone on to find a cure for resistant infections if only she had been taught evolution in high school.

Holden Thorp is chairman of the chemistry department at the University of North Carolina.


Mississippi Law Allows Creationism Talk in Classrooms


By Erin Roach -- Baptist Press

2006-05-11 -- WDC Media News

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Mississippi students are free to discuss creationism in public schools now that Gov. Haley Barbour signed a new state law that says no limits may be placed on teachers and students when addressing the origin of life.

"No local school board, school superintendent or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from individual students on the origin of life," the bill, which passed the legislature in March and was signed by Barbour, a Republican, in late April, states.

Local school officials told the Associated Press that they had not previously encountered disputes about what theories could be discussed in class, but they fear the new law is so vague that court challenges are almost certain to arise.

Mike Halford, superintendent of Lowndes County schools in Mississippi, told AP that educators need clarification of what can be discussed in the classroom, especially as other states have fought fierce science curriculum battles.

"We're starting to see lawsuits pop up from this [in other states]," Halford said. "It's just a problem we don't need."

But Casey Luskin, program officer for public policy and legal affairs with Discovery Institute, noted that the law says nothing about creationism or Intelligent Design, and for that matter, students could raise questions in support of philosophical naturalism or atheism.

"This law simply protects the right of teachers to answer students' questions, and I don't see what's so controversial about that," Luskin told Baptist Press. "I think this is a great law. I think it allows both academic freedom for teachers and freedom of inquiry for students."

Story Source


Doubts About Fish Story


Anti-Darwinists downplay 'missing link.'

by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra | posted 05/11/2006 09:30 a.m.

Fossils uncovered in 2004 and unveiled by scientists in April are being hailed as evolution's "missing link" between water- and land-dwelling animals. The fish species, whose remains were found in the Canadian Arctic, has been named Tiktaalik.

"It shows you that one of the great gaps, one of the basic steps in evolutionary past, is from water to land," said University of Chicago biologist Neil Shubin, co-leader of the discovery team. "It shows in exceptional detail what features evolved and changed at that time period."

The fish had a neck, big ribs, arm bones, and a functional wrist joint. Tiktaalik is the closest aquatic relative of land-living animals, Shubin said.

But Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, which promotes young-earth creationism, called the claim "a big fishy story." He said, "There is nothing new about it, except it's a new genus and species."

He pointed to the coelacanth, a contemporary fish that also has bones in its fins. Those bones are not connected to its skeleton to bear weight, but instead help propel it along in shallow water or mud. Scientists once thought this fish, too, was an evolutionary missing link. But study of a living coelacanth showed it was simply well made for its environment.

"We already know some fish use their fins to prop themselves out of the water. Catfish do that, but they are clearly not evolving into land animals," said Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, which promotes Intelligent Design (ID). "The whole question of how fins turned into feet is not solved by this fossil." Even if it were a missing link, Luskin said, ID advocates would question whether such an evolution could have happened randomly through natural selection.

Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today.

June 2006, Vol. 50, No. 6, Page 15

George Lutz, 59, Who Found Horror in Amityville, Dies


LAS VEGAS, May 10 (AP) — George Lee Lutz, whose brief stay in a home in Amityville, N.Y., spawned one of the most famous haunted house stories, the basis for the "Amityville Horror" novel and movies, died here on Monday. He was 59.

The cause was heart disease, according to the Clark County coroner.

Mr. Lutz, a former land surveyor, moved his new bride and three children into a three-story home on Long Island in 1975, about a year after six members of the DeFeo family had been shot and killed there. Ronald DeFeo Jr., the eldest son, was convicted of the murders.

According to Mr. Lutz's account, his family lived in the home for 28 days before being driven out by the spirits of the DeFeos.

Mr. Lutz's story has been challenged by some who accused him of intentionally moving into the home to profit from the DeFeo murders, but he stuck by his version.

The family's tales of eerie feelings and the waking dead became the source for Jay Anson's 1977 book, "The Amityville Horror," a 1979 film of the same title and a 2005 remake of the movie.

The book and movies had visions of walls oozing slime, moving furniture and a visit from a demonic pig named Jodie.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Scientology nearly ready to unveil Super Power


St. Petersburg Times, Florida

In the works for decades, the closely guarded spiritual training program will be revealed in Clearwater.

By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published May 6, 2006

CLEARWATER - Matt Feshbach believes he has super powers. He senses danger faster than most people. He appreciates beauty more deeply than he used to. He says he outperforms his peers in the money management industry.

