NTS LogoSkeptical News for 4 July 2007

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Sunday, July 08, 2007

True believers flock to Roswell UFO fest


By MARK EVANS | Associated Press
July 7, 2007

At least 35,000 celebrate 60th anniversary of alleged alien crash

ROSWELL — For folks who truly believe a UFO and its crew of bugged-eyed aliens came crashing down here 60 years ago, rest assured: There's evidence you're not alone.

At least 35,000 people have descended into Roswell this weekend for the 2007 Amazing Roswell UFO Festival — filling every hotel room and nearly doubling the southeastern New Mexico town's population for a few days.

The festival, which began Thursday, is a mixed bag of oddities, some whimsical, some serious-minded: live concerts (one headlined by a band with a computer-generated 'alien' drummer), costume contests, a Main Street parade and slew of lectures that ponder everything from body snatchers to "What Does NASA Really Know?"

The festival emerged in the 1990s to commemorate and debate the purported flying saucer crash on a nearby ranch in July 1947, which the government has claimed was a top-secret weather balloon. Those who believe in the Roswell Incident say the government stubbornly is conspiring to hide the truth about the events of that day and, more broadly, the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Al Dooley, 59, of Seattle, said he wasn't sure what happened back then, but had come to the festival learn more.

He was nestled into a seat at a convention center auditorium, eager to hear a talk on "UFO Files from the UK and Government Surveillance of Ufologists." His wife, Nancy, sat nearby, visibly less interested — she was waiting for the festival to be over so the couple could move on to the next leg of their vacation in Sedona, Ariz.

"I didn't come for the carnival atmosphere. I came to listen to the speakers," Al Dooley said. "I've always had an interest in UFOs. I've read about them all my life. I wanted to hear what serious and educated discussion there is."

While he's not certain whether an alien craft crashed here, he might have seen one himself in 1968 or 1969, he said.

Michael, who plays guitar in the rock band Element 115 and doesn't use his last name, said he doesn't merely believe the crash occurred.

"I KNOW it," he said, as he handed out a business card. He said he hoped Element 115 would one day be the house band for a huge theme park being debated here — featuring amusement rides, a concert hall and a 300-room hotel that looks like a flying saucer.

"I want to help them with that," he said. "I see millions and millions of dollars in this place — they just need to know how to market it right."

The city's convention center was swarming with vendors hawking trinkets and dolls, photo ops with sexy costumed aliens, psychic readings and a kit to test whether your neighbor or boss is from outer space. Many peddled their books, DVDs or artwork of all things otherworldly.

Chase Masterson, a singer and actress, was signing autographs for fans who remembered her role as Leeta on several episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

"I didn't give it a lot of thought during the days I was on the show," she said, speaking of UFO theories and alien life. "I am having a very interesting time exploring the theories that are set forth here. ... Some are completely outrageous, but some are very intriguing."

The festival was being organized for the first time by the city of Roswell, after the local UFO museum hosted it for more than a decade.

Mayor Sam LaGrone said he was happily surprised by the turnout — "I've never seen so many cars in town" — and touted the "family friendly" atmosphere organizers sought to create this year.

"We go from the very serious side to the really fun side," he said.

The exact tally of how much the festival will bring to city coffers won't be tallied for a month or so. Whatever that number, LaGrone said, in terms of economic fuel for the local economy, "this is the biggie for us."

Beyond demonic memes why Richard Dawkins is wrong about religion


by David Sloan Wilson

Richard Dawkins and I share much in common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory. We share an interest in culture as an evolutionary process in its own right. We are both atheists in our personal convictions who have written books on religion. In Darwin's Cathedral I attempted to contribute to the relatively new field of evolutionary religious studies. When Dawkins' The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues. Hence this critique of The God Delusion and the larger issues at stake.


In The God Delusion Dawkins makes it clear that he loathes religion for its intolerance, blind faith, cruelty, extremism, abuse, and prejudice. He attributes these problems to religion and thinks that the world would be a better place without it. Given recent events in the Middle East and even here in America, it is understandable why he might draw such a conclusion, but the question is: What's evolution got to do with it?

Dawkins and I agree that evolutionary theory provides a powerful framework for studying religion, and we even agree on some of the details, so it is important to pinpoint exactly where we part company. Evolutionists employ a number of hypotheses to study any trait, even something as mundane as the spots on a guppy. Is it an adaptation that evolved by natural selection? If so, did it evolve by benefiting whole groups, compared to other groups, or individuals compared to other individuals within groups? With cultural evolution there is a third possibility. Since cultural traits pass from person to person, they bear an intriguing resemblance to disease organisms. Perhaps they evolve to enhance their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups.

If the trait is not an adaptation, then it can nevertheless persist in the population for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was adaptive in the past but not the present, such as our eating habits, which make sense in the food-scarce environment of our ancestors but not with a MacDonald's on every corner. Perhaps the trait is a byproduct of another adaptation. For example, moths use celestial light sources to orient their flight (an adaptation), but this causes them to spiral toward earthly light sources such as a streetlamp or a flame (a costly byproduct), as Dawkins so beautifully recounts in The God Delusion. Finally, the trait might be selectively neutral and persist in the population by genetic or cultural drift.

Dawkins and I agree that these major hypotheses provide an excellent framework for organizing the study of religion, which by itself is an important achievement. We also agree that the hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Evolution is a messy, complicated process, like the creation of laws and sausages, and all of the major hypotheses might be relevant to some degree. Nevertheless, real progress requires determining which hypotheses are most important for the evolution of particular traits. The spots on a guppy might seem parochial, but they are famous among biologists as a case study of evolutionary analysis. They can be explained primarily as adaptations in response to two powerful selective forces: predators remove the most conspicuous males from the population, whereas female guppies mate with the most conspicuous males. The interaction between these two selection pressures explains an impressive amount of detail about guppy spots -- why males have them and females don't, why males are more colorful in habitats without predators, and even why the spots are primarily red when the predators are crustaceans (whose visual system is blind to the color red), as opposed to fish (whose visual system is sensitive to the color red). Guppy spots could have been selectively neutral or a byproduct of some other trait, but that's not the way the facts fell.


The late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously criticized his colleagues for seeing adaptations where they don't exist. His metaphor for a byproduct was the spandrel, the triangular space that inevitably results when arches are placed next to each other. Arches have a function but spandrels do not, even though they can acquire a secondary function, such as providing a decorative space. Gould accused his colleagues of inventing "just-so stories" about traits as adaptations, without good proof, and being blind to the possibility of byproducts and other non-adaptive outcomes of evolution.

