NTS LogoSkeptical News for 20 November 2006

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings


Monday, November 20, 2006

Leading Biochemistry Textbook Author: Pro-ID undergraduates "should never have [been] admitted"

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/11/author_of_leading_biochemistry.html

Parents and students beware: the author of a leading college biochemistry textbook believes that pro-intelligent design students are not smart and should not be admitted to college. Discussing the UCSD Robert Pennock lecture, UncommonDescent reports that Larry Moran, professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto and author of the widely used college biochemistry textbook, Principles of Biochemistry, thinks that UCSD should not have admit students who are pro-ID. In a post entitled, "Flunk the IDiots," Professor Moran wrote:

I agree with the Dembski sycophants that UCSD should not have required their uneducated students to attend remedial classes. Instead, they should never have admitted them in the first place. Having made that mistake, it's hopeless to expect that a single lecture—even one by a distinguished scholar like Robert Pennock—will have any effect. The University should just flunk the lot of them and make room for smart students who have a chance of benefiting from a high quality education.

(University of Toronto Biochemistry Professor Larry Moran, author of Principles of Biochemistry in "Flunk the IDiots")

It is also worth noting that Professor Moran called ID-proponents "IDiots" and "sycophants." A sycophant is "a self-seeking, servile flatterer; fawning parasite." This is the mindset and attitude of a leading biochemist who writes textbooks used by thousands of undergraduates.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 20, 2006 1:20 PM | Permalink

New Book - The Ultimate Truth by A. D. DeBruhl

http://ww.cydoniagroup.net/

Small aerodynamic devices powerful enough to end wars have been delivered to the Atlanta Offices of CNN and WSB Radio.

The "probe-like" devices displaying advanced science and technology were gifts from author A.D. DeBruhl. Their delivery was coordinated with the release of DeBruhl's book, The Ultimate Truth that marks the initiation of a campaign to bring scientific integrity and rational scientific thought to policy making.

To facilitate the work of the Cydonia Group, Founder A.D. DeBruhl published The Ultimate Truth: An Objective Commentary On Just About Everything. ISBN:1-59540-871-1

The release of DeBruhl's book marks the initiation of a campaign to bring scientific integrity and rational scientific thought to policy making.

Many of the most important issues currently being debated are fundamentally scientific in nature. Thus, the need for an improved public understanding of science and the way it affects our lives, is critical to social stability, equality, and global security.

Violence, greed, injustice, discrimination and corruption are fundamentally functions of biology, chemistry and physics. Increasing public awareness of a small set of critical scientific truths will minimize the effect of our natural unconscious genetic brain-chemistry driven competitive instincts.

This book represents DeBruhl's proposal for a "no politician, no voter and no parent left behind" campaign. The campaign calls for the establishment of a government entity to insure that no poli cy making or law enforcing official at the local, state or national level remain in office without being informed of and demonstrating a functional knowledge of critical social science, natural science and physical science concepts. To this end, the book proposes the development of weapons of mass education to facilitate the spread of interdisciplinary knowledge into popular culture and mainstream society.

DeBruhl's campaign spells the beginning of the end for popularity contest elections and arbitrary, often logically inconsistent feel-good legislation that wins elections without permanently solving problems.

One of the main goals of the Cydonia Group is to build partnerships and develop radically advanced technology that will allow them to identify and contain subversive religious threats and subversive corporate threats to science, reason, balance and equality. To this end they support the work of (RDFRS) Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, (AIAS) Myron Evans Alpha Institute for Advanced Study, (ADAS) Association of Distinguished American Scientists, The Sunlight Foundation, Jared Diamond, Thom Hartmann, Lawrence Krauss, Jamie Johnson, Noam Chomsky, Helen Fisher, Michio Kaku, Michael Moore, Randi Rhodes, Alec Baldwin, Angelina Jolie and Bill Maher.

A.D. DeBruhl has spent his life exploring major theories, discoveries, and advancements in physics, sociology, psychology, genomics, aerospace science computer science and military weapons technology. He is a man on an intellectual crusade, hoping to increase the quality of life for every man, woman and child through the spread of logical rational scientific thought and the development of radically new and different advanced technology.

Cydonia Group
5295 Hwy 78 Suite D-282
Stone Mountain, GA 30087
www.cydoniagroup.net
E-mail: addebruhl@cydoniagroup.net

MY GOD PROBLEM

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/angier06/angier06_index.html

By Natalie Angier

NATALIE ANGIER won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting as a science writer for The New York Times. She is the author of Natural Obsessions,The Beauty of the Beastly, Woman: An Intimate Geography, and the forthcoming The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.

Natalie Angier 's Edge Bio Page

In the course of reporting a book on the scientific canon and pestering hundreds of researchers at the nation's great universities about what they see as the essential vitamins and minerals of literacy in their particular disciplines, I have been hammered into a kind of twinkle-eyed cartoon coma by one recurring message. Whether they are biologists, geologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, or engineers, virtually all my sources topped their list of what they wish people understood about science with a plug for Darwin's dandy idea. Would you please tell the public, they implored, that evolution is for real? Would you please explain that the evidence for it is overwhelming and that an appreciation of evolution serves as the bedrock of our understanding of all life on this planet?

In other words, the scientists wanted me to do my bit to help fix the terrible little statistic they keep hearing about, the one indicating that many more Americans believe in angels, devils, and poltergeists than in evolution. According to recent polls, about 82 percent are convinced of the reality of heaven (and 63 percent think they're headed there after death); 51 percent believe in ghosts; but only 28 percent are swayed by the theory of evolution.

Scientists think this is terrible—the public's bizarre underappreciation of one of science's great and unshakable discoveries, how we and all we see came to be—and they're right. Yet I can't help feeling tetchy about the limits most of them put on their complaints. You see, they want to augment this particular figure—the number of people who believe in evolution—without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America's religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned.

No, most scientists are not interested in taking on any of the mighty cornerstones of Christianity. They complain about irrational thinking, they despise creationist "science," they roll their eyes over America's infatuation with astrology, telekinesis, spoon bending, reincarnation, and UFOs, but toward the bulk of the magic acts that have won the imprimatur of inclusion in the Bible, they are tolerant, respectful, big of tent. Indeed, many are quick to point out that the Catholic Church has endorsed the theory of evolution and that it sees no conflict between a belief in God and the divinity of Jesus and the notion of evolution by natural selection. If the pope is buying it, the reason for most Americans' resistance to evolution must have less to do with religion than with a lousy advertising campaign.

So, on the issue of mainstream monotheistic religions and the irrationality behind many of religion's core tenets, scientists often set aside their skewers, their snark, and their impatient demand for proof, and instead don the calming cardigan of a a kiddie-show host on public television. They reassure the public that religion and science are not at odds with one another, but rather that they represent separate "magisteria," in the words of the formerly alive and even more formerly scrappy Stephen Jay Gould. Nobody is going to ask people to give up their faith, their belief in an everlasting soul accompanied by an immortal memory of every soccer game their kids won, every moment they spent playing fetch with the dog. Nobody is going to mock you for your religious beliefs. Well, we might if you base your life decisions on the advice of a Ouija board; but if you want to believe that someday you'll be seated at a celestial banquet with your long-dead father to your right and Jane Austen to your left-and that she'll want to talk to you for another hundred million years or more—that's your private reliquary, and we're not here to jimmy the lock.

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions." He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of "God intervening every time a measurement occurs" before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn't—and shouldn't—"have anything to do with scientific reasoning."

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary." Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science "one does not need a reason not to believe in something." Skepticism is "the default position" and "one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence."

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry. You, the religious believer, may well find subtle support for your faith in recent discoveries—that is, if you're willing to upgrade your metaphors and definitions as the latest data demand, seek out new niches of ignorance or ambiguity to fill with the goose down of faith, and accept that, certain passages of the Old Testament notwithstanding, the world is very old, not everything in nature was made in a week, and (can you turn up the mike here, please?) Evolution Happens.

And if you don't find substantiation for your preferred divinity or your most cherished rendering of the afterlife somewhere in the sprawling emporium of science, that's fine, too. No need to lose faith when you were looking in the wrong place to begin with. Science can't tell you whether God exists or where you go when you die. Science cannot definitively rule out the heaven option, with its helium balloons and Breck hair for all. Science in no way wants to be associated with terrifying thoughts, like the possibility that the pericentury of consciousness granted you by the convoluted, gelatinous, and transient organ in your skull just may be the whole story of you-dom. Science isn't arrogant. Science trades in the observable universe and testable hypotheses. Religion gets the midnight panic fêtes. But you've heard about evolution, right?

So why is it that most scientists avoid criticizing religion even as they decry the supernatural mind-set? For starters, some researchers are themselves traditionally devout, keeping a kosher kitchen or taking Communion each Sunday. I admit I'm surprised whenever I encounter a religious scientist. How can a bench-hazed Ph. D., who might in an afternoon deftly purée a colleague's PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like "Resurrection from the Dead," and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn't the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?