He heightened his powers of perception in 1995 when he went to Los Angeles and became the first and so far only "public" Scientologist to take a highly classified Scientology program called Super Power.

Where in L.A. did he do this?

"Just in Los Angeles," is all Feshbach will say. Super Power is that secret.

Under wraps for decades, Super Power now is being prepped for its eventual rollout in Scientology's massive building in downtown Clearwater. That will be the only place worldwide where the program, much anticipated by Scientologists, will be offered.

A key aim of Super Power is to enhance one's perceptions - and not just the five senses we all know - hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard taught that people have 57 "perceptics." They include an ability to discern relative sizes, blood circulation, balance, compass direction, temperature, gravity and an "awareness of importance, unimportance."

Church officials won't discuss specifics of Super Power. But Feshbach and another prominent Clearwater Scientologist who, like Feshbach, is a major donor to Super Power's building fund, provided some details in interviews with the St. Petersburg Times. A group of former Scientologists who worked for the church on a campus in California where the program was in development also described elements of it.

Super Power uses machines, apparatus and specially designed rooms to exercise and enhance a person's so-called perceptics. Those machines include an antigravity simulator and a gyroscope-like apparatus that spins a person around while blindfolded to improve perception of compass direction, said the former Scientologists.

A video screen that moves forward and backward while flashing images is used to hone a viewer's ability to identify subliminal messages, they said.

Hubbard promised Super Power would improve perceptions and "put the person into a new realm of ability." He believed it would unlock abilities needed to spread Scientology across the planet.

For Feshbach it's like nothing he has ever done in Scientology.

"I got it. I loved it," he gushed.

Feshbach, 52, and his two brothers became famous in investment circles during the 1980s as the kings of short selling stocks - essentially betting which stocks will tank. At one point, the California-based Feshbach Bros. managed $1-billion for clients.

Feshbach now lives in Belleair, where his wife, Kathy, runs a Scientology mission. Because he donated millions to the Super Power building fund, he was invited to undergo the program.

It's geared toward creating a "more competent spiritual being," he said. "I'm not dependant on my physical body to perceive things."

He offered this anecdote:

He had just finished his perceptics training and was at the Los Angeles airport, preparing to fly home to the Tampa Bay area. He stood at a crosswalk with perhaps 20 others, including a woman and her son, an antsy boy 6 or 7 years old.

As the light turned green, the boy bolted into the street, ahead of his mother. Feshbach perceived a pickup bearing down on the boy, driven by a young woman.

He yelled and saved the boy's life by a quarter of an inch, he said.

Coincidence? Feshbach doesn't think so. No one else saw the pickup, he says. He believes that, through the Super Power program, he elevated his perceptive abilities beyond those of the others at that crosswalk. His enhanced perceptions have played out numerous times since, he said.

Super Power takes "weeks, not months" to complete, said Feshbach. He would not discuss the specific machines and drills that former Scientologists said are used to enhance perceptions.

The perceptics portion of Super Power is one of 12 "rundowns" in the full program, Feshbach said. But it clearly is a key aspect.

Details of Super Power training have been kept secret even from church members. Like much of Scientology training, details aren't revealed until one pays to take the course.

Asked about Super Power, church spokesman Ben Shaw provided a written statement: "Super Power is a series of spiritual counseling processes designed to give a person back his own viewpoint, increase his perception, exercise his power of choice, and greatly enhance other spiritual abilities."

Shaw would not say how much the program will cost. Upper levels of Scientology training can run tens of thousands of dollars.

He declined to provide further insight into Super Power. "It's not something I'm willing to provide to you in any manner," Shaw said.

Scientologist Ron Pollack, who donated $5-million to the Super Power fund after making millions in hedge funds in the 1990s, said he got a sneak peek. The head of fundraising for the project showed him a photo of "some high-tech thing" developed by engineers in Southern California that offers different aromas on demand. It's for a drill to enhance one's sense of smell, he said.

Pollack said he has no idea how Super Power will be set up, but is excited about the parts on ethics and perceptics, which he likened to a "trip to Disney."

Former Scientologists Bruce Hines and Chuck Beatty, once staffers at the church's international base in Hemet, Calif., said that while on punishment detail, they made chairs of various sizes - ones big enough for a giant, others too small even for a child - that were set up in a room designed to hone one's sense of relative sizes.

Hines also said the Super Power program, which Hubbard wanted rolled out in 1978, met with delays during the 20-plus years that it was being piloted on church staffers.