Gould had a point, but he failed to give equal time to the opposite problem of failing to see adaptations where they do exist. Suppose that you are a biologist who becomes interested in explaining the bump on the nose of a certain species of shark. Perhaps it is just a byproduct of the way that shark noses develop, as Gould speculated for the human chin. Perhaps it is a callous that forms when the sharks root around in the sand. If so, then it would be an adaptation but not a very complicated one. Perhaps it is a wart, formed by a virus. If so, then it might be an adaptation for the virus but not the shark. Or perhaps it is an organ for detecting the weak electrical signals of prey hidden in the sand. If so, then it would be a complex adaptation.

Few experiences are more thrilling for a biologist than to discover a complex adaptation. Myriad details that previously defied explanation become interpretable as an interlocking system with a purpose. Non-adaptive traits can also be complex, but the functional nature of a complex adaptation guides its analysis from beginning to end. Failing to recognize complex adaptations when they exist is as big a mistake as seeing them where they don't exist. Only hard empirical work -- something equivalent to the hundreds of person-years spent studying guppy spots from an evolutionary perspective -- can settle the issue.

Dawkins argued on behalf of adaptationism in his debates with Gould and would probably agree with everything I have said so far. For religion, however, he argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.


To understand Dawkins' skepticism about the group-level benefits of religion, it is necessary to trace the history of "for the good of the group" thinking in evolutionary theory. Groups can be adaptive only if their members perform services for each other, yet these services are often vulnerable to exploitation by more self-serving individuals within the same group. Fortunately, groups of individuals who practice mutual aid can out-compete groups whose members do not.

According to this reasoning, traits that are "for the good of the group" require a process of between-group selection to evolve and tend to be undermined by selection within groups. Darwin was the first person to reason this way about the evolution of human morality and self-sacrificial traits in other animals. Unfortunately, his insight was not shared by many biologists during the first half of the 20th century, who uncritically assumed that adaptations evolve at all levels of the biological hierarchy -- for the good of the individual, group, species, or ecosystem -- without requiring a corresponding process of natural selection at each level. When the need for group selection was acknowledged, it was often assumed that between-group selection easily prevailed against within-group selection. This can be called The Age of Naive Groupism, and it ended during the 1960s and 1970s, thanks largely to two books: George C. Williams' 1966 Adaptation and Natural Selection and Richard Dawkins' 1976 The Selfish Gene.

In Adaptation and Natural Selection, Williams affirmed the logic of multi-level selection but then added an empirical claim: Even though between-group selection is theoretically possible, in the real world it is invariably trumped by within-group selection. Virtually all adaptations evolve at the individual level and even examples of apparent altruism must be explained in terms of self-interest. It was this empirical claim that ended The Age of Naive Groupism and initiated what can be called The Age of Individualism, which lasted for the rest of the 20th century and in some respects is still with us.

Another theme developed by Williams was the concept of the gene as the fundamental unit of selection. In sexually reproducing species, an individual is a unique collection of genes that will never occur again. Individuals therefore lack the permanence to be acted upon by natural selection over multiple generations. According to Williams, genes are the fundamental unit of natural selection because they have the permanence that individuals (much less groups) lack.

In many respects, and by his own account, Williams was interpreting ideas for a broader audience that began with Darwin and were refined by theoretical biologists such as Sewall Wright, Ronald Fisher, and J.B.S. Haldane. The concept of the gene as the fundamental unit of selection, for example, is identical to the concept of average effects in population genetics theory, which averages the fitness of alternative genes across all of the individual genotypes and environmental contexts experienced by the genes. A decade later, Dawkins played the role of interpreter for an even broader audience. Average effects became selfish genes and individuals became lumbering robots controlled by their genes. Group selection became a pariah concept, taught only as an example of how not to think. As one eminent evolutionist advised a student in the 1980s, "There are three ideas that you do not invoke in biology: Lamarkism, the phlogistron theory, and group selection."


In retrospect, it is hard to fathom the zeal with which evolutionists such as Williams and Dawkins rejected group selection and developed a view of evolution as based entirely on self-interest. Williams ended Adaptation and Natural Selection with the phrase "I believe that it is the light and the way." Here is how Dawkins recounts the period in his 1982 book The Extended Phenotype:

The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism ... We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin's ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label 'the selfish organism..."

This passage has all the earmarks of fundamentalist rhetoric, including appropriating the deity (Darwin) for one's own cause. Never mind that Darwin was the first group selectionist. Moreover, unlike The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype was written by Dawkins for his scientific peers, not for a popular audience!

In reality, the case against group selection began to unravel almost immediately after the publication of Adaptation and Natural Selection, although it was difficult to tell, given the repressive social climate. In the first place, calling genes "replicators" and "the fundamental unit of selection" is no argument at all against group selection. The question has always been whether genes can evolve by virtue of benefiting whole groups and despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. When this happens, the gene favored by between-group selection replaces the gene favored by within-group selection in the total population. In the parlance of population genetics theory, it has the highest average effect. Re-labeling the gene selfish, just because it evolves, contributes nothing. The "gene's eye view" of evolution can be insightful in some respects, but as an argument against group selection it is one of the greatest cases of comparing apples with oranges in the annals of evolutionary thought.

The same goes for the concept of extended phenotypes, which notes that genes have effects that extend beyond the bodies of individual organisms. Examples of extended phenotypes include a bird's nest or a beaver's dam. But there is a difference between these two examples; the nest benefits only the individual builder, whereas the dam benefits all of the beavers in the pond, including those who don't contribute to building the dam. The problem of within-group selection is present in the dam example and the concept of extended phenotypes does nothing to solve it. More apples and oranges.


Much has happened in the four decades following the rejection of group selection in the 1960s. Naive groupism is still a mistake that needs to be avoided, but between-group selection can no longer be categorically rejected. Claims for group selection must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, along with the other major evolutionary hypotheses. Demonstrations of group selection appear regularly in the top scientific journals.

As one example reported in the July 6, 2006 issue of Nature, a group of microbiologists headed by Benjamin Kerr cultured bacteria (E. coli) and their viral predator (phage) in 96-well plates, which are commonly used for automated chemical analysis. Each well was an isolated group of predators and their prey. Within each well, natural selection favored the most rapacious viral strains, but these strains tended to drive their prey, and therefore themselves extinct. More prudent viral strains were vulnerable to replacement by the rapacious strains within each well, but as groups they persisted longer and were more likely to colonize other wells. Migration between wells was accomplished by robotically controlled pipettes. Biologically plausible migration rates enabled the prudent viral strains to persist in the total population, despite their selective disadvantage within groups.

As a second example reported in the December 8, 2006 issue of Science, economist Samuel Bowles estimated that between-group selection was strong enough to promote the genetic evolution of altruism in our own species, exactly as envisioned by Darwin. These and many other examples, summarized by Edward O. Wilson and myself in a forthcoming review article, are ignored entirely by Dawkins, who continues to recite his mantra that the selective disadvantage of altruism within groups poses an insuperable problem for between-group selection.