Scientists, however, are a far less religious lot than the American population, and, the higher you go on the cerebro-magisterium, the greater the proportion of atheists, agnostics, and assorted other paganites. According to a 1998 survey published in Nature, only 7 percent of members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences professed a belief in a "personal God." (Interestingly, a slightly higher number, 7.9 percent, claimed to believe in "personal immortality," which may say as much about the robustness of the scientific ego as about anything else.) In other words, more than 90 percent of our elite scientists are unlikely to pray for divine favoritism, no matter how badly they want to beat a competitor to publication. Yet only a flaskful of the faithless have put their nonbelief on record or publicly criticized religion, the notable and voluble exceptions being Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and

Daniel Dennett of Tufts University. Nor have Dawkins and Dennett earned much good will among their colleagues for their anticlerical views; one astronomer I spoke with said of Dawkins, "He's a really fine parish preacher of the fire-and-brimstone school, isn't he?"

So, what keeps most scientists quiet about religion? It's probably something close to that trusty old limbic reflex called "an instinct for self-preservation." For centuries, science has survived quite nicely by cultivating an image of reserve and objectivity, of being above religion, politics, business, table manners. Scientists want to be left alone to do their work, dazzle their peers, and hire grad students to wash the glassware. When it comes to extramural combat, scientists choose their crusades cautiously. Going after Uri Geller or the Ra'lians is risk-free entertainment, easier than making fun of the sociology department. Battling the creationist camp has been a much harder and nastier fight, but those scientists who have taken it on feel they have a direct stake in the debate and are entitled to wage it, since the creationists, and more recently the promoters of "intelligent design" theory, claim to be as scientific in their methodology as are the scientists.

But when a teenager named Darrell Lambert was chucked out of the Boy Scouts for being an atheist, scientists suddenly remembered all those gels they had to run and dark matter they had to chase, and they kept quiet. Lambert had explained the reason why, despite a childhood spent in Bible classes and church youth groups, he had become an atheist. He took biology in ninth grade, and, rather than devoting himself to studying the bra outline of the girl sitting in front of him, he actually learned some biology. And what he learned in biology persuaded him that the Bible was full of . . . short stories. Some good, some inspiring, some even racy, but fiction nonetheless. For his incisive, reasoned, scientific look at life, and for refusing to cook the data and simply lie to the Boy Scouts about his thoughts on God—as some advised him to do—Darrell Lambert should have earned a standing ovation from the entire scientific community. Instead, he had to settle for an interview with Connie Chung, right after a report on the Gambino family.

Scientists have ample cause to feel they must avoid being viewed as irreligious, a prionic life-form bent on destroying the most sacred heifer in America. After all, academic researchers graze on taxpayer pastures. If they pay the slightest attention to the news, they've surely noticed the escalating readiness of conservative politicians and an array of highly motivated religious organizations to interfere with the nation's scientific enterprise—altering the consumer information Web site at the National Cancer Institute to make abortion look like a cause of breast cancer, which it is not, or stuffing scientific advisory panels with anti-abortion "faith healers."

Recently, an obscure little club called the Traditional Values Coalition began combing through descriptions of projects supported by the National Institutes of Health and complaining to sympathetic congressmen about those they deemed morally "rotten," most of them studies of sexual behavior and AIDS prevention. The congressmen in turn launched a series of hearings, calling in institute officials to inquire who in the Cotton-pickin' name of Mather cares about the perversions of Native American homosexuals, to which the researchers replied, um, the studies were approved by a panel of scientific experts, and, gee, the Native American community has been underserved and is having a real problem with AIDS these days. Thus far, the projects have escaped being nullified, but the raw display of pious dentition must surely give fright to even the most rakishly freethinking and comfortably tenured professor. It's one thing to monkey with descriptions of Darwinism in a high-school textbook. But to threaten to take away a peer-reviewed grant! That Dan Dennett; he is something of a pompous leafblower, isn't he?

Yet the result of wincing and capitulating is a fresh round of whacks. Now it's not enough for presidential aspirants to make passing reference to their "faith." Now a reporter from Newsweek sees it as his privilege, if not his duty, to demand of Howard Dean, "Do you see Jesus Christ as the son of God and believe in him as the route to salvation and eternal life?" In my personal fairy tale, Dean, who as a doctor fits somewhere in the phylum Scientificus, might have boomed, "Well, with his views on camels and rich people, he sure wouldn't vote Republican!" or maybe, "No, but I hear he has a Mel Gibson complex." Dr. Dean might have talked about patients of his who suffered strokes and lost the very fabric of themselves and how he has seen the centrality of the brain to the sense of being an individual. He might have expressed doubts that the self survives the brain, but, oh yes, life goes on, life is bigger, stronger, and better endowed than any Bush in a jumpsuit, and we are part of the wild, tumbling river of life, our molecules were the molecules of dinosaurs and before that of stars, and this is not Bulfinch mythology, this is corroborated reality.

Alas for my phantasm of fact, Howard Dean, M. D., had no choice but to chime, oh yes, he certainly sees Jesus as the son of God, though he at least dodged the eternal life clause with a humble mumble about his salvation not being up to him.

I may be an atheist, and I may be impressed that, through the stepwise rigor of science, its Spockian eyebrow of doubt always cocked, we have learned so much about the universe. Yet I recognize that, from there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere. Why is there so much dark matter and dark energy in the great Out There, and why couldn't cosmologists have given them different enough names so I could keep them straight? Why is there something rather than nothing, and why is so much of it on my desk? Not to mention the abiding mysteries of e-mail, like why I get exponentially more spam every day, nine-tenths of it invitations to enlarge an appendage I don't have.

I recognize that science doesn't have all the answers and doesn't pretend to, and that's one of the things I love about it. But it has a pretty good notion of what's probable or possible, and virgin births and carpenter rebirths just aren't on the list. Is there a divine intelligence, separate from the universe but somehow in charge of the universe, either in its inception or in twiddling its parameters? No evidence. Is the universe itself God? Is the universe aware of itself? We're here. We're aware. Does that make us God? Will my daughter have to attend a Quaker Friends school now?

I don't believe in life after death, but I'd like to believe in life before death. I'd like to think that one of these days we'll leave superstition and delusional thinking and Jerry Falwell behind. Scientists would like that, too. But for now, they like their grants even more.

Copyright © 2006 By Edge Foundation, Inc


Sunday, November 19, 2006

National Geographic Evolution Article Discusses Evidence that Supports Intelligent Design (Part II)

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/11/national_geographics_evolution.html#more

In Part I, I discussed how Carl Zimmer's recent article, "From Fins to Wings," in National Geographic quoted a biologist in a fashion that sounded like an advertisement for evolution. While the article obviously was not pro-ID, it ironically discussed much evidence which ID-proponents often contend supports intelligent design. This segment of the 3-part response will discuss evidence for design from "conservation" in developmental genes.

Evolutionarily Conserved Genes or Common Design?

"From Fins to Wings" discusses many examples of similar genes controlling similar developmental processes in widely different organisms. ID-proponents have taken this re-usage of genetic coding components as indicative of common design. Pro-ID scientist Mike Gene has noted that we have to be careful when advancing arguments about common design:

I am reluctant to advance the old thesis of common design because of its nasty ad hoc flavor. Nevertheless, we are exploring the world through the Design Matrix and I simply cannot subscribe to the notion that a designer would always reinvent the wheel every time a machine is invented.

(Common Design by Mike Gene)

Gene's statement seems fair. In my view, the case for common design becomes much stronger when one finds genetic similarity expressed in the fundamental programs of many species, in places perhaps unexpected by common descent. Thus the National Geographic article reports:

The genes responsible for laying out the fly's body plan have nearly identical counterparts in many other animals, ranging from crabs to earthworms to lampreys to us. The discovery came as a surprise, since these animals have such differently looking bodies. But "the discovery" should come as no surprise to anyone who recognizes that designers often re-use parts that work in different designs. Other examples discussed in the article which ID-proponents might argue imply common design include:

Designer Analogies

Sean Carroll is quoted in the National Geographic article noting that animal development entails "variations on a theme." But the "variations on a theme" metaphor is most applicable to an intelligent composer reusing basic music segments with slight variations to design beautiful music. Similarly, the article quotes Todd Oakley saying, "It's like remodeling a house. You don't have to start from scratch; you just change certain elements." While Carroll and Oakley are staunch evolutionists, in light of Mike Gene's comments above, composers and construction engineers are interesting choices of analogy: both are intelligent agents.

How easy is it to remodel a house through a blind, random process? The article glosses over some difficulties faced by blind evolution of developmental genes recognized in other places. These difficulties were discussed in an earlier Time magazine article:

The drawback for scientists is that nature's shrewd economy conceals enormous complexity. Researchers are finding evidence that the Hox genes and the non-Hox homeobox genes are not independent agents but members of vast genetic networks that connect hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other genes. Change one component, and myriad others will change as well—and not necessarily for the better. Thus dreams of tinkering with nature's toolbox to bring to life what scientists call a "hopeful monster"— such as a fish with feet—are likely to remain elusive.

(Where Do Toes Come From?)

Where are the detailed step-by-step explanations of how evolution "tinkered" with genes so as to create functional advantages and functional intermediates while "remodeling" species? Zimmer provides none. Successful "remodeling," it would seem, inherently implicates intelligent design.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 15, 2006 10:50 AM | Permalink

National Geographic Evolution Article Discusses Evidence that Supports Intelligent Design (Part III)

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/11/national_geographic_evolution.html

This final installment of the response to National Geographic's recent evolution article will discuss both Carl Zimmer's scientific arguments regarding the evolution of the eye, and his theological arguments which he uses to claim the eye was not designed. Before Zimmer discussed "conservation" among genes controlling eye development in widely different types of eyes (reminiscent of common design), he does some blocking by using theological arguments against eye design. Up to this point, Zimmer avoided typical evolutionary icons, but once he started to make the dysteleological argument that the eye is "far from perfect," he slipped into classical Darwinist iconography.