One setback occurred when the church checked back on the staffers who had been through Super Power. It turned out, Hines said, many had left the church - hardly the expected outcome.

"The fact that it was around in 1978 and it's still not worked out 28 years later, that's pretty significant," Hines said.

Hines, who said he once performed Scientology's core practice of auditing on celebrity Scientologists Kirstie Allie, Anne Archer and Nicole Kidman (she no longer is a Scientologist), worked at the California facility until 1993 and left the church staff in 2003. He and other ex-Scientology staffers are convinced that church brass delayed completion of the big building in Clearwater because the Super Power program was not finished. The exterior was completed three years ago, then construction stopped.

"The building was getting done faster than the tech program itself," said Karen Pressley, a former church staffer at the same California campus, who left the church in 1998.

"This is a flap of magnitude in Scientology management," Pressley said.

Shaw said those ex-members are just wrong.

"These people know absolutely nothing" about the Super Power pilot, he said.

Scientology processes are technical and cannot be understood out of context, Shaw said. "If someone is interested in Scientology, they should read a book and find out for themselves what Scientology is and thus begin their own spiritual journey," Shaw said.

Super Power is ready, he said, and 300 staff members are being trained to deliver it.

Construction delays in Clearwater, Shaw said, are due to a recent explosion of church expansion worldwide. The church has spent hundreds of millions to purchase and renovate properties. Last year, it purchased nearly 1-million square feet of buildings in 18 cities around the world.

That expansion, by far the largest in church history, diverted the church's attention, he said. Plus, he said, Scientology leaders have been compelled to redesign the building's interior repeatedly to make it a crown jewel.

The Super Power program will be ready to go the moment the new building is completed, he said. Scientology officials promise that will be 2007. Scientology's 57 senses

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's list of 57 perceptics. Words in parentheses are his:

Timen Sight

Tasten Colorn Depth

Solidity (barriers)

Relative sizes (external)







Touch (pressure, friction, heat or cold and oiliness)

Personal emotion

Endocrine states

Awareness of awareness

Personal size

Organic sensation (including hunger)


Blood circulation

Cellular and bacterial position

Gravitic (self and other weights)

Motion of self

Motion (exterior)

Body position

Joint position

Internal temperature

External temperature


Muscular tension

Saline content of self (body)


Time track motion

Physical energy (personal weariness, etc.)


Moisture (self)

Sound direction

Emotional state of other organs

Personal position on the tone scale*

Affinity (self and others)

Communication (self and others)

Reality (self and others)

Emotional state of groups

Compass direction

Level of consciousness


Perception of conclusions (past and present)

Perception of computation (past and present)

Perception of imagination (past and present)

Perception of having perceived (past and present)

Awareness of not knowing

Awareness of importance, unimportance

Awareness of others

Awareness of location and placement (masses, spaces and location itself)

Perception of appetite


*Scientology's tone scale, as defined in The Scientology Handbook: A scale which shows the successive emotional tones a person can experience.Source: Scientology 0-8, The Book of Basics, by L. Ron Hubbard.

[Last modified May 6, 2006, 06:56:00]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Evolution debate reaches South Carolina


COLUMBIA, S.C., May 9 (UPI) -- South Carolina lawmakers are again embroiled in the continuing evolution controversy to decide how textbooks should present scientific theory.

Supporters of two bills before the legislature claim they only want to ensure textbooks enhance students' development of critical thinking skills, The (Columbia, S.C.) State reported Tuesday.

Critics say "critical thinking skills" are code words for inserting religious theories like intelligent design into biology lessons.

"On one hand, it looks completely innocuous, but if you understand the context ... it's directed at high school biology standards on biological evolution," Rob Dillon, a College of Charleston associate biology professor and president of South Carolinians for Science Education, told The State.

Supporters claim the textbook selection and evolution issues are not linked.

"They'll tell you this only deals with science and intelligent design, and this is not true," Rep. Bob Walker, R-Spartanburg, told the newspaper. "What this is doing is asking that when we look at textbooks, we look at the process a textbook uses in teaching when it comes to critical thinking and analysis."

Last fall, Walker tried unsuccessfully to revise state biology standards to allow the teaching of alternatives to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Misplaced Sympathies


Darwin isn't the enemy. Conservatives do no service to their cause by treating him as one.