Not only can group selection be a significant evolutionary force, it can sometimes even be the dominating evolutionary force. One of the most important advances in evolutionary biology is a concept called major transitions. It turns out that evolution takes place not only by small mutational change, but also by social groups and multi-species communities becoming so integrated that they become higher-level organisms in their own right. The cell biologist Lynn Margulis proposed this concept in the 1970s to explain the evolution of nucleated cells as symbiotic communities of bacterial cells. The concept was then generalized to explain other major transitions, from the origin of life as communities of cooperating molecular reactions, to multi-cellular organisms and social insect colonies.

In each case, the balance between levels of selection is not fixed but can itself evolve. A major transition occurs when selection within groups is suppressed, making it difficult for selfish elements to evolve at the expense of other members of their own groups. Selection among groups becomes a dominating evolutionary force, turning the groups into super-organisms. Ironically, during the Age of Individualism it became taboo to think about groups as organisms, but now it turns out that organisms are literally the groups of past ages.

Dawkins fully accepts the concept of major transitions, but he pretends that it doesn't require a revision in his ideas about group selection. Most important, he doesn't pose the question that is most relevant to the study of religion: Is it possible that human genetic and cultural evolution represents the newest example of a major transition, converting human groups into the equivalent of bodies and beehives?


Dawkins' third claim to fame, in addition to selfish genes and extended phenotypes, was to coin the term "meme" to think about cultural evolution. In its most general usage, the word "meme" becomes newspeak for "culture" without adding anything new. More specific usages suggest a variety of interesting possibilities; that culture can be broken into atomistic bits like genes, that these bits are somehow represented inside the head, and especially that they can evolve to be organisms in their own right, often spreading at the expense of their human hosts, like the demons of old.

As with religion, Dawkins has not conducted empirical research on cultural evolution, preferring to play the role of Mycroft Holmes, who sat in his armchair and let his younger brother Sherlock do the legwork. Two evolutionary Sherlocks of culture are Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, authors of the 2005 book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. One of the sleights of hand performed by Dawkins in The God Delusion, which takes a practiced eye to detect, is to first dismiss group selection and then to respectfully cite the work of Richerson and Boyd without mentioning that their theory of cultural evolution is all about group selection.

Consider genetic evolution by itself. When a new mutation arises, the total population consists of one group with a single mutant and many groups with no mutants. There is not much variation among groups in this scenario for group selection to act upon. Now imagine a species that has the ability to socially transmit information. A new cultural mutation can rapidly spread to everyone in the same group, resulting in one group that is very different from the other groups in the total population. This is one way that culture can radically shift the balance between levels of selection in favor of group selection. Add to this the ability to monitor the behavior of others, communicate social transgressions through gossip, and easily punish or exclude transgressors at low cost to the punishers, and it becomes clear that human evolution represents a whole new ball game as far as group selection is concerned.

In this context, the human major transition probably began early in the evolution of our lineage, resulting in a genetically evolved psychological architecture that enables us to spontaneously cooperate in small face-to-face groups. As the great social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville commented long ago in Democracy in America, "the village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself." As the primate equivalent of a beehive or an ant colony, our lineage was able to eliminate less groupish competitors. The ability to acquire and socially transmit new behaviors enabled our ancestors to spread over the globe, occupying hundreds of ecological niches. Then the invention of agriculture enabled group sizes to increase by many orders of magnitude, but only through the cultural evolution of mechanisms that enable groups to hang together at such a large scale. Defining, motivating, coordinating, and policing groups is not easy at any scale. It requires an elaborate system of proximate mechanisms, something akin to the physiological mechanisms of an individual organism. Might the elements of religion be part of the "social physiology" of the human group organism? Other than briefly acknowledging the abstract possibility that memes can form "memeplexes," this possibility does not appear in Dawkins' analysis.


It is absurd, in retrospect, that evolutionists have spent much more time evaluating the major evolutionary hypotheses for guppy spots than for the elements of religion. This situation is beginning to remedy itself as scholars and scientists from all backgrounds begin to adopt the evolutionary perspective in their study of religion.

An example from my own research will show how empirical legwork can take us beyond armchair theorizing. Here is Dawkins on the subject of whether religion relieves or induces stress in the mind of the religious believer:

Is religion a placebo that prolongs life by reducing stress? Possibly, although the theory must run the gauntlet of skeptics who point out the many circumstances in which religion causes rather than relieves stress ... The American comedian Cathy Ladman observes that "All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays."

One of my projects is a collaboration with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced shick-sent-me-hi), who is best known among general readers for his books on peak psychological experience, such as Flow and The Evolving Self. Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) which involves signaling people at random times during the day, prompting them to record their external and internal experience -- where they are, who they are with, what they are doing, and what they are thinking and feeling on a checklist of numerical scales. The ESM is like an invisible observer, following people around as they go about their daily lives. It is as close as psychological research gets to the careful field studies that evolutionary biologists are accustomed to performing on non-human species, which is why I teamed up with Csikszentmihalyi to analyze some of his past studies from an evolutionary perspective.

These studies were performed on such a massive scale and with so much background information that we can compare the psychological experience of religious believers vs. nonbelievers on a moment-by-moment basis. We can even compare members of conservative vs. liberal protestant denominations, when they are alone vs. in the company of other people. On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone. Religions are diverse, in the same way that species in ecosystems are diverse. Rather than issuing monolithic statements about religion, evolutionists need to explain religious diversity in the same way that they explain biological diversity.

These results raise as many questions as they answer. We did not evolve to feel good but rather to survive and reproduce. Perhaps religious believers are happily unaware of the problems that nonbelievers are anxiously trying to solve. As a more subtle point, people pass back and forth between the categories of "nonbeliever" and "believer" as they lose and regain faith. Perhaps some nonbelievers are psychologically impaired because they are the recent casualties of religious belief. Only more scientific legwork can resolve these issues, but one thing is sure: Dawkins' armchair speculation about the guilt-inducing effects of religion doesn't even get him to first base.


Hypothesis testing does not always require quantification and the other trappings of modern science. Darwin established his entire theory on the basis of descriptive information carefully gathered by the naturalists of his day, most of whom thought that they were studying the hand of God. This kind of information exists in abundance for religions around the world and throughout history, which should be regarded as a fossil record of cultural evolution so detailed that it puts the biological fossil record to shame. It should be possible to use this information to evaluate the major evolutionary hypotheses, which after all represent radically different conceptions of religion. Engineering principles dictate that a religion designed to benefit the whole group will be different from one designed to benefit some individuals (presumably the leaders) at the expense of others within the same group, which in turn will be different from a cultural disease organism designed to benefit itself at the expense of both individuals and groups, which in turn will be different from a religion for which the term "design" is inappropriate. It would be odd indeed if such different conceptions of religion could not be distinguished on the basis of carefully gathered descriptive information.