Zimmer cites 3 lines of evidence which he thinks count against design of the vertebrate eye: (1) our retinas may become detached after "a sharp punch to the head"; (2) light-gathering cells point inward, not outward towards the light; (3) the optic nerve creates a blind spot because it starts in front of the retina before going into the brain. Based on this evidence, Zimmer concludes that "[e]volution, with all its blunders, made the eye."

Zimmer's argument is based upon 2 fallacies: (a) that "imperfect" or "suboptimal" design implies no design, and (b) that the eye has an obviously suboptimal design.

(a) Firstly, Zimmer's claim that an eye is not designed because our retinas may become detached after "a sharp punch to the head" is not a scientific argument: intelligent design doesn't require "perfection," nor does it require that a system always survive malicious physical attacks. Was the Ford Pinto, with all its imperfections revealed in crash tests, not designed?

Zimmer thus presents a straw-man argument against intelligent design, based upon his view that a designer must design things to withstand a certain type of malicious physical attack. This is not a scientific objection, but a theological objection. As a scientific theory, intelligent design does not require that systems always survive malicious physical beatings: as a science, ID requires the detection of specified complexity, and the moral purposes of the designer or the "perfection" of the design are irrelevant when determining whether an object was designed. But Carl Zimmer's personal theological views have no bearing upon the science of intelligent design. A more interesting question is, Why has National Geographic become a mouthpiece for a view of theology that states that a designer must design things to withstand certain types of physical attacks?

(b) Secondly, the design of the eye actually isn't inefficient, refuting this tired icon. Both the presence of the blind-spot and the inward orientation of light-recepting cells—cited by Zimmer as evidence against "perfection"—are actually the result of an eye design which appears very optimizal for high visual acuity. George Ayoub explains why vertebrate eye design does not even appear to be suboptimal:

It has been commonly claimed that the vertebrate eye is functionally suboptimal, because photoreceptors in the retina are oriented away from incoming light. However, there are excellent functional reasons for vertebrate photoreceptors to be oriented as they are. Photoreceptor structure and function is maintained by a critical tissue, the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), which recycles photopigments, removes spent outer segments of the photoreceptors, provides an opaque layer to absorb excess light, and performs additional functions. These aspects of the structure and function of the vertebrate eye have been ignored in evolutionary arguments about suboptimality, yet they are essential for understanding how the eye works.

[...]

[I]ndeed, our thought experiment has taken the vertebrate eye rapidly downhill. In trying to eliminate the blind spot, we have generated a host of new and more severe functional problems to solve. Our "repair" seems far worse than the apparent flaw we wanted to fix.

(George Ayoub, "On the Design of the Vertebrate Retina," Origins & Design 17:1; read the full article to get an appreciation for the argument)

Carl Zimmer's dysteleological argument makes inappropriate theological assumptions that a designer must make things to withstand certain physical attacks. The argument also makes inappropriate scientific assumptions which assumes that the presence of the "blind spot" implies suboptimal design. Both assumptions are false. It's time to put to rest the evolutionary icon of "poor design of the eye's retina." Just like the panda's thumb, the vertebrate eye functions quite well.

Eye - Carumba

Carl Zimmer does make one scientific argument about the eye. His article has a diagram showing various types of eyes, asserting that the gradations of extant eye types imply that step-wise evolution of the eye is possible. This type of diagram is common among ID-critics, and it is almost becoming an icon in-and-of itself. It brings to mind an excellent passage from Thomas Woodward's new book Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design:

I once asked the renowned Princeton biologist John Tyler Bonner how he would explain the macroevolution of such complex organs. In response, he directed me to George Gaylord Simpson's book, The Meaning of Evolution. Simpson's answer--looking at a suggestive sequence or gradation of different eyes, from simple to complex--was not much advanced on Darwin's. Do we really know that natural selection can accomplish the drastic morphological transitions between these different types of eyes, with all the knitting and organizing of new complex proteins? (Thomas Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back (Baker, 2006))

Thank you for reading this series of responses. Readers with questions or comments may contact me at cluskin@discovery.org.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 18, 2006 7:52 PM | Permalink

Evolution: Who Gave Us Our Smarts?

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15784772/site/newsweek/

Newsweek

Nov. 27, 2006 issue - Neanderthals, the extinct cousins of Homo sapiens who once populated much of Europe and western Asia, were in the news again last week, as the audacious project to sequence DNA from a 38,000-year-old fossil bone showed its first results. One team, headed by Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, reported in the journal Nature that it had succeeded in sequencing the first million units of Neanderthal DNA, out of a total of about 3 billion. A parallel effort, led by Edward Rubin of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and published in Science, had found about 65,000 units, using a technology that targets DNA of particular interest. Eventually the project could help answer questions such as whether Neanderthals could speak, but the papers last week mostly confirmed what anthropologists already suspected: that the human and Neanderthal lines of descent began to separate about 700,000 years ago and diverged permanently about 330,000 years later. Rubin found no evidence that Neanderthals, who inhabited the same parts of the world as humans for thousands of years, ever bred with them.

Meanwhile, a team led by Bruce Lahn of the University of Chicago has been investigating a human gene called microcephalin. A statistical analysis of mutations in this gene indicates that its most common form (or allele) evolved as long as 1.1 million years ago, was carried for most of that time by a different hominid species and then was reintroduced into the human population—conceivably even by a single mating—some 37,000 years ago. That's about the time that modern humans, coming from Africa, were replacing Neanderthals in Europe. Whatever that allele does, it must have conveyed a very strong evolutionary advantage, because from that single event of what geneticists politely call "introgression" it spread to 70 percent of the human population today.

And what might that advantage have been? We don't know yet. The gene is known to control brain growth, and Lahn says the crucial factor could have been anything from changing head size to make childbirth less risky, to improving energy efficiency in the brain. But one obvious possibility is that, perhaps in combination with genes that humans already possessed, it made them smarter. "I don't buy the stereotype that Neanderthals were dumb," says Henry Harpending, a leading researcher on the genetics of intelligence. "Modern humans came into Europe and encountered Neanderthals and within a few thousand years were making glorious cave paintings, figurines and art. About the same time they show up in Australia [where there were no Neanderthals], and there's not a trace of that." Lahn has no direct evidence that it was Neanderthals who carried the crucial gene, and Paabo and Rubin haven't found it yet in their fossil DNA. So it's still "far out," Harpending admits, but civilization could have gotten its start in an act of "introgression" with another species.

—Jerry Adler

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Tumor environment promotes evolution

http://news.monstersandcritics.com/health/article_1223413.php/Tumor_environment_promotes_evolution

Nov 18, 2006, 4:01 GMT

PHILADELPHIA, PA, United States (UPI) -- The theory of evolution plays well within the environment of a cancerous tumor, researchers in Philadelphia said.

'A tumor cell population is constantly evolving through natural selection,' said Carlo Maley, an assistant professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program at Wistar Institute, and senior author of the review. 'The mutations that benefit the survival and reproduction of cells in a tumor are the things that drive it towards malignancy.'

Maley said in a news release evolution also drives a cancer cell`s resistance to therapies.

He said the three conditions necessary for natural selection to occur are present in a population of tumor cells.

The first requirement, variation in the population, is evident in tumors, which are made up of mutant genes. The second condition, heritable variation, can be seen when mutant tumor cells divide to replicate, the subsequent cells share the same mutations.

The third condition, that variation must affect fitness, is present because all characteristics considered hallmarks of cancer affect fitness.

Because evolution occurs in the tumor, Maley said doctors should 'think about how we might want to influence that evolution. Can we push it down paths that might be more beneficial to us?'

Copyright 2006 by United Press International

Evolution moves more quickly than scientists thought

http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/news/nation/16047509.htm

Posted on Sat, Nov. 18, 2006 By Eric Hand

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS - Evolution happens. But it can also stop and turn on a dime.

A new study of lizards in the Bahamas shows that the natural selection pressures that drive evolution can flip-flop faster than previously thought - even in months.

"Darwin was right about so many things," said Jonathan Losos, a former Washington University biologist who led the study. "In this case he was wrong. He thought that evolution must occur slowly and gradually."

The lizards and their changing leg lengths are yet another case of evolution occurring in real time. From finches that evolve longer beaks in a few years to bacteria that adapt to strange feeding regimens in days, evolution, as a science, has leapt out of musty museums and into the field.

Scientists say that, from a political perspective, the cases offer a vivid reminder of the continuous process that some people imagine proceeding only in fossilized fits and starts: First monkey, then man.

But for the scientists themselves, the cases show that evolutionary biology has, well, evolved into a predictive, experimental science like any other.

Losos had the perfect Petri dishes: 12 tiny islands in the Bahamas with small populations of insect-eating Anolis sagrei, six-inch long lizards that normally live on the ground but can adapt to life in trees.