Friday, April 21, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

Two weeks ago, a team of paleontologists announced the discovery of an extinct animal on an island in arctic Canada. The island is now a frozen waste, but in the Paleozoic Era it was literally crawling with life. The fossil find, dubbed Tiktaalik roseae, has been hailed as the evolutionary missing link between bony fish and land-dwelling vertebrates.

Culture-war observers might note that Tiktaalik bears a weird resemblance to the Darwin fish--the pictogram of a two-legged creature that parodies the ichthus symbol used by devout Christians. The coincidence is particularly poignant, given that Tiktaalik has re-emerged at a dismal moment for Christian fundamentalists and other opponents of evolutionary biology.

After years of unsuccessful attempts to have creationism recognized in public schools as a "scientific" alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection, anti-Darwinists pinned their hopes on intelligent-design theory (ID), which tries to argue that living things are too complex to be products of random mutations. But this movement lost much steam in December, after a judge in Pennsylvania ruled that, contrary to the Dover, Pa., school board, ID was not science.

Since then, even erstwhile backers of ID have scrambled to distance themselves from it. Sen. Rick Santorum, who had never been shy about his support for the Dover board, announced that he was "not comfortable with intelligent design being taught in the science classroom." The Ohio Board of Education voted in February to eliminate lesson plans calling for a critique of evolution; in the last few months, bills to introduce ID into schools in Indiana, Mississippi and Utah have failed.

If the collapse of ID represents a defeat for the Religious Right, it has been something of a relief for many nonreligious conservatives, who have wanted nothing more than for the issue to go away. Charles Krauthammer, for instance, complained that the Dover episode was "anachronistic," "retrograde" and "a national embarrassment."

But the relationship of the conservative movement to evolution has never been simple. Religious conservatives have opposed the entrenchment of Darwinism in biology curricula; other conservatives, including mainline Christians, have embraced it. Curiously, the neoconservatives--a term that refers to the rightward shift of former leftists, many of them Jewish--have often felt discomfort with Darwinism, although not on religious grounds.

Their skepticism is epitomized by Gertrude Himmelfarb and her husband, Irving Kristol, who have tilted at natural selection for decades. Ms. Himmelfarb's 1959 book "Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution" dwelt on the intellectual failings of the theory's initial incarnation in the 1860s. Mr. Kristol, for his part, seems to believe that little progress has been made since then, having declared in 1990 that natural selection "tells us nothing credible about the origin of species." In 1996 Commentary published "The Deniable Darwin," the first of several attacks on natural selection by the mathematician David Berlinski.

For Christian fundamentalists, the sympathy of this group of thinkers has been a boon, lending credence to the idea that critiques of natural selection are more than just a strategy to promote creationism. Perhaps so, but how reliable are the critiques? Proponents of intelligent design, like the mathematician William Dembski, argue that we don't understand the origins of various biological systems and never will, because they can't be broken down into smaller parts that could be explained by natural selection. Therefore, we should give up on Darwin and accept the existence of a designer. Alas, this kind of argumentum ad ignorantium flies in the face of an ever-increasing amount of evidence from molecular biology, and hardly measures up to the neoconseratives' rigorous intellectual standards.

But part of the neoconservative position has to do less with particular intellectual claims than with the special sensitivities of a broadly conservative coalition. The writer David Frum has said that, though he himself believes in evolution, he doesn't "believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle." And indeed, Christian principle helps to arm the traditionalist side of the culture war, a side that nonreligious and non-Christian conservatives very much support. The bioethicist Leon Kass has echoed the worry that "Western moral teaching, so closely tied to Scripture, is also in peril if any major part of Scripture can be shown to be false."

The idea has antecedents stretching back to the Victorian era. Benjamin Disraeli summed up the problem memorably: Given the choice between viewing man as an ape or an angel, he was "on the side of the angels." Today, neoconservatives see the side of religious conservatives as the side of the angels. The two groups share a profound distaste for materialism, a philosophy of knowledge that leaves no room for phenomena--like God, the human soul and transcendent morality--that can't be explained by an appeal to physical principles.

The distaste is understandable. Materialism in science is one thing; the scientific method is by definition materialistic, admirably so. But materialism can also be a worldview, one that has lately not been content to co-exist with other belief systems. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, has compared faith to a "virus" that enfeebles the mind. This kind of notion is no longer science--it's scientism, and from the neoconservative perspective it lies at the root of various evils based on similarly totalizing systems of thought, like communism.