Of course, it is necessary to gather the information systematically rather than picking and choosing examples that fit one's pet theory. In Darwin's Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great religious scholar Mircia Eliade. The results are described in an article titled "Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample," which was published in the journal Human Nature and is available on my website. The beauty of random sampling is that, barring a freak sampling accident, valid conclusions for the sample apply to all of the religions in the encyclopedia from which the sample was taken.

By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective -- what they cause the religious believers to do. The best way to illustrate these points is by describing one of the religions in the sample -- Jainism -- which initially appeared the most challenging for the group-level adaptation hypothesis.

Jainism is one of the oldest and most ascetic of all the eastern religions and is practiced by approximately three percent of the Indian population. Jain ascetics filter the air they breathe, the water they drink, and sweep the path in front of them to avoid killing any creature no matter how small. They are homeless, without possessions, and sometimes even fast themselves to death by taking a vow of "santhara" that is celebrated by the entire community. How could such a religion benefit either individuals or groups in a practical sense? It is easy to conclude from the sight of an emaciated Jain ascetic that the religion is indeed a cultural disease -- until one reads the scholarly literature.

It turns out that Jain ascetics comprise a tiny fraction of the religion, whose lay members are among the wealthiest merchants in India. Throughout their long history, Jains have filled an economic niche similar to the Jews in Western Europe, Chinese in Southeast Asia, and other merchant societies. In all cases, trading over long distances and plying volatile markets such as the gem trade requires a high degree of trust among trading partners, which is provided by the religion. Even the most esoteric (to outsiders) elements of the religion are not superfluous byproducts but perform important practical work.

For example, the ascetics must obtain their food by begging but their religion includes so many food restrictions that they can only accept food from the most pious lay Jain households. Moreover, the principle of non-action dictates that they can only accept small amounts of food from each household that was not prepared with the ascetics in mind. When they enter a house, they inspect the premises and subject the occupants to sharp questions about their moral purity before accepting their food. It is a mark of great honor to be visited but of great shame if the ascetics leave without food. In effect, the food begging system of the ascetics functions as an important policing mechanism for the community. This is only one of many examples, as summarized by Jainism scholar James Laidlaw in a 1995 book whose title says it all: Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society Among the Jains.

How then, is it possible to live by impossible ideals? The advantage for addressing this question to Jainism is that the problem is so very graphic there. The demands of Jain asceticism have a pretty good claim to be the most uncompromising of any enduring historical tradition: the most aggressively impractical set of injunctions which any large number of diverse families and communities has ever tried to live by. They have done so, albeit in a turbulent history of change, schism, and occasionally recriminatory "reform," for well over two millennia. This directs our attention to the fact that yawning gaps between hope and reality are not necessarily dysfunctions of social organization, or deviations from religious systems. The fact that lay Jains make up what is -- in thoroughly worldly material terms -- one of the most conspicuously successful communities in India, only makes more striking and visible a question which must also arise in the case of the renouncers themselves.

This example illustrates a phenomenon that I call the transformation of the obvious. Jainism appears obviously dysfunctional based on a little information, such as the sight of an emaciated acetic or beliefs that appear bizarre when taken out of context. The same religion becomes obviously functional based on more information. This is the kind of "natural history" information that enabled Darwin to build such a strong case for his theory of evolution, and it can be used to build an equally strong case for the group-functional nature of Jainism. As for Jainism, so also for most of the other enduring religions of the world.


I recently attended a conference on evolution and religion in Hawaii that provided an opportunity to assess the state of the field. It is not the case that everyone has reached a consensus on the relative importance of the major evolutionary hypotheses about religion. My own talk included a slide with the words SHAME ON US! in large block letters, chiding my colleagues for failing to reach at least a rough consensus, based on information that is already at hand. This might seem discouraging, until we remember that all aspects of religion have so far received much less attention than guppy spots from an evolutionary perspective. The entire enterprise is that new.

There was, I believe, a convergence taking place during the short period of the conference. Richard Sosis, whose previous research includes a detailed comparison of religious vs. non-religious communal movements, presented new research on the recitation of psalms among Israeli women in response to terrorist attacks. William Irons and several other participants developed the concept of hard-to-fake signals as a mechanism for insuring commitment in religious groups. Dominic Johnson reminded us that inter-group conflict, as much as we might not like it and want to avoid it, has been an important selective force throughout human genetic and cultural evolution and that some elements of religion can be interpreted as adaptations for war. In my response to this paper during the question period, I largely agreed with Johnson but pointed out that most of the religions in my random sample did not spread by violent conflict (e.g., Mormonism). Johnson is currently examining the religions in my random sample in more detail with respect to warfare, a good example of cumulative, collaborative research. Peter Richerson and I gave a tutorial on group selection, which was especially useful for participants whose understanding of evolution is grounded on the Age of Individualism.

Lee Kirkpatrick delivered a lecture titled "Religion is Not an Adaptation" that might seem to oppose the adaptationist accounts mentioned above. What he meant, however, is that he doubts the existence of any genetic adaptations that evolved specifically in a religious context. He is sympathetic to the possibility that more general genetically evolved psychological adaptations are co-opted by cultural evolution to form elaborately functional religious systems. Similarly, other psychologically oriented talks about minimal counter-intuitiveness (beliefs being memorable when they are weird but not too weird), hyperactive agent detection devices (our tendency to assume agency, even when it does not exist), and the ease with which children develop beliefs about the afterlife, might be interpretable as non-adaptive byproducts, but they might also be the psychological building blocks of highly adaptive religions. In evolutionary parlance, byproducts can become exaptations, which in turn can become adaptations.

No one at the conference presented a compelling example of a religious belief that spreads like a disease organism, to the detriment of both individuals and groups. The demonic meme hypothesis is a theoretical possibility, but so far it lacks compelling evidence. Much remains to be done, but it is this collective enterprise that deserves the attention of the scientific research community more than angry diatribes about the evils of religion.


Explaining religions as primarily group-level adaptations does not make them benign in every respect. The most that group selection can do is to turn groups into super-organisms. Like organisms, super-organisms compete, prey upon each other, coexist without interacting, or engage in mutualistic interactions. Sometimes they form cooperative federations that work so well that super-super-organisms emerge at an even larger spatial scale. After all, even multi-cellular organisms are already groups of groups of groups. In a remarkable recent book titled War and Peace and War, Peter Turchin analyzes the broad sweep of human history as a process of cultural multilevel selection that has increased the scale of human society, with many reversals along the way -- the rise and fall of empires. Religion is a large subject, but the explanatory scope of evolutionary theory is even larger.