On six of the islands, Losos introduced a predator, a large curly-tailed lizard that can gobble up the lizards. He theorized that at first, the fastest prey would survive as they ran for the trees. Natural selection would reward long legs. Then, as the little lizards adapted to life in trees, nimble twig maneuvers and shorter legs would be rewarded.

At the start of the experiment, the scientists, using dental floss nooses on the ends of 10-foot poles, caught all lizards and carefully measured their hind-limbs. After the first six months, their predictions held up. The average leg length of survivors was 2 percent longer than those that were killed. After a year, leg length was 3 percent shorter. The changes were small in absolute terms but statistically very large, said R. Brian Langerhans, a graduate student with Losos.

The study appeared Friday in the journal Science. Losos did the research while at Washington University, but left for Harvard University in June.

The lizard study echoes one of the classic cases of evolution-in-action: Darwin's finches on the Galapagos Islands. For more than 30 years, Princeton University biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have measured changes in the finches' beaks. After extended droughts, small seeds became more scarce. In a few years, the finches evolved longer beaks to crack the larger, tough seeds that remained. Then as more plentiful times returned, the bird beaks got smaller again.

At Michigan State University, Richard Lenski is studying evolution in test tubes. For almost 20 years, he has reared 12 colonies of E. coli. They have divided more than 30,000 times - which, in terms of human generations, is longer than Homo sapiens has been around. Lenski has challenged the bacteria with strange feeding patterns - feeding them sugars, then starving them.

The colonies all adapted, quickly. But they used different genetic tricks to get there. Their DNA is now remarkably different: an example of parallel evolution.

It's difficult to know how an organism will adapt, and also how subtle environmental changes will kick evolution off in a striking new direction, said Ken Petron, a University of Cincinnati ecologist who worked with the Grants on their finches.

For example, on one trip to the Galapagos during a time of seed scarcity, the Grants expected to find the trend toward larger beaks. But a new, larger finch had colonized the island and was eating the larger seeds, Petron said. It was no longer an advantage for the smaller finches to grow larger beaks.

"It's very difficult to predict the outcome of evolution before it happens," he said.

But if biologists can get better at predicting evolution, it could have applications for areas in which humans are altering the environment and causing evolutionary pressures themselves, Langerhans said. Stanford University ecologist Stephen Palumbi has estimated a $50 billion "evolution bill" associated with the antibiotic and pesticide resistance that bacteria, weeds and insects have evolved in medicine and agriculture.

Had the experiment continued, Losos expected the lizard legs to get even shorter with successive generations. But two hurricanes in quick succession submerged the little islands. "All the living lizards were washed away. Bummer," Losos said.

Some eggs survived, however, and hatchling populations are growing. Losos plans to start the experiment over.

© 2006, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Evolution evidence preposterous

http://www.greeleytrib.com/article/20061118/READERS/111180091

Guest Commentary November 18, 2006

Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister during the 1870s, reportedly said, "Lies, damned lies," when describing the nature of British politics. As we all should know, his description of politics is even more apropos today, especially American politics. Indeed, "lies, damned lies" describes the entire structure of American culture (can you say advertising).

For example, not only has the American scientific community accepted as fact the absurdly long ages of evolution and its preposterous origins hypothesis of all life evolving (mutating) from a primordial slime, but also the world's scientific community has blindly accepted the lie. Despite more than overwhelming evidence to the contrary, textbooks, newspapers, magazines, and PBS still doggedly maintain that the Earth evolved through purely natural processes and is some 4.5 billion years old. Even more astounding, the scientific community claims that the universe could be on the order of 15 billion years old!

Supposedly, these incredible numbers are based on the constant rate of radioisotope decay and on the fanciful notion that today's physical phenomena provide a window on their past. However, the authors of "Radioisotopes and The Age of The Earth" have found huge discrepancies in the accepted methods of radioisotopes dating -- discordances of millions of years from the same rock or mineral sample. What's more, these guys have discovered Carbon 14 and Helium in "ancient" rocks where these elements should not exist according to evolutionary uniformitarianism. But what is extremely fascinating is the authors' working hypothesis: Radioisotopes underwent an accelerated decay during the Creation Week and during the Flood, which yields a very young age for the Earth (6,000-8,000 years).

As the result of accepting and/or tolerating this fundamental lie of origins, our culture has declined, at an accelerating rate, into a cesspool of corruption. Thus the rise and toleration of such horrific practices as abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and civilian slaughter in wars not fought to defend anything, but to erect a new world order (world government) plague our culture.

The lie of evolution has also contributed to the rise of such pseudoscience as environmentalism and psychology. Worse, the lie of evolution has reduced the image of man to that of an animal (reinforced by psycho-babble and psychotropic pharmaceuticals). Therefore, if a human being is just another animal roaming the planet in the ages old game of survival of the fittest, it follows that a human is no smarter, no wiser, and certainly no more morally compelled than a dog, a snake, or an amoeba. Indeed, there are organizations that claim human beings are inferior to other animals!

As I have noted before, the lie of evolution greatly contributed to the rise of 20th century totalitarianism. This evil is usually described in textbooks as communism, fascism, and Nazism. These totalitarian ideologies and their evil practitioners are responsible for the slaughter of over 151 million people -- this number doesn't include war fatalities. After all, if a human being is just another animal who has managed to overpopulate in the game of survival of the fittest, then it is only logical to reduce its population from time to time -- like rabbits or prairie dogs.

The Old Testament Book of Isaiah (3:12) warns that a nation is under God's judgment when children oppress their parents and women rule over men. There is no doubt that our nation is under judgment.

R.P. Adamson Jr. was born, raised and educated in Greeley. He is in the drywall business.

Papal science advisers plan study of evolution

http://www.lowellsun.com/religion/ci_4684654

The Lowell Sun

Article Last Updated:11/18/2006 06:32:32 AM EST

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Scientists advising Pope Benedict XVI told the pontiff that they will study scientific insights into evolution, reflecting his special interest in the subject.

Nicola Cabibbo, a physics professor at Rome's La Sapienza University and president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said in a speech to the pope that academy members shared the pontiff's view that "faith and reason need to come together in a new way."

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul, told the academy in 1996 that Charles Darwin's theories on evolution were sound as long as they took into account that creation was the work of God and that Darwin's theory of evolution was "more than a hypothesis."

Evolution has come under fire in recent years by proponents of intelligent design who believe that living organisms are so complex they must have been created by a higher force rather than evolving from more primitive forms. In the United States, supporters of both camps have often clashed over what students should be taught in public schools.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Evolution education update: November 17, 2006

The Episcopal Church of Missouri issues a statement against teaching "intelligent design" in the science classroom. Meanwhile, NCSE is pleased to announce the addition of three new staff members, and Not in Our Classrooms continues to garner praise.

MISSOURI EPISCOPALIANS SAY NO TO "INTELLIGENT DESIGN"

During its November 10-11, 2006, meeting, the 167th convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri adopted a resolution opposing the teaching of "intelligent design" in the public schools. According to the resolution, the convention "strongly affirms our belief in the Creator God, but nevertheless also strongly recommends that if 'intelligent design' is taught in Missouri, it should be taught in a religious context and in a religious setting, and it should not be mandated as an official part of the public school science curriculum in the state of Missouri." The appended rationale explains, "The intent of this resolution is to resist the introduction of religion into the science curriculum of our public schools and to maintain the separation of church and state."

In the last few years, four antievolution bills were introduced in the Missouri legislature. In 2003, House Bills 911 and 1722 called for equal time for "intelligent design"; in 2004, House Bill 35 called for biology textbooks used in the state to contain "a critical analysis of origins"; and in 2006, House Bill 1266 called for "critical analysis" of any "theory or hypothesis of biological origins" to be presented in a science class. All of these bills died, but HB 35 received a committee hearing, and HB 1266 was passed by a 7-6 vote by committee. As in the past, NCSE will monitor creationist encroachments on public education in the Show Me state, as will groups such as the grassroots pro-science group Missouri Citizens for Science.

For the resolution from the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, visit:
http://www.missouri.anglican.org/resolutions167.htm#B-167

For the website of Missouri Citizens for Science, visit:
http://www.moscience.org/

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Missouri, visit:
http://www.ncseweb.org/pressroom.asp?state=MO

NCSE ADDS NEW STAFF

Many hands make light work, as the saying goes, and so NCSE is pleased to announce the addition of three new members of its staff.

NCSE possesses a unique trove of material on the creationism/evolution controversy, and we regard it as part of our mission to preserve it for posterity -- as well as for occasions such as Kitzmiller v. Dover, where NCSE's archives helped to establish the creationist antecedents of the "intelligent design" movement. Replacing Jessica Moran as the Archives Project Director is Charles Hargrove, who comes to NCSE after stints at the Bancroft Library, the Japanese American National Library, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives. He earned his master's degree in library and information sciences at the University of Texas, Austin, where he also earned a master's degree in archaeology. He is hard at work cataloging, organizing, and expanding NCSE's copious collection of books, periodicals, articles, correspondence, and ephemera relating to the creationism/evolution controversy. If you have any materials that you would like to donate to NCSEs archives, or if you would like to use the collections, feel free to get in touch with him.