It was a preoccupation with defeating materialism that inspired many of Darwin's contemporary detractors. Richard Owen, a 19th-century English anatomist, privately conceded that "The Origin of Species" was the best explanation "ever published of the manner of formation of species"--but because he thought that natural selection denied the possibility of human uniqueness, he savaged the book in public. Ms. Himmelfarb made a related argument in a recent review of two new editions of Darwin's works, decrying the "mechanistic and reductivist interpretation of all human life, including its emotional and intellectual dimensions, in the name of Darwinism."

But there is a problem here. At a time when the life sciences are advancing at an astonishing pace, it is simply too late to be taking up Owen's mantle. There is no longer any serious dispute about the evidence for natural selection; it seems that every gap in our current explanatory model has a Tiktaalik waiting to fill it, whether it comes from the Canadian tundra or a DNA microarray. The logic of Darwin's theory has also undeniably shed light on some of the puzzles of human psychology. Of course this doesn't mean that natural selection explains everything about the human condition, or that we shouldn't be wary of attempts to use it as a cudgel against religion.

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that science and religion be considered "non-overlapping magisteria," each profiting from dialogue with the other. Many scientists have rejected this notion, arguing that science has nothing to gain from accommodating religion. Likewise, religious fundamentalists insist that divine truth supersedes empirical discovery.

Within the confines of the laboratory and the sanctuary, both attitudes might be reasonable. For society as a whole, though, they're not constructive. If Gould's idea were to be taken more seriously, the fear of Darwin and natural selection might go the way of Tiktaalik, without harming society thereby.

Mr. Shapiro is a researcher in neuroscience at Harvard.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Wings' Time-Lapse Evolution


Monday, May 1, 2006; A07

"What use is half a wing?"

That question was posed to Charles Darwin in 1871 by an evolution skeptic named St. George Jackson Mivart. It goes to the heart of the problem of "intermediate forms" in natural selection.

Wings did not appear all at once, ready to fly. They evolved slowly from simpler versions. Darwin's theory assumes flightless proto-wings must also have enhanced the survival of species, just as fully developed wings obviously do.

In a clever set of experiments, Kenneth P. Dial, a professor of biology at the University of Montana, and collaborators took on Mivart's question and found, in a word, that half-wings are extremely useful.

They studied chukar partridges -- birds that, like quail and pheasants, spend most of their time on the ground and are capable of short bursts of flight only. Chukar chicks can run within 12 hours of hatching. They flap their nearly naked wings soon after that. Over the next 70 days, their wings grow, feathers appear, and they learn to fly. Through that whole period, they run with wings flapping.

The Montana researchers reasoned that the two-month period between birth and adult flight is, in effect, evolution working like time-lapse photography. If they could understand how flightless wings help the growing chicks, they might understand how "half-wings" help evolving birds.

They found that chukar chicks -- and adult birds -- use their wings for something called "wing-assisted incline running."

Chukars seek higher ground when threatened. Flapping their wings increases the friction between their feet and the ground. This allows the chicks -- even when flightless -- to run up ever steeper slopes to safety. If the surface is rough enough, an adult chukar can run up a vertical wall, wing assisted.

The usefulness of changing wings is a "pathway of adaptive incremental stages that might have been exhibited by the lineage of feathered . . . dinosaurs attaining powered flight," the researchers wrote in the May issue of the journal BioScience.

-- David Brown

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Inside the autistic mind


New research, understanding lifting veil on mysterious condition

Sunday, May 7, 2006; Posted: 12:39 p.m. EDT (16:39 GMT)

Editor's note: The following is a summary of this week's Time magazine cover story.

Her parents, therapists, nutritionists and teachers had spent years preparing the way. They had moved mountains to improve her sense of balance, her sensory perception and her overall health. They sent in truckloads of occupational and physical therapy and emotional support.

But it wasn't until the fall of 2005 that traffic finally began to flow in the other direction.

Hannah, whose speech was limited to snatches of songs, echoed dialogue and unintelligible utterances, is profoundly autistic, and doctors thought she was most likely retarded.

But on that October day, after she was introduced to the use of a specialized computer keyboard, Hannah proved them wrong. "Is there anything you'd like to say, Hannah?" asked Marilyn Chadwick, director of training at the Facilitated Communication Institute at Syracuse University.

With Chadwick helping to stabilize her right wrist and her mother watching, a girl thought to be incapable of learning to read or write slowly typed, "I love Mom."

More than 60 years after autism was first described by American psychiatrist Leo Kanner, there are still more questions than answers about this complex disorder. But slowly, steadily, many myths about autism are falling away, and researchers are finding some surprises.