American democracy can be regarded as a cultural super-super-organism. The founding fathers realized that religions work well for their own members but become part of the problem at a larger social scale. That is why they worked so hard to accomplish the separation of church and state, along with other checks and balances to prevent some members of the super-super-organism from benefiting at the expense of others. In this context I share Dawkins' concern that some religions are seeking to end the separation of church and state in America. I am equally concerned that the checks and balances are failing in other respects that have nothing do to with religion, such as unaccountable corporations and extreme income inequality.

I also share Dawkins' concern about other aspects of religions, even after they are understood as complex group-level adaptations. Religions can be ruthless in the way that they enforce conformity within groups. Most alarming for a scientist, religions can be wanton about distorting facts about the real world on their way toward motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world. We should be equally concerned about other distortions of factual reality, such as patriotic histories of nations and other non-religious ideologies that I call "stealth religions" in my most recent book, Evolution for Everyone. Finally, I agree with Dawkins that religions are fair game for criticism in a pluralistic society and that the stigma associated with atheism needs to be removed. The problem with Dawkins' analysis, however, is that if he doesn't get the facts about religion right, his diagnosis of the problems and proffered solutions won't be right either. If the bump on the shark's nose is an organ, you won't get very far by thinking of it as a wart. That is why Dawkins' diatribe against religion, however well-intentioned, is so deeply misinformed.


Toward the end of The God Delusion, Dawkins waxes poetic about the open-mindedness of science compared to the closed-mindedness of religion. He describes the heart-warming example of a scientist who changed his long-held beliefs on the basis of a single lecture, rushing up to his former opponent in front of everyone and declaring "Sir! I have been wrong all these years!"

This inspiring example represents one end of the scientific bell curve when it comes to open-mindedness. At the other end are people such as Louis Agassiz, one of the greatest biologists of Darwin's day, who for all his brilliance and learning never accepted the theory of evolution. Time will tell where Dawkins sits on the bell curve of open-mindedness concerning group selection in general and religion in particular. At the moment, he is just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an evolutionist and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion.

It is time now for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work on understanding one of the most important and enigmatic aspects of the human condition.

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Inferior Design


Published: July 1, 2007

The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.
By Michael J. Behe.

320 pp. Free Press. $28.

I had expected to be as irritated by Michael Behe's second book as by his first. I had not expected to feel sorry for him. The first — "Darwin's Black Box" (1996), which purported to make the scientific case for "intelligent design" — was enlivened by a spark of conviction, however misguided. The second is the book of a man who has given up. Trapped along a false path of his own rather unintelligent design, Behe has left himself no escape. Poster boy of creationists everywhere, he has cut himself adrift from the world of real science. And real science, in the shape of his own department of biological sciences at Lehigh University, has publicly disowned him, via a remarkable disclaimer on its Web site: "While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific." As the Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne wrote recently, in a devastating review of Behe's work in The New Republic, it would be hard to find a precedent.

For a while, Behe built a nice little career on being a maverick. His colleagues might have disowned him, but they didn't receive flattering invitations to speak all over the country and to write for The New York Times. Behe's name, and not theirs, crackled triumphantly around the memosphere. But things went wrong, especially at the famous 2005 trial where Judge John E. Jones III immortally summed up as "breathtaking inanity" the effort to introduce intelligent design into the school curriculum in Dover, Pa. After his humiliation in court, Behe — the star witness for the creationist side — might have wished to re-establish his scientific credentials and start over. Unfortunately, he had dug himself in too deep. He had to soldier on. "The Edge of Evolution" is the messy result, and it doesn't make for attractive reading.

We now hear less about "irreducible complexity," with good reason. In "Darwin's Black Box," Behe simply asserted without justification that particular biological structures (like the bacterial flagellum, the tiny propeller by which bacteria swim) needed all their parts to be in place before they would work, and therefore could not have evolved incrementally. This style of argument remains as unconvincing as when Darwin himself anticipated it. It commits the logical error of arguing by default. Two rival theories, A and B, are set up. Theory A explains loads of facts and is supported by mountains of evidence. Theory B has no supporting evidence, nor is any attempt made to find any. Now a single little fact is discovered, which A allegedly can't explain. Without even asking whether B can explain it, the default conclusion is fallaciously drawn: B must be correct. Incidentally, further research usually reveals that A can explain the phenomenon after all: thus the biologist Kenneth R. Miller (a believing Christian who testified for the other side in the Dover trial) beautifully showed how the bacterial flagellar motor could evolve via known functional intermediates.

Behe correctly dissects the Darwinian theory into three parts: descent with modification, natural selection and mutation. Descent with modification gives him no problems, nor does natural selection. They are "trivial" and "modest" notions, respectively. Do his creationist fans know that Behe accepts as "trivial" the fact that we are African apes, cousins of monkeys, descended from fish?

The crucial passage in "The Edge of Evolution" is this: "By far the most critical aspect of Darwin's multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept."

What a bizarre thing to say! Leave aside the history: unacquainted with genetics, Darwin set no store by randomness. New variants might arise at random, or they might be acquired characteristics induced by food, for all Darwin knew. Far more important for Darwin was the nonrandom process whereby some survived but others perished. Natural selection is arguably the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind, because it — alone as far as we know — explains the elegant illusion of design that pervades the living kingdoms and explains, in passing, us. Whatever else it is, natural selection is not a "modest" idea, nor is descent with modification.

But let's follow Behe down his solitary garden path and see where his overrating of random mutation leads him. He thinks there are not enough mutations to allow the full range of evolution we observe. There is an "edge," beyond which God must step in to help. Selection of random mutation may explain the malarial parasite's resistance to chloroquine, but only because such micro-organisms have huge populations and short life cycles. A fortiori, for Behe, evolution of large, complex creatures with smaller populations and longer generations will fail, starved of mutational raw materials.

If mutation, rather than selection, really limited evolutionary change, this should be true for artificial no less than natural selection. Domestic breeding relies upon exactly the same pool of mutational variation as natural selection. Now, if you sought an experimental test of Behe's theory, what would you do? You'd take a wild species, say a wolf that hunts caribou by long pursuit, and apply selection experimentally to see if you could breed, say, a dogged little wolf that chivies rabbits underground: let's call it a Jack Russell terrier. Or how about an adorable, fluffy pet wolf called, for the sake of argument, a Pekingese? Or a heavyset, thick-coated wolf, strong enough to carry a cask of brandy, that thrives in Alpine passes and might be named after one of them, the St. Bernard? Behe has to predict that you'd wait till hell freezes over, but the necessary mutations would not be forthcoming. Your wolves would stubbornly remain unchanged. Dogs are a mathematical impossibility.