Louise S. Mead is NCSE's new Education Project Director. We have long wanted to have a staff member to concentrate on outreach to the educational community, and Mead fits the bill excellently. After teaching science at the high school level in Connecticut, Mead earned her Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research interests include understanding the evolutionary processes that create and maintain biological diversity, specifically, how sexual selection shapes patterns of evolutionary change and influences the evolution of sexual isolation and speciation. After post-doctoral fellowships at Oregon State University and the University of California, Davis, and papers in journals such as Evolution, Ethology, and Trends in Ecology and Evolution, she joined NCSE, where she will be developing materials pertaining to evolution education, representing NCSE to the education community, speaking to the press about issues involving evolution education and challenges to it, and counseling teachers and others facing challenges to evolution education.

Finally, Peter M. J. Hess is NCSE's new Faith Project Director, replacing Phina Borgeson, who occupied the same post on a part-time basis. Hess comes to NCSE from the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, where he administered a number of science/religion programs as well as authoring a number of scholarly papers; his book Catholicism and the Sciences in the Modern World, 1400-2000, co-authored with Paul Allen, is to be published by Greenwood Press in 2007. He earned his Ph.D. at the Graduate Union Theology Seminary in 1993, with a dissertation on Nature and the Existence of God in English Natural Theology from Hooker to Paley, 1596-1802, taught at a number of colleges and universities in the San Francisco Bay area, and is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion. At NCSE, he will be in charge of developing outreach programs to and educational resources for the faith community, with the goal of fostering a constructive engagement with evolution.

Welcome to all three.

PRAISE FOR NOT IN OUR CLASSROOMS

On the heels of appreciative reviews in Library Journal and Booklist, Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools just received a favorable assessment in the November/December 2006 issue of Teacher magazine. In his review, Howard Good writes, "Although many may not realize it, we are in the midst of a struggle to preserve sound science education. A recent survey by the National Science Teachers Assoication found that 30 percent of responding members had felt pressure to omit evolution and related topics from their teaching, while 31 percent had felt pressure to include nonscientific alternatives to evolution. It is crucial to resist such pressure, whether it comes from parents, community groups, administrators, or school board members. Reading this book is a good start."

Not in Our Classrooms was edited by NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott and deputy director Glenn Branch, and contains essays by them as well as by Nicholas J. Matzke (also of NCSE) and Paul R. Gross, Martinez Hewlett and Ted Peters, Jay D. Wexler, and Brian Alters. The foreword was contributed by the Reverend Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Praising the book, Bill Nye the Science Guy wrote, "If you're concerned about scientifc literacy, read this book. The authors of Not in Our Classrooms are authorities on the various battles fought over the teaching of evolution -- biology's fundamental discovery." If you order your copy now from Beacon Press, you receive a 10% discount -- just enter NCSE in the discount code field.

For the review in Teacher magazine, visit:
http://www.teachermagazine.org/tm/articles/2006/12/01/03books-2.h18.html

For information about Not in Our Classrooms, visit:
http://www.ncseweb.org/nioc

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.

Sincerely,

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
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://www.ncseweb.org

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools http://www.ncseweb.org/nioc

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

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today! http://www.ncseweb.org/membership.asp

Aftermath of Robert Pennock's Talk

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/11/aftermath_of_robert_pennocks_t.html

On Tuesday, I reported that the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) required all freshmen to attend an anti-ID lecture by Robert Pennock. Apparently it was a packed house in the 5000-seat RIMAC arena, illustrating that thousands of freshmen did attend (as they were required). In my prior post I noted that that Pennock's "arguments are fairly standard misrepresentations of intelligent design" and tried to make "educated predictions about Pennock will say." I know many pro-ID people were in the audience. One friend contacted me and confirmed that most of my predictions about Pennock's arguments were correct. Pennock made the following arguments, as I predicted:

Wrongly claimed ID appeals to the supernatural;

Misquoted ID proponents about the nature of intelligent design (for example, he apparently misquoted William Dembski, taking the Logos quote out of context);

Attacked ID-proponents for being religious (while obviously ignoring the anti-religious views of some leading Darwinists);

Made much ado about religious motives and the "Wedge Document" (while apparently not discussing anti-religious motives of ID-critics nor the scientific goals stated in the "Wedge document");

Claimed all of this made ID unscientific and unconstitutional, ignoring the Principle of Methodological Equivalence for ID and Evolution.

Why Not Praise UCSD for Discussing ID?

A friendly questioner e-mailed me asking why I am not praising UCSD for discussing ID, as this would seem to endorse our "teach the controversy" approach in the college setting (where there is more academic freedom than the high school setting). I said the following in response (shortened a bit for this post):

My view of "teach the controversy" is like what Phillip Johnson had in mind:

"Of course students should learn the orthodox Darwinian theory and the evidence that supports it, but they should also learn why so many are skeptical, and they should hear the skeptical arguments in their strongest form rather than in a caricature intended to make them look as silly as possible." (Phillip Johnson, The Wedge of Truth (Intervarsity Press, 1999), 82)

What Pennock has done is presented "a caricature intended to make them look as silly as possible"—he has not actually presented both sides of this issue in their strongest form. I can promise you: if UCSD later brings in a pro-ID speaker and requires freshmen to attend, I will put something up praising the university and retract anything I said earlier about their lack of fairness. (As I said, if I were a betting man, I'd bet large sums of money that this won't happen).

Final Note: Did All Freshmen Have to Attend?

Finally, there have been questions as to whether all freshmen were actually required to attend. UCSD is composed of 6 undergraduate colleges, and one page suggested only students from "Sixth College" had to attend. If that is the case then 1/6 of all freshmen would still have to attend. But the day of the event, the main student website at UCSD, Tritonlink, clearly stated that all UCSD freshmen have to attend. The website read, "All first-quarter freshmen are required to attend the event" (see here for a screen shot). To clear up any ambiguity, I called a friend who knows UCSD students and found that they had confirmed with an undergraduate that Pennock's lecture was indeed mandatory for all freshmen. That seems to settle this question firmly.

Perhaps there is the remote chance that both the main UCSD student website and this undergraduate were wrong. Where does this leave us? This doesn't change the fact that the main UCSD student website still posted the notice that "All first-quarter freshmen are required to attend the event" (emphasis added). From the reports I have been told, RIMAC, a venue that holds about 5000, was packed with students. I seriously doubt that such a large number of students were dying to attend Pennock's lecture on a Tuesday night. It still appears that thousands of freshmen attended this ID-bashing lecture, thinking they were required to do so.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 17, 2006 11:19 AM | Permalink

Darwinist Faculty Members Attempting to Deceive ID-Proponents

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/11/darwinist_faculty_members_atte.html

We recently discussed how New Scientist reporter Celeste Biever unnecessarily used a fake identity to talk to the IDEA Club at Cornell. Over the past year, I've had a few analogous encounters where Darwinist biologists have used their positions at major secular universities to feign being pro-ID in an unnecessary deception to engage in dialogue. One very recent example is a biologist at Northeastern University in Boston named Donald M. O'Malley.

In September, 2006, Dr. O'Malley wrote me an e-mail saying that he was pro-ID and that "the grandest of designs [is] the central nervous system." He said that he shared this information "in confidence" because "there are certain parties that certainly would not be sympathetic to my views" and therefore wanted to stay "under the radar." He even said, "I am having trouble getting my research refunded by NIH (20 rejected grant applications in a row). If they identify me as a design theorist, this would only get worse, I expect."

I responded to O'Malley with the usual kindness which I extend to anyone, whether pro-Darwin or pro-ID. He then replied back:

You have been a kind and understanding person and so it is with some regret that I must tell you that my emails to you were misleading. . . . As a bit of a subterfuge, I feigned sympathy for the ID movement, within the context of understanding how the CNS works. . . . My writings were tailored to lead you to a false perception and I not only apologize for this deception, but I am also frankly embarrassed by my actions.

Ironically, O'Malley also claimed that the reason he contacted me with deception was because he was "originally interested in trying to understand how an intelligent person could hold [your] beliefs." If he wanted to know my reasons for holding my scientific views, all he had to do was ask and disclose his true identity and intentions: I'm willing to talk to anyone as long as they are being honest with me, and I regularly engage in friendly dialogues with Darwinists.

Dr. O'Malley was a rare case of a Darwinist who ultimately followed his conscience and disclosed his true identity. That should be to his credit. Another example will be discussed in the coming days who does not seem to have yet admitted anything. But the moral of this story is that the public should be aware of this pattern: some Darwinists at major U.S. universities and in the media are using their power and position in order to deceive people through unnecessary lies--claiming they are pro-ID and attempting to get information from those who are pro-ID.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 16, 2006 2:52 PM | Permalink

New initiative kicks off search for life's beginnings

By Alvin Powell Harvard News Office

http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2006/11.09/11-origins.html

A cross-faculty effort to understand life's most basic mystery - how complex chemicals can become the simplest organisms - kicked off Wednesday (Nov. 8) with a symposium at the Gutman Conference Center. The event took about 140 audience members on a tour of the task ahead for the project's members. Over the three-and-a-half hour program, speakers discussed cell-like fatty structures that spontaneously generate, conditions on a primordial Earth that led to life, and recent images from a Mars rover examining the Red Planet's geology.

Called Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, the new program is among several cutting-edge, interdisciplinary initiatives recommended in the spring of 2003 by a faculty task force examining future directions for scientific research at Harvard.