Autism is almost certainly, like cancer, many diseases with many distinct causes. It's well known that there's a wide range in the severity of symptoms --from profound disability to milder forms like Asperger syndrome, in which intellectual ability is generally high but social awareness is low.

Indeed, doctors now prefer the term Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD). But scientists suspect there are also distinct subtypes, including an early-onset type and a regressive type that can strike as late as age 2.

Once thought to be mainly a disease of the cerebellum, a region in the back of the brain that integrates sensory and motor activity, autism is increasingly seen as a pervasive problem with the way the brain is wired.

The distribution of white matter, the nerve fibers that link diverse parts of the brain, is abnormal, but it's not clear how much is the cause and how much the result of autism.

The immune system may play a critical role in the development of at least some types of autism. This suggests some new avenues of prevention and treatment.

Many classic symptoms of autism -- spinning, head banging, endlessly repeating phrases -- appear to be coping mechanisms rather than hard-wired behaviors. Other classic symptoms -- a lack of emotion, an inability to love --can now be largely dismissed as artifacts of impaired communication. The same may be true of the supposedly high incidence of mental retardation.

The world of autism therapy continues to be bombarded by cure-of-the-day fads. But therapists are beginning to sort out the best ways to intervene.

And while autism is generally a lifelong struggle, there are some reported cases in which kids who were identified as autistic and treated at an early age no longer exhibit symptoms.

Indeed, most researchers believe autism arises from a combination of genetic vulnerabilities and environmental triggers. An identical twin of a child with autism has a 60 percent to 90 percent chance of also being affected with the disorder. And the sibling of a child with autism has about a 10 percent chance of also having it.

Luckily for Hannah, her voice and thoughts are being heard.

Since learning to type, she has begun to speak a few words reliably -- "yes," "no" and the key word "I" -- to express her desires.

All this seems miraculous to her parents. "I was told to give up and get on with my life," says her mother. Now she and her husband are thinking about saving for college.

Copyright © 2006 Time Inc.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Federal Study Finds Accord on Warming

May 3, 2006


A scientific study commissioned by the Bush administration concluded yesterday that the lower atmosphere was indeed growing warmer and that there was "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system."

The finding eliminates a significant area of uncertainty in the debate over global warming, one that the administration has long cited as a rationale for proceeding cautiously on what it says would be costly limits on emissions of heat-trapping gases.

But White House officials noted that this was just the first of 21 assessments planned by the federal Climate Change Science Program, which was created by the administration in 2002 to address what it called unresolved questions. The officials said that while the new finding was important, the administration's policy remained focused on studying the remaining questions and using voluntary means to slow the growth in emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide.

The focus of the new federal study was conflicting records of atmospheric temperature trends.

For more than a decade, scientists using different methods had come up with differing rates of warming at Earth's surface and in the midsection of the atmosphere, called the troposphere. These disparities had been cited by a small group of scientists, and by the administration and its allies, to question a growing consensus among climatologists that warming from heat-trapping gases could dangerously heat Earth.

The new study found that "there is no longer a discrepancy in the rate of global average temperature increase for the surface compared with higher levels in the atmosphere," in the words of a news release issued by the Commerce Department and approved by the White House. The report was published yesterday online at climatescience.gov.

The report's authors all agreed that their review of the data showed that the atmosphere was, in fact, warming in ways that generally meshed with computer simulations. The study said that the only factor that could explain the measured warming of Earth's average temperature over the last 50 years was the buildup heat-trapping gases, which are mainly emitted by burning coal and oil.

All other industrial powers except Australia have accepted mandatory restrictions on such gases under the Kyoto Protocol, but efforts to extend and expand that treaty face hurdles.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that conducts an exhaustive periodic review of causes and impacts of warming, has just finished reviewing drafts of its next assessment, to be published next year.

Scientists involved in that effort, while refusing to comment on specific findings, said that research since the last assessment, in 2001, had generated much greater certainty that humans are the main force behind recent warming, and that much more warming is in store unless emissions are curtailed.

Michele St. Martin, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said, "We welcome today's report" and added that it showed that President Bush's decision to focus nearly $2 billion a year on climate monitoring and research was "working."

Thomas Karl, the director of the National Climatic Data Center in the Commerce Department and the lead editor of the report, said it was not simply a review of existing work but also, by forcing scientists with differing views to meet repeatedly, resulted in breakthroughs.