Don't evade the point by protesting that dog breeding is a form of intelligent design. It is (kind of), but Behe, having lost the argument over irreducible complexity, is now in his desperation making a completely different claim: that mutations are too rare to permit significant evolutionary change anyway. From Newfies to Yorkies, from Weimaraners to water spaniels, from Dalmatians to dachshunds, as I incredulously close this book I seem to hear mocking barks and deep, baying howls of derision from 500 breeds of dogs — every one descended from a timber wolf within a time frame so short as to seem, by geological standards, instantaneous.

If correct, Behe's calculations would at a stroke confound generations of mathematical geneticists, who have repeatedly shown that evolutionary rates are not limited by mutation. Single-handedly, Behe is taking on Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith and hundreds of their talented co-workers and intellectual descendants. Notwithstanding the inconvenient existence of dogs, cabbages and pouter pigeons, the entire corpus of mathematical genetics, from 1930 to today, is flat wrong. Michael Behe, the disowned biochemist of Lehigh University, is the only one who has done his sums right. You think?

The best way to find out is for Behe to submit a mathematical paper to The Journal of Theoretical Biology, say, or The American Naturalist, whose editors would send it to qualified referees. They might liken Behe's error to the belief that you can't win a game of cards unless you have a perfect hand. But, not to second-guess the referees, my point is that Behe, as is normal at the grotesquely ill-named Discovery Institute (a tax-free charity, would you believe?), where he is a senior fellow, has bypassed the peer-review procedure altogether, gone over the heads of the scientists he once aspired to number among his peers, and appealed directly to a public that — as he and his publisher know — is not qualified to rumble him.

First Chapter: 'The Edge of Evolution' (July 1, 2007)

Richard Dawkins holds the Charles Simonyi chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford. His most recent book is "The God Delusion."

'The Edge of Evolution'


First Chapter

Published: July 1, 2007

Life on earth developed over billions of years by utter chance, filtered through natural selection. So says Darwinism, the most influential idea of our time. If a rare random mutation in a creature's DNA in the distant past helped the lucky mutant to leave more offspring than others of its species, then as generations passed the species as a whole would have changed. Incessant repetition of this simple process over eons built the wonders of biology from the ground up, from the intricate molecular machinery of cells up to and including the human mind.

'The Edge of Evolution,' by Michael J. Behe: Inferior Design (July 1, 2007) That's the claim, at least. But is it true? To answer that question, Darwin's theory has to be sifted carefully, because it isn't just a single concept - it actually is a mixture of several unrelated, entirely separate ideas. The three most important ideas to keep straight from the start are random mutation, natural selection, and common descent.

Common descent is what most people think of when they hear the word "evolution." It is the contention that different kinds of modern creatures can trace their lineage back to a common ancestor. For example, gerbils and giraffes - two mammals - are both thought to be the descendants of a single type of creature from the far past. And so are organisms from much more widely separated categories - buffalo and buzzards, pigs and petunias, yaks and yeast.

That's certainly startling, so it's understandable that some people find the idea of common descent so astonishing that they look no further. Yet in a very strong sense the explanation of common descent is also trivial. Common descent tries to account only for the similarities between creatures. It says merely that certain shared features were there from the beginning - the ancestor had them. But all by itself, it doesn't try to explain how either the features or the ancestor got there in the first place, or why descendants differ. For example, rabbits and bears both have hair, so the idea of common descent says only that their ancestor had hair, too. Plants and animals both have complex cells with nuclei, so they must have inherited that feature from a common ancestor. But the questions of how or why are left hanging.

In contrast, Darwin's hypothesized mechanism of evolution - the compound concept of random mutation paired with natural selection - is decidedly more ambitious. The pairing of random mutation and natural selection tries to account for the differences between creatures. It tries to answer the pivotal question, What could cause such staggering transformations? How could one kind of ancestral animal develop over time into creatures as different as, say, bats and whales?

Let's tease apart that compound concept. First, consider natural selection. Like common descent, natural selection is an interesting but actually quite modest notion. By itself, the idea of natural selection says just that the more fit organisms of a species will produce more surviving offspring than the less fit. So, if the total numbers of a species stayed the same, over time the progeny of the more fit would replace the progeny of the less fit. It's hardly surprising that creatures that are somehow more fit (stronger, faster, hardier) would on average do better in nature than ones that were less fit (weaker, slower, more fragile).

By far the most critical aspect of Darwin's multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept. In Darwinian thinking, the only way a plant or animal becomes fitter than its relatives is by sustaining a serendipitous mutation. If the mutation makes the organism stronger, faster, or in some way hardier, then natural selection can take over from there and help make sure its offspring grow numerous. Yet until the random mutation appears, natural selection can only twiddle its thumbs.

Random mutation, natural selection, common descent - three separate ideas welded into one theory. Because of the welding of concepts, the question, Is Darwinism true? has several possible answers. One possibility, of course, is that those separate ideas - common descent, natural selection, and random mutation - could all be completely correct, and sufficient to explain evolution. Or, they could all be correct in the sense that random mutation and natural selection happen, but they might be inconsequential, unable to account for most of evolution. It's also possible that one could be wholly right while the others were totally wrong. Or one idea could be right to a greater degree while another is correct to a much lesser degree. Because they are separate ideas, evidence for each facet of Darwin's theory has to be evaluated independently. Previous generations of scientists readily discriminated among them. Many leading biologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thought common descent was right, but that random mutation/natural selection was wrong.

In the past hundred years science has advanced enormously; what do the results of modern science show? In brief, the evidence for common descent seems compelling. The results of modern DNA sequencing experiments, undreamed of by nineteenth-century scientists like Charles Darwin, show that some distantly related organisms share apparently arbitrary features of their genes that seem to have no explanation other than that they were inherited from a distant common ancestor. Second, there's also great evidence that random mutation paired with natural selection can modify life in important ways. Third, however, there is strong evidence that random mutation is extremely limited. Now that we know the sequences of many genomes, now that we know how mutations occur, and how often, we can explore the possibilities and limits of random mutation with some degree of precision - for the first time since Darwin proposed his theory.

As we'll see throughout this book, genetic accidents can cause a degree of evolutionary change, but only a degree. As earlier generations of scientists agreed, except at life's periphery, the evidence for a pivotal role for random mutations is terrible. For a bevy of reasons having little to do with science, this crucial aspect of Darwin's theory - the power of natural selection coupled to random mutation - has been grossly oversold to the modern public.