The initiative, directed by Astronomy Professor Dimitar Sasselov, marked its official beginning with an afternoon symposium during which three prominent members - Sasselov, George Whitesides, and Jack Szostak - discussed the challenges ahead. The symposium ended with a public lecture by Robert Hazen, the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University and a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Geophysical Laboratory.

Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman welcomed both the audience to the symposium and the Origins of Life Initiative into action.

Hyman, who co-chaired the Task Force on Science and Technology, whose work led to the Origins of Life's creation, said it was begun to foster cross-faculty collaboration among faculty members who may be separately working on similar questions.

The Task Force on Science and Technology, charged with identifying needs and opportunities in scientific research at Harvard, began its work in the fall of 2003. It generated 70 separate responses from faculty members after issuing a call for ideas in January 2004. At the task force's urging, faculty worked over the next year and a half to further develop and combine those ideas into discrete initiatives.

The Origins of Life Initiative was created after the task force heard presentations from two different groups of researchers on how life got its start.

"Nobody expected to have two separate talks on the origin of life, but indeed we had them," Hyman said, adding that coming from such different fields, there was no guarantee they could work together. "To my absolute joy, this group of faculty has done so. They're off to an amazing start."

Origins of Life unites chemists and molecular biologists - who examine how the chemical building blocks of life combine to create simple organisms - with planetary scientists, astrophysicists, and cosmochemists - who look at the related question of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe and environmental conditions on other planets.

Faculty associated with the Origins of Life Initiative include Sasselov; Whitesides, the Flowers University Professor; Szostak, professor of genetics; Professor of Geochemistry Stein Jacobsen; Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Chemistry Scot Martin; and Fisher Professor of Natural History and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Andrew Knoll.

Szostak reviewed his research, which seeks to learn about primitive cells by trying to build them in the lab. The work shows that under certain conditions fatty acids spontaneously form vesicles - essentially bubbles - that can enlarge and multiply.

Szostak said the question of the origins of life is actually many questions. Szostak's research also involves searching for simple variants of RNA and DNA - the molecules that store the information of life and through which that information is passed from generation to generation - for molecules that might have been progenitors with the potential for rapid replication.

Whitesides outlined the considerable challenges to be overcome if questions about the origins of life are to be answered. While he said that he believes the field is on the verge of a major breakthrough, he said the pieces known today don't add up to a coherent picture. There are far too many variables, Whitesides said, to be able to apply research like Szostak's to the early Earth and to extend that to other planets, both in our own solar system and those being found orbiting other stars.

Still, he said, now is a good time for such an initiative to begin work. Analytic methods have been greatly sped up by modern technology, and knowledge has advanced in related subjects such as metabolism and understanding the conditions on the early Earth.

Despite the knowledge accumulating as chemists work from the molecule up and as biologists work from the organism down, the central question of how life first arose is not going to yield its secrets easily, Whitesides said.

The way of the universe is to go from order to chaos, he said, but on the occasion when life was created, that was reversed and the universe went from chaos to order. Finding the answer will take input from a wide variety of fields.

"Above all, it requires a couple of really good ideas," Whitesides said.

Short Legs Win Evolution Battle

http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/061116_lizard_legs.html

By Jeanna Bryner LiveScience Staff Writer

posted: 16 November 2006 02:01 pm ET

In a reptilian version of "Survivor," lizards with longer legs ultimately get booted from islands by their short-legged opponents.

Countering the widespread view of evolution as an eon-long process, evolutionary biologists discovered that when island lizards were exposed to a new predator, natural selection occurred in a six-month period, first favoring longer and then shorter hind legs.

The findings are detailed in the Nov. 17 issue of the journal Science.

Brown anolis (Anolis sagrei) lizards spend much of their time on the ground. But as previous studies have shown, when a ground-dwelling, predatory lizard is introduced, the anoles scamper up trees. They switch to an arboreal lifestyle to escape being eaten.

Anoles' long legs make them fast runners, giving them an advantage in a ground-based setting where not much balance is necessary.

Researchers led by Jonathan Losos of Harvard University studied brown anole populations on 12 small islands in the Bahamas. They introduced a larger, predatory lizard (Leiocephalus carinatus) to six of the islands, while keeping six other control islands predator-free.

The scientists counted, marked and measured lizards at the beginning of the study, after six months, and again after 12 months. After six months, the anole populations dropped by half or more on islands with predators. On predator islands, the anole survivors had longer legs than non-survivors, a result the scientists suggest is due to longer-legged lizards being faster runners and better able to elude capture by predators.

Tables turned, however, during the next six months. The surviving anoles became increasingly arboreal, spending much of their time in treetops. At the end of the six-month stint, measurements showed surviving anoles had shorter legs compared with non-survivors. There was no significant difference in leg length between surviving and non-surviving anoles on control islands.

Shorter limbs are better suited for navigating narrow tree branches, which the scientists figure helped the lizards evade becoming dinner.

The researchers think that, over a longer period of time, the anoles in the presence of a predator would evolve much shorter limbs.

Spiders spin a web filled with lessons

http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1116/p16s01-cogn.html

By Robert C. Cowen

Next time you eat a chili pepper, think tarantula. The creepy spider and the fiery vegetable use a similar chemical tactic to discourage attackers. This latest discovery of disparate organisms evolving similar solutions to a common problem illustrates the treasure trove of information on the development of earthly life that spiders represent. Scientists are sifting through that treasure molecule by molecule.

Organisms don't necessarily evolve a similar response to a common need. For example, we use our forelimbs to lift objects. Elephants use their noses.

But sometimes the response is good enough for it to develop in organisms as unrelated as plants and animals. Jan Siemans at the University of California in San Francisco and colleagues saw this in action when they took a good look at how venom from a West Indian tarantula works. In last week's issue of Nature, they reported that they found three peptide molecules "that target the capsaicin receptor" in an animal's nervous system.

Wait a minute. Capsaicin is the stuff that gives chili peppers their bite. It stimulates that receptor to evoke a sensation of pain. The entirely separate evolution of chilies and tarantulas produced a way to use the capsaicin receptor to scare off predators, or, in the case of chilies, enhance the world's cuisines.

Apparent cases of such parallel evolution are not always what they seem to be. For example, scientists had believed the iconic orb web design of two different spider groups had evolved independently. Then Jessica Garb at the University of California in Riverside and colleagues traced the evolutionary history recorded in the spiders' DNA. Their research, reported in the June issue of Science, shows that instead of having evolved separately in each spider group, the orb web originated in a common ancestor that lived at least 136 million years ago. "A lot of people had said over the years that the orb web was a pinnacle of adaptive design. Our work confirms that not only is this web type very old, it was also lost in certain lineages of spiders," Dr. Garb explains. Evolution can discard an adaptation as well as create it.

Perhaps the gem of spider evolution is the super-strong insoluble silk on which spiders swing and with which they weave their webs. Industrial and academic engineers are going after spider silk, hoping to learn how to make artificial materials as good as, or better than, the spiders' product. One of the latest insights comes from Gareth McKinley's laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, the group describes physical processes it has discovered that turn a watery protein solution into the tough fiber produced by the golden-silk orb-weaving spider.

"The amazing thing nature has found is how to spin a material out of an aqueous solution and produce a fiber that doesn't redissolve," Professor McKinley commented in a press release.

Research engineers like McKinley look forward to using spider know-how to design tougher plastics, better body armor, stronger parachutes, and other novel materials. Research on tarantula venom points the way to uncovering subtle effects of other plant or animal toxins on nervous systems. Either way, we can learn a lot from spiders.

Alternative medicine making waves in the West

http://www.newindpress.com/NewsItems.asp?ID=IE320061113080320&Page=3&Title=Features+-+Health+%26+Science&Topic=-162

Tuesday November 14 2006 00:00 IST ANI

WASHINGTON: The use of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) has increased tremendously in the West with more and more people believing in its benefits.

Alternative medicine includes the use of herbals, vitamins and other supplements, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic medicine, massage therapy, and Ayurveda. Often included into this mix are energy therapies such as Qi gong and bioelectromagnetic treatments, as well as mind-body practices that encompass prayer, meditation or even dance.

"Although the most commonly used CAM is related to prayer, the most commonly reported CAM adverse events tend to be 'allergic' reactions from herbal agents that include urticaria, contact dermatitis, and anaphylaxis," said Dr. Bielory.

"There has been a recent surge of interest in TCM in Western countries, as it is low cost and has shown favorable safety profiles," said Xiu-Min Li, MD, an associate professor of Pediatric Allergy & Immunology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Herbal therapy is in the mainstream of modern medical practice in China for treating asthma, although the role for TCM in Western countries has not been established as there are no FDA approved botanical drugs for treating asthma.

Another area of growing interest is in the use of probiotics to both treat and prevent allergic disorders. Probiotics are cultures of potentially beneficial bacteria of the healthy gut microflora.

"Microflora or healthy bacteria within the gut appear to be an important part of our mucosal protection while also supporting healthy bowel functions," said Renata JM Engler, M.D., from the Uniformed Service University of Health Sciences at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC.

"When the healthy bacterial flora is disrupted as with antibiotic therapy, illnesses such as vaginitis and serious bowel infections may occur more easily. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence that the healthy bacteria may interact beneficially with the immune system overall.

US scientists weigh up election results

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10491-us-scientists-weigh-up-election-

12:31 09 November 2006 NewScientist.com news service Roxanne Khamsi

Along with the colours of the political map, Tuesday's midterm elections will change science in the US.