"The evidence continues to support a substantial human impact on global temperature increases," Dr. Karl said.

John R. Christy, an author of the new report whose analysis of satellite temperature records long showed little warming above Earth's surface, said he endorsed the conclusion that "part of what has happened over the last 50 years has clearly been caused by humans."

But Dr. Christy, who teaches at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, said the report also noted that computer simulations of the climate system, while good at replicating the globally averaged temperature changes, still strayed in projecting details, particularly in the tropics.

This implied that the models remained laden with uncertainties when used to study future trends, he said.

Dr. Christy also said that even given what the models projected, it would be impossible to slow warming noticeably in the coming decades. Countries would be wise to seek ways to adapt to warming, he added, even as they seek new sources of energy that do not emit heat-trapping gases.


'Darwin's evolutionary theory is a tottering nonsense, built on too many suppositions'


May 7, 2006


A charismatic Australian has materialised at the centre of national argument in Britain about the teaching of creationism, Annabel Crabb writes.

JOHN Mackay, 59, is a Queensland geologist who believes Earth to be about 6000 years old. In Australia, he's not exactly a household name. But in Britain and the United States, he's the Steve Irwin of the creationist movement - a sun-weathered fossil fan and larrikin whose way with words is proving a big hit with resurgent faith communities.

Britain's schools are now the subject of a renewed debate between science and religion; teachers have been campaigning in recent weeks for a ban on the teaching of the creation story, in response to the establishment of a new chain of faith colleges across Britain whose students are taught to question Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

The Royal Society - the world's most distinguished scientific club - has issued a stern statement decrying the creationists and defending the work of Darwin, who is among its most revered former members. "Young people are poorly served by deliberate attempts to withhold, distort or misrepresent scientific knowledge and understanding in order to promote particular religious beliefs," the society observed.

Into this storm has flown Mackay for a speaking tour scheduled to last more than a month. Thanks to the controversy, his every step is now dogged by the British media, even though he has been travelling the world as a speaker for almost two decades.

"A lot of the interest now has been generated by the humanist groups, who don't like me being here and stir up stories in the press," he says, when The Sun-Herald found him at the barbed wire-encrusted Kings Church in Birkenhead, Liverpool's notoriously rough neighbour.

Several hundred of the converted and the curious turned up to hear him speak, in an hour-long presentation peppered with PowerPoint fossil slides and drawled Aussie colloquialisms, and followed by tuna sandwiches.

Put simply, Mackay's belief - and it's one that is firmly entrenched in the US, where President George Bush advocates its ventilation in schools - is that Darwin's evolutionary theory is a tottering nonsense, built on too many suppositions and not enough evidence.

If so many species evolved from the shapeless creatures of the primordial slime, if people came from monkeys via frogs and fish, then why does the fossil record not contain a "fronkey"?

Mackay, who was originally educated as a geologist and devout Darwinist at the University of Queensland, experienced a conversion while working as a teacher and now tears down his former beliefs with the seamless enthusiasm of a zealot.

"Charles Darwin actually graduated in theology, which is a little-known, well-kept secret," he tells his audience. "He knew exactly what he was trying to disprove."

Mackay's version of events is this: God created the world in the course of six days, about 6000 years ago. Dinosaurs were part of the picture as well as humans ("You know your stories about St George slaying the dragon? Well, there is a possibility that some myths are based on truths!" he tells his Birkenhead crowd), but all were caught by the Great Flood inflicted by God about 2000 years later.

Noah, Mackay says, did take dinosaurs on the Ark ("probably baby ones"), but the dinosaurs did not survive long afterwards or at least never recovered their giant dimensions. "After the flood, there was a long winter," he says. "In that competition, the sad thing is that we won and they lost."

Mackay's central point is that the gaps in evolution theory are routinely treated as understandable absences, rather than as opportunities for an alternative. While evolutionary theory is dominant in British schools now, a Market and Opinion Research International poll of Britons taken in January this year on behalf of the BBC yielded almost near-American levels of support for the alternative; 44 per cent of respondents felt that the biblical version of events should be a part of the school curriculum.

And Prime Minister Tony Blair's new "city academies" scheme, where private benefactors are encouraged to sponsor new private schools and, in return, may influence the schools' structure and curriculum, has spawned a controversial new string of creationist colleges backed by Sir Peter Vardy, a wealthy evangelist and car salesman.

One of the most intriguing contributions to the debate was made last month by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who advised against the teaching of creationism, saying it reduced the Bible to the status of just another scientific theory.