In recent years Darwin's intellectual descendants have been aggressively pushing their idea on the public as a sort of biological theory-of-everything. Applying Darwinian principles to medicine, they claim, tells us why we get sick. Darwinian psychology explains why some men rape and some women kill their newborns. The penchant for viewing the world through Darwinian glasses has spilled over into the humanities, law, and politics. Because of the rhetorical fog that surrounds discussions of evolution, it's hard for the public to decide what is solid and what is illusory. Yet if Darwinism's grand claims are just bluster, then society is being badly misled about subjects - ranging from the cause of illnesses to the culpability of criminals - that can have serious real-world consequences.

As a theory-of-everything, Darwinism is usually presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Either accept the whole theory or decide that evolution is all hype and throw out the baby with the bath water. Both are mistakes. In dealing with an often-menacing nature, we can't afford the luxury of elevating anybody's dogmas over data. The purpose of this book is to cut through the fog, to offer a sober appraisal of what Darwinian processes can and cannot do, to find what I call the edge of evolution.

The Importance of the Pathway

On the surface, Darwin's theory of evolution is seductively simple and, unlike many theories in physics or chemistry, can be summarized succinctly with no math: In every species, there are variations. For example, one animal might be bigger than its brothers and sisters, another might be faster, another might be brighter in color. Unfortunately, not all animals that are born will survive to reproduce, because there's not enough food to go around, and there are also predators of many species. So an organism whose chance variation gives it an advantage in the struggle to survive will tend to live, prosper, and leave offspring. If Mom or Dad's useful variation is inherited by the kids, then they, too, will have a better chance of leaving more offspring. Over time, the descendants of the creature with that original, lucky mutation will dominate the population, so the species as a whole will have changed from what it was. If the scenario is repeated over and over again, then the species might eventually change into something altogether different.

At first blush, that seems pretty straightforward. Variation, selection, inheritance (in other words, random mutation, natural selection, and common descent) seem to be all it takes. In fact, when an evolutionary story is couched as abstractly as in the previous paragraph, Darwinian evolution appears almost logically necessary. As Darwinian commentators have often claimed, it just has to be true. If there is variation in a group of organisms, and if the variation favorably affects the odds of survival, and if the trait is inherited, then the next generation is almost certain to have more members with the favorable trait. And the next generation after that will have even more, and the next more, until all members of the species have it. Wherever those conditions are fulfilled, wherever there is variation, selection, and inheritance, then there absolutely must be evolution.

So far, so good. But the abstract, naive logic ignores a huge piece of the puzzle. In the real world, random mutation, natural selection, and common descent might all be completely true, and yet Darwinian processes still may not be an adequate explanation of life. In order to forge the many complex structures of life, a Darwinian process would have to take numerous coherent steps, a series of beneficial mutations that successively build on each other, leading to a complex outcome. In order to do so in the real world, rather than just in our imaginations, there must be a biological route to the structure that stands a reasonable chance of success in nature. In other words, variation, selection, and inheritance will only work if there is also a smooth evolutionary pathway leading from biological point A to biological point B.

The question of the pathway is as critical in evolution as it is in everyday life. In everyday life, if you had to walk blindfolded from point A to point B, it would matter very much where A and B were, and what lay between. Suppose you had to walk blindfolded (and, to make the example closer to the spirit of Darwinism, blind drunk) from A to B to get some reward - say, a pot of gold. What's more, suppose in your sightless dizziness the only thought you could hold in your head was to climb higher whenever you got the chance (this mimics natural selection constantly driving a species to higher levels of fitness). On the one hand, if you just had to go from the bottom of a single enclosed stairwell to the top to reach the pot of gold, there might be little problem. On the other hand, if you had to walk blindfolded from one side of an unfamiliar city to the top of a skyscraper on the other side - across busy streets, bypassing hazards, through doorways - you would have enormous trouble. You'd likely stagger incoherently, climb to the top of porch steps, mount car roofs, and so on, getting stuck on any one of thousands of local high points, unable to step farther up, unwilling to back down. And if, just trying to climb higher whenever possible, you had to walk blindfolded and disoriented from the plains by Lubbock, Texas, to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago - blundering randomly over flatlands, through woods, around canyons, across rivers - neither you nor any of billions of other blindfolded, disoriented people who might try such a thing could reasonably be expected to succeed.

In everyday life, the greater the distance between points A and B, and the more rugged the intervening landscape, the bleaker are the odds for success of a blindfolded walk, even - or perhaps especially - when following a simple-minded rule like "always climb higher; never back down." The same with evolution. In Darwin's day scientists were ignorant of many of the details of life, so they could reasonably hope that evolutionary pathways would turn out to be short and smooth. But now we know better. The great progress of modern science has shown that life is enormously elegant and intricate, especially at its molecular foundation. That means that Darwinian pathways to many complex features of life are quite long and rugged. The problem for Darwin, then, as with a long, blindfolded stroll outdoors, is that in a rugged evolutionary landscape, random mutation and natural selection might just keep a species staggering down genetic dead-end alleys, getting stuck on the top of small anatomical hills, or wandering aimlessly over physiological plains, never even coming close to winning the biological pot of gold at a distant biological summit. If that is the case, then random mutation/natural selection would essentially be ineffective. In fact, the striving to climb any local evolutionary hill would actively prevent all drunkards from finding the peak of a distant biological mountain.

This point is crucial: If there is not a smooth, gradually rising, easily found evolutionary pathway leading to a biological system within a reasonable time, Darwinian processes won't work. In this book we'll examine just how demanding a requirement that is.

A Brief Look Back

As a practical matter, how far apart do biological points A and B have to be, and how rugged the pathway between them, before random mutation and natural selection start to become ineffective? How can we tell when that point is reached? Where in biology is a reasonable place to draw the line marking the edge of evolution?

This book answers those questions. It builds on an inquiry I began more than a decade ago with Darwin's Black Box. Then I argued that irreducibly complex structures - such as some stupendously intricate cellular machines - could not have evolved by random mutation and natural selection. To continue the above analogy, it was an argument that the blindfolded drunkard could not get from point A to point B, because he couldn't take just one small step at a time - he'd have to leap over canyons and rivers. The book concluded that there were at least some structures at the foundation of life that were beyond random mutation.

That conclusion stirred a lot of discussion. In particular, a lot of heat was generated in the scientific community by my inference that the structures are intelligently designed. Many people are viscerally opposed to that conclusion, for a variety of reasons. In this book, although my conclusions are ultimately the same, and will undoubtedly be opposed by some, I spend the bulk of the chapters drawing on molecular evidence, genomic research, and - above all - crucial long-term studies of evolutionary changes in single-celled organisms to test Darwinism without regard to conclusions of design. Readers who cannot accept my final conclusions should still be able to consider the evidence presented in the bulk of these chapters, before taking issue with my conclusions in the final three chapters of the book. As I will argue, mathematical probabilities and biochemical structures cannot support Darwinism's randomness, except at the margins of evolution. Still, as we seek to find the line marking the edge of randomness, there is no need to infer design.