Researchers in a broad range of disciplines, from embryonic stem cells to climate change, stand to benefit from the tide of voter anger that has swept Republicans out of power in the US House of Representatives and the Senate, handing control to the Democrats, according to latest reports.

Democrat representative Nancy Pelosi, who is set to become speaker of the House, has already promised to broaden the types of stem-cell research allowed with federal funds in the first 100 hours of her majority leadership, which is set to begin in January 2007. Missouri voters also approved an amendment to the state's constitution sanctioning human embryonic stem-cell research by a 51% majority. (See Stem-cell researchers welcome midterm results).

Here is a summary of how the election outcome is predicted to affect other science-related issues in the US. (For background see Decision time for America)

Climate change and energy

Many of the winning governorship and congressional candidates support efforts to boost sources of renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions. In Massachusetts the race for governor was won by Deval Patrick (Democrat), who believes the state should join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an effort to bring the north-eastern states of the US together along with eastern Canada to fight global warming by capping emissions.

In California, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger retained his governorship in a landslide victory. He has gained the support of environmentalists by campaigning for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions from factories, utilities, refineries and other industrial sites (See the Cool thinking interview with Schwarzenegger for more of his views on the environment).

Eric Antebi of the Sierra Club, a US environmental watchdog group, says that the votes in favour of politicians calling for action on climate change and energy conservation will have a nationwide effect. "The momentum has already increased at state and local levels." He adds that "it's broken the ground to make it much easier for the federal government to step forward" on issues such as climate change.

Environmental ballot initiatives had mixed outcomes: Voters approved a ballot in Washington state to require state utilities to produce 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But in California a proposition to tax oil companies and use the money to invest in renewable energy failed.

Science education

Voters also sent a mixed message on whether students should be taught about intelligent design in publicly funded schools. In Ohio a prominent critic of evolution, Deborah Owens Fink, lost her seat on the state board of education to a candidate backed by the pro-evolution group Help Ohio Public Education. And many expect Democrat Ted Strickland, who won the governorship, to appoint more people to the education board who favour teaching evolution.

"Strickland is behind science education. So I believe we can expect we're going to have a board that's much less sympathetic to teaching intelligent design in the classroom," says Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California.

In Kansas, however, two proponents of intelligent design held onto their seats on the state's education board. Jack Krebs, head of Kansas Citizens for Science, says that the outcome will not have an immediate impact. "The good news is that we'd already taken back a majority in the primary elections back in August," he says. (See our earlier coverage: Kansas schools set to re-embrace evolution)

Krebs says that when the new board convenes in January it will overturn the anti-evolution standards adopted earlier. But he adds that Tuesday's outcome makes it less certain that pro-evolutionists will hang onto the majority in 2008 when three seats are up for election. "What happens in 2008 will be much more critical than if we had won the two seats in this election," Krebs says.

Endangered species

Seven-term Republican incumbent Richard Pombo lost his seat in the House, an outcome celebrated by watchdog groups that say he has an abysmal record on protecting wildlife habitat.

"Pombo's loss was a tremendous victory for the environment," says Jamie Clark of the Washington DC-based Defenders of Wildlife. But one of the greatest defenders of endangered species, Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, also lost his seat in the Senate. Chafee has opposed oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Abortion

Voters in South Dakota rejected the toughest abortion ban in the US by a 55% majority. The law, which had been signed by Governor Mike Rounds in March 2006, would have prohibited abortions at all stages of pregnancy and did not make exceptions in cases of rape, incest or poor maternal health.

A petition by abortion-rights advocates delayed the law from going into effect until voters had had their say in a ballot. Anti-abortion groups have vowed to keep up efforts to ban abortion in the state.

Funding

Experts say it is unclear exactly how science funding will change with Democrats taking the reins in the House and Senate. Democrat Bart Gordon of Tennessee, who is set to head the House Science Committee, has criticised NASA in the past, and Democrat John Dingell, who would likely head the Committee on Energy and Commerce, has previously sided with Republicans on climate change.

For now, the only clear change is that Democrats will have a much greater say. "They get to set the agenda and the policy they choose to pursue," says Joanne Carne, who directs the Center for Science, Technology and Congress of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

This is a dazzling debunking of climate change science. It is also wildly wrong

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1947248,00.html

Deniers are cock-a-hoop at an aristocrat's claims that global warming is a UN hoax. But the physics is bafflingly bad

George Monbiot Tuesday November 14, 2006 The Guardian

For the past nine days my inbox has been filling up with messages labelled "Your scam exposed", "The great fraud unravels" and "How do you feel now, asshole?". They are referring to a new "scientific paper", which proves that the "climate change scare" is a tale "worthier of St John the Divine than of science".

Published in two parts on consecutive Sundays, it runs to a total of 52 pages, containing graphs, tables and references. To my correspondents, to a good many journalists and to thousands of delighted bloggers, this paper clinches it: climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a leftwing conspiracy coordinated by the United Nations.

So which was the august journal that published it? Science? Nature? Geophysical Research Letters? Not quite. It was the Sunday Telegraph. In keeping with most of the articles about climate change in that publication, it is a mixture of cherry-picking, downright misrepresentation and pseudo-scientific gibberish. But it has the virtue of being incomprehensible to anyone who is not an atmospheric physicist.

The author of this "research article" is Christopher Monckton, otherwise known as Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. He has a degree in classics and a diploma in journalism and, as far as I can tell, no further qualifications. But he is confident enough to maintain that - by contrast to all those charlatans and amateurs who wrote the reports produced by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - he is publishing "the truth".

The warming effects of carbon dioxide, Lord Monckton claims, have been exaggerated, distorted and made up altogether. One example of the outrageous fraud the UN body has committed is the elimination from its temperature graphs of the "medieval warm period", which, he claims, was "real, global and up to 3C warmer than now". He runs two graphs side by side, one of which shows the temperature record over the past 1,000 years as rendered by the UN panel, and the other purporting to show real temperatures over the same period.

The world was so hot 600 years ago, he maintains, that "there was little ice at the North Pole: a Chinese naval squadron sailed right round the Arctic in 1421 and found none". By contrast the planet is currently much cooler than climate scientists predicted. In 1988, for example, the world's most celebrated climatologist, James Hansen of Nasa, "told the US Congress that temperature would rise 0.3C by the end of the century (it rose 0.1C), and that sea level would rise several feet (no, one inch)".

Most importantly, "the UN repealed a fundamental physical law", doubling the size of the constant (lambda) in the Stefan-Boltzmann equation. By assigning the wrong value to lambda, the UN's panel has exaggerated the sensitivity of the climate to extra carbon dioxide. Monckton's analysis looks impressive. It is nonsense from start to finish.

His claims about the Stefan-Boltzmann equation have been addressed by someone who does know what he's talking about, Dr Gavin Schmidt of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He begins by pointing out that Stefan-Boltzmann is a description of radiation from a "black body" - an idealised planet that absorbs all the electromagnetic radiation that reaches it. The Earth is not a black body. It reflects some of the radiation it receives back into space.

Schmidt points out that Monckton also forgets, in making his calculations, that "climate sensitivity is an equilibrium concept": in other words that there is a time-lag of several decades between the release of carbon dioxide and the eventual temperature rise it causes. If you don't take this into account, the climate's sensitivity to carbon dioxide looks much smaller. This is about as fundamental a mistake as you can make in climate science.

What of his other claims? Well, the reason the "medieval warm period" doesn't show up on the UN panel's graphs is simple. As far as climatologists can tell, there wasn't one. So why did the Vikings, as Monckton points out, settle in Greenland?

As a paper published in Reviews of Geophysics shows, Vikings first arrived in Greenland at the very beginning of the "warm period" Monckton discusses, when temperatures, even according to his graph, were lower than they are today. They did so because life had become too hot for them in their adopted home (Iceland): not climatically, but politically. There does appear to have been a slight warming in some parts of the northern hemisphere. There is no reliable evidence that this was a global phenomenon. As for the Chinese naval squadron sailing round the Arctic, it is pure bunkum - a myth long discredited by serious historians.

So what of those graphs? Look at them carefully and you see that they are measuring two different things: global temperatures (the UN panel's progression) and European temperatures (Monckton's line). You will also discover that the scales are different.

As for James Hansen, he did not tell the US Congress that temperatures would rise by 0.3C by the end of the past century. He presented three possible scenarios to the US Senate - high, medium and low. Both the high and low scenarios, he explained, were unlikely to materialise. The middle one was "the most plausible".

As it happens, the middle scenario was almost exactly right. He did not claim, under any scenario, that sea levels would rise by several feet by 2000. But a climatologist called Patrick Michaels took the graph from Hansen's paper, erased the medium and low scenarios and - in testimony to Congress - presented the high curve as Hansen's prediction for climate change. A memo sent in July from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association, a US company whose power is largely supplied by coal, revealed that Michaels has long been funded by electricity companies. "In February this year, IREA alone contributed $100,000 to Dr Michaels." Michaels, it says, meets periodically with industry representatives to discuss their activities in countering stories about climate change.

Pat Michaels's misrepresentation of Hansen's claims was picked up by Michael Crichton in his novel State of Fear, and somehow transmuted into an "error" of 300%. Monckton gives no source for his claim about Hansen, but Crichton's novel features in his references. The howlers go on and on. There is scarcely a line in Lord Monckton's paper which is not wildly wrong.