Mackay is uncharacteristically biting in his criticism of this approach: "Most church leaders are political leaders. They know where their bread's buttered. As for the current archbishop - well, if he subscribes to creationism I guess he has a bit of a problem with his homosexual clergy, doesn't he?"

The archbishop's opposition, however, has been gentle compared with the roasting Mackay and his colleagues have had from teachers' groups and the National Secular Society (NSS).

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, has described the teaching of creationism as verging on "intellectual child abuse".

"Adults can make up their own minds whether they want to embrace science or anti-science, but where children are concerned we must be absolutely clear that creationism will not be presented to them as an alternative to real science," he says.

Nick Cowan, 54, is the head of chemistry at Liverpool's leading public school, Bluecoat. He is a creationist, and while his syllabus generally doesn't tangle with the big issues of where it all began, he says he slips in thought-provoking material whenever he can.

"If we're having a conversation about the old chicken-and-egg conundrum, for example, I'll say, 'Well, I believe God created the chicken, and the chicken laid the egg. What's your answer?"'

Cowan says the school knows where he stands, and he is yet to be challenged on his teaching style.

But he believes the increasing temperature of the debate will inevitably result in an intervention.

Once a parent complains, that will be it, he predicts.

Mackay tends to avoid excessive moralising in his lectures, sticking to a careful exposure of the gaps in evolutionary theory.

But he allows himself a quick burst at the end.

He says that when you teach people where they come from, they achieve a sense of who they are.

"If God didn't create Adam and Eve, then it's OK for Adam and Bruce to live together," he says. "I've been bold enough to tell people that God did create the world, and he will judge."

UFO study finds no sign of aliens


Mark Simpson BBC News

The 400-page report was kept secret for six years

A confidential Ministry of Defence report on Unidentified Flying Objects has concluded that there is no proof of alien life forms.

In spite of the secrecy surrounding the UFO study, it seems citizens of planet Earth have little to worry about.

The report, which was completed in 2000 and stamped "Secret: UK Eyes Only", has been made public for the first time.

Only a small number of copies were produced and the identity of the man who wrote it has been protected.

His findings were only made public thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, after a request by Sheffield Hallam University academic Dr David Clarke.

The four-year study - entitled Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK - tackles the long-running question by UFO-spotters: "Is anyone out there?"

The answer, it seems, is "no".

Meteors may have been responsible for some UFO sightings

The 400-page report puts it like this: "No evidence exists to suggest that the phenomena seen are hostile or under any type of control, other than that of natural physical forces."

It adds: "There is no evidence that 'solid' objects exist which could cause a collision hazard."

So if there are no such things as little green men in spaceships or flying saucers, why have so many people reported seeing them?

Well, here is the science bit.

"Evidence suggests that meteors and their well-known effects and, possibly some other less-known effects are responsible for some unidentified aerial phenomena," concludes the report.

"Considerable evidence exists to support the thesis that the events are almost certainly attributable to physical, electrical and magnetic phenomena in the atmosphere, mesosphere and ionosphere.

"They appear to originate due to more than one set of weather and electrically-charged conditions and are observed so infrequently as to make them unique to the majority of observers."

People who claim to have had a "close encounter" are often difficult to persuade that they did not really see what they thought they saw. The report offers a possible medical explanation.

"The close proximity of plasma related fields can adversely affect a vehicle or person," states the report.

"Local fields of this type have been medically proven to cause responses in the temporal lobes of the human brain. These result in the observer sustaining (and later describing and retaining) his or her own vivid, but mainly incorrect, description of what is experienced."

There are, of course, other causes of UFOs - aeroplanes with particularly bright lights, stray odd-shaped balloons and strange flocks of birds, to name but a few.

Future studies into this subject are unlikely

Yet, it will be difficult to convince everyone that there is a rational explanation for all mysterious movements in the sky.

Some UFO-spotters believe governments will always cover up the truth about UFOs, because they are afraid of admitting that there is something beyond their control.

It is not clear how much time and effort the MoD has spent looking at the skies in recent years, but it appears there are no plans for an in-depth UFO report like the one written in 2000.

A MoD spokesperson said: "Both this study and the original "Flying Saucer Working Party" [already in public domain in the national Archives] concluded that there is insufficient evidence to indicate the presence of any genuine unidentified aerial phenomena.

"It is unlikely that we would carry out any future studies unless such evidence were to emerge."

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