Breaking the LogJam

Darwin's Black Box was concerned to show just that some elegant structures in life are beyond random mutation and natural selection. This book is much more ambitious. Here the focus is on drawing up reasonable, general guidelines to mark the edge of evolution - to decide with some precision beyond what point Darwinian explanations are unlikely to be adequate, not just for some particular structures but for general features of life. This can be compared to the job of an archeologist who discovers an ancient city buried under sand. The task of deciding whether random processes produced things like intricate paintings on walls of the city buildings (perhaps by blowing sand) is pretty easy. After all, elegant paintings aren't very likely to be made by chance processes, especially if the paintings portray not just simple geometric patterns, but images of people or animals.

Excerpted from The Edge of Evolution by Michael J. Behe Copyright © 2007 by Michael J. Behe.

More Books

Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design by Thomas Woodward

Billions of Missing Links: A Rational Look at the Mysteries Evolution Can't Explain by Geoffrey Simmons

The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine by Alister E. McGrath

Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome by John C. Sanford

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design by Jonathan Wells

Saucers in the sky


Popular culture quickly embraced flying saucers

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

It's 60 years since the term flying saucer was coined and the most celebrated "extraterrestrial" episode - Roswell. Alien believers are dismissed as cranks, but even the earthly explanations of objects in the sky are fascinating.

Sixty years ago Kenneth Arnold saw something which changed his own life and the lives of millions of others, and impacted on popular culture like a shockwave.

Flying his plane near Mount Rainier in the US state of Washington, he observed a line of strange objects either crescent-shaped or disc-like, flying with the motion of a saucer skimming on water.

Arnold's sighting, quickly picked up by the press, was followed a fortnight later by the revelation of perhaps the most notorious episode in the history of UFOs, at Roswell in New Mexico.


1980, Rendlesham Forest: US airbase staff see strange lights in woods
1957, RB-47 encounter: US jet followed by UFO for 700 miles
1979, Livingston: Forestry worker sees dome-shaped object
1950, McMinnville: Farm couple photograph saucer
1961, Betty and Barney Hill incident: Couple see UFO and under hypnosis describe abduction

Having announced it had recovered a "flying disk", the Army airfield backtracked and referred only to a weather balloon.

What followed was perhaps one of the greatest conspiracy theories of all time, involving post-mortem examinations of swollen-bellied grey aliens, the cloning of sophisticated extraterrestrial technology and an epic cover-up. Or not, as the case may be.

In the 60 years since 1947's first major wave of sightings, thousands of ordinary people have claimed to have seen inexplicable objects in the sky.

When the Ministry of Defence released papers on its own investigations into the phenomenon in 2006, it was revealed more than 10,000 eyewitness accounts had been collected.

And for every sceptic who prefers explanations of weather balloons and freak atmospheric conditions there is someone who genuinely believes intelligent life is visiting the planet.

Alien belief

A national newspaper survey in 1998 suggested 33% of men and 24% of women thought aliens had already visited the earth.

Such polls are testament to the powerful impact of six decades of media coverage, disputed science, heated mythology and Hollywood films. We have now completed six decades of projecting our hopes and fears onto the UFO phenomenon.

Many UFO images are less than overwhelming

David Clarke, a lecturer in journalism, has spent 30 years studying UFOs and the sociology of the flying saucer sighting.

He is no believer in little extraterrestrial men, but believes mainstream scientists should recognise the rational explanations for sightings are themselves worthy of study.

"They wouldn't touch it," he says. "It's got such a bad press. Anything that people don't have an immediate explanation for - it must be little green men."

The "ufologists" who study the phenomenon comprise both sceptics and believers. They seek to "resolve" each incident, explaining away each aspect. And there is a wealth of explanations for most sightings that is as fascinating for sceptical enthusiasts as the notion of space visitors.

Cold War projection

Sundogs, or strange refractions of the sun in another part of the sky, burning space debris, weather balloons, ball lightning, meteors, disc-shaped or lenticular clouds, mirages, even the planet Venus low in the sky, are all classic methods of resolving UFO sightings.

But underlying them is a need also to explain people's desire to believe that a UFO sighting can be explained by alien activity. The timing of the start of the golden age of the UFO, in a Western world recovering from World War II and gearing up for the start of the Cold War, is significant.

"We were projecting things to reflect our fears and concerns about the Cold War," Mr Clarke says.


Sundogs: Refracted image of the sun
Space debris: Burning satellites or rocket fragments
Meteors: Such as bolides or fireballs
Clouds: Lenticular or disc-like
Mirages: Hot or cold-air induced images
Stars/planets: Such as Venus
Planes: Such as experimental aircraft
Ball lightning: Unpredictable brilliant spheres
Weather balloons: Classic explanation
Hallucination: Viewer under stress
Mass hysteria: Early explanation
Earthlights: Caused by electromagnetic fields in seismic activity areas

"Organised religion was in decline but when worried or concerned it is comforting to feel there is a greater power looking after us. It is quite nice to think there is another civilisation that has been able to overcome the things destroying our civilisation."

The UFO phenomenon is also linked with the modern reliance on conspiracy theories, a mixture of a need to believe in something more than the mundane in an increasingly rational world and an all-pervading distrust of authority.

As the Fortean Times, which this month dedicates an entire issue to the UFO anniversary, puts it: "UFOs fill a niche in the human spirit that thrives on wondrous ideas."

Earlier generations had also seen UFOs but without the term flying saucer in existence, they were labelled as other things.

UFO students say there are peaks and troughs in sightings that are probably based on cultural, social and political trends.

Golden age

Expert Paul Devereux says a new golden age during the 1990s, particularly after the broadcast of the cult television series the X-Files, has given way to a current wave of indifference.

Mr Clarke concurs, suggesting: "It could be the case that post-9/11 people are more concerned about the threat from terrorism or the environment."

US military said a crashed weather balloon explained Roswell

Mr Devereux has drawn on the work of controversial Canadian academic Michael Persinger and believes many unresolved UFO sightings can be explained by "earthlights", clouds of plasma being charged by strong electromagnetic fields occurring in areas of seismic activity.

Having witnessed a UFO that could not initially be explained, Mr Devereux has dedicated his life to research.

"It bugged the hell out of me, almost gave me a mental breakdown. I couldn't make it fit into the everyday mundane world view."

Pilot Ray Bowyer was the principal witness to the most recent publicised UFO sighting in the UK.

Flying a commercial plane from Southampton to Alderney in the Channel Islands in April this year, Mr