Yet none of this appears to embarrass the Sunday Telegraph, which championed his findings this week in a leading article. I think I know what the problem is. At a meeting of 150 senior journalists last year, who had gathered to discuss climate change, the chairman asked how many people in the audience had a science degree. Three of us raised our hands. Readers cannot expect a newspaper editor to possess a detailed understanding of atmospheric physics, but there should at least be someone who knows what science looks like whom the editor consults before running a piece.

A scientific paper is one published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This means it has been subject to scrutiny by other experts in the field. This doesn't suggest that it's the last word on the subject, but it does mean it is worth discussing. For newspapers such as the Sunday Telegraph the test seems to be much simpler. If they don't understand it, it must be science.

Monbiot.com

Ancient Crash, Epic Wave

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/14/science/14WAVE.html

November 14, 2006

By SANDRA BLAKESLEE Correction Appended

At the southern end of Madagascar lie four enormous wedge-shaped sediment deposits, called chevrons, that are composed of material from the ocean floor. Each covers twice the area of Manhattan with sediment as deep as the Chrysler Building is high.

On close inspection, the chevron deposits contain deep ocean microfossils that are fused with a medley of metals typically formed by cosmic impacts. And all of them point in the same direction — toward the middle of the Indian Ocean where a newly discovered crater, 18 miles in diameter, lies 12,500 feet below the surface.

The explanation is obvious to some scientists. A large asteroid or comet, the kind that could kill a quarter of the world's population, smashed into the Indian Ocean 4,800 years ago, producing a tsunami at least 600 feet high, about 13 times as big as the one that inundated Indonesia nearly two years ago. The wave carried the huge deposits of sediment to land.

Most astronomers doubt that any large comets or asteroids have crashed into the Earth in the last 10,000 years. But the self-described "band of misfits" that make up the two-year-old Holocene Impact Working Group say that astronomers simply have not known how or where to look for evidence of such impacts along the world's shorelines and in the deep ocean.

Scientists in the working group say the evidence for such impacts during the last 10,000 years, known as the Holocene epoch, is strong enough to overturn current estimates of how often the Earth suffers a violent impact on the order of a 10-megaton explosion. Instead of once in 500,000 to one million years, as astronomers now calculate, catastrophic impacts could happen every 1,000 years.

The researchers, who formed the working group after finding one another through an international conference, are based in the United States, Australia, Russia, France and Ireland. They are established experts in geology, geophysics, geomorphology, tsunamis, tree rings, soil science and archaeology, including the structural analysis of myth. Their efforts are just getting under way, but they will present some of their work at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December in San Francisco.

This year the group started using Google Earth, a free source of satellite images, to search around the globe for chevrons, which they interpret as evidence of past giant tsunamis. Scores of such sites have turned up in Australia, Africa, Europe and the United States, including the Hudson River Valley and Long Island.

When the chevrons all point in the same direction to open water, Dallas Abbott, an adjunct research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., uses a different satellite technology to look for oceanic craters. With increasing frequency, she finds them, including an especially large one dating back 4,800 years.

So far, astronomers are skeptical but are willing to look at the evidence, said David Morrison, a leading authority on asteroids and comets at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Surveys show that as many as 185 large asteroids or comets hit the Earth in the far distant past, although most of the craters are on land. No one has spent much time looking for craters in the deep ocean, Dr. Morrison said, assuming young ones don't exist and that old ones would be filled with sediment.

Astronomers monitor every small space object with an orbit close to the Earth. "We know what's out there, when they return, how close they come," Dr. Morrison said. Given their observations, "there is no reason to think we have had major hits in the last 10,000 years," he continued, adding, "But if Dallas is right and they find 10 such events, we'll have a real contradiction on our hands."

Peter Bobrowski, a senior research scientist in natural hazards at the Geological Survey of Canada, said "chevrons are fantastic features" but do not prove that megatsunamis are real. There are other interpretations for how chevrons are formed, including erosion and glaciation. Dr. Bobrowski said. It is up to the working group to prove its claims, he said.

William Ryan, a marine geologist at the Lamont Observatory, compared Dr. Abbott's work to that of other pioneering scientists who had to change the way their colleagues thought about a subject.

"Many of us think Dallas is really onto something," Dr. Ryan said. "She is building a story just like Walter Alvarez did." Dr. Alvarez, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, spent a decade convincing skeptics that a giant asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Ted Bryant, a geomorphologist at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia, was the first person to recognize the palm prints of mega-tsunamis. Large tsunamis of 30 feet or more are caused by volcanoes, earthquakes and submarine landslides, he said, and their deposits have different features.

Deposits from mega-tsunamis contain unusual rocks with marine oyster shells, which cannot be explained by wind erosion, storm waves, volcanoes or other natural processes, Dr. Bryant said.

"We're not talking about any tsunami you're ever seen," Dr. Bryant said. "Aceh was a dimple. No tsunami in the modern world could have made these features. End-of-the-world movies do not capture the size of these waves. Submarine landslides can cause major tsunamis, but they are localized. These are deposited along whole coastlines."

For example, Dr. Bryant identified two chevrons found over four miles inland near Carpentaria in north central Australia. Both point north. When Dr. Abbott visited a year ago, he asked her to find the craters.

To locate craters, Dr. Abbott uses sea surface altimetry data. Satellites scan the ocean surface and log the exact height of it. Underwater mountain ranges, trenches and holes in the ground disturb the Earth's gravitational field, causing sea surface heights to vary by fractions of an inch. Within 24 hours of searching the shallow water north of the two chevrons, Dr. Abbott found two craters.

Not all depressions in the ocean are impact craters, Dr. Abbott said. They can be sink holes, faults or remnant volcanoes. A check is needed. So she obtained samples from deep sea sediment cores taken in the area by the Australian Geological Survey.

The cores contain melted rocks and magnetic spheres with fractures and textures characteristic of a cosmic impact. "The rock was pulverized, like it was hit with a hammer," Dr. Abbott said. "We found diatoms fused to tektites," a glassy substance formed by meteors. The molten glass and shattered rocks could not be produced by anything other than an impact, she said.

"We think these two craters are 1,200 years old," Dr. Abbott said. The chevrons are well preserved and date to about the same time.

Dr. Abbott and her colleagues have located chevrons in the Caribbean, Scotland, Vietnam and North Korea, and several in the North Sea.

Hither Hills State Park on Long Island has a chevron whose front edge points to a crater in Long Island Sound, Dr. Abbott said. There is another, very faint chevron in Connecticut, and it points in a different direction.

Marie-Agnès Courty, a soil scientist at the European Center for Prehistoric Research in Tautavel, France, is studying the worldwide distribution of cosmogenic particles from what she suspects was a major impact 4,800 years ago.

But Madagascar provides the smoking gun for geologically recent impacts. In August, Dr. Abbott, Dr. Bryant and Slava Gusiakov, from the Novosibirsk Tsunami Laboratory in Russia, visited the four huge chevrons to scoop up samples.

Last month, Dee Breger, director of microscopy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, looked at the samples under a scanning electron microscope and found benthic foraminifera, tiny fossils from the ocean floor, sprinkled throughout. Her close-ups revealed splashes of iron, nickel and chrome fused to the fossils.

When a chondritic meteor, the most common kind, vaporizes upon impact in the ocean, those three metals are formed in the same relative proportions as seen in the microfossils, Dr. Abbott said.

Ms. Breger said the microfossils appear to have melded with the condensing metals as both were lofted up out of the sea and carried long distances.

About 900 miles southeast from the Madagascar chevrons, in deep ocean, is Burckle crater, which Dr. Abbott discovered last year. Although its sediments have not been directly sampled, cores from the area contain high levels of nickel and magnetic components associated with impact ejecta.

Burckle crater has not been dated, but Dr. Abbott estimates that it is 4,500 to 5,000 years old.

It would be a great help to the cause if the National Science Foundation sent a ship equipped with modern acoustic equipment to take a closer look at Burckle, Dr. Ryan said. "If it had clear impact features, the nonbelievers would believe," he said.

But they might have more trouble believing one of the scientists, Bruce Masse, an environmental archaeologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He thinks he can say precisely when the comet fell: on the morning of May 10, 2807 B.C.

Dr. Masse analyzed 175 flood myths from around the world, and tried to relate them to known and accurately dated natural events like solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions. Among other evidence, he said, 14 flood myths specifically mention a full solar eclipse, which could have been the one that occurred in May 2807 B.C.

Half the myths talk of a torrential downpour, Dr. Masse said. A third talk of a tsunami. Worldwide they describe hurricane force winds and darkness during the storm. All of these could come from a mega-tsunami.

Of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, Dr. Masse said, "and we're not there yet."

Correction: Nov. 16, 2006

An article in Science Times on Tuesday about new research suggesting that a comet or an asteroid may have struck the Indian Ocean 4,800 years ago included an incorrect estimate from researchers for the frequency of such collisions. The current estimate is one impact on the order of a 10-megaton bomb every 1,000 years, not every few thousand years. The article also misstated the name of a state park on Long Island that has a large sand wedge called a chevron, which may indicate that a comet or meteor landed in the ocean nearby. It is Hither Hills, not Heather Hill.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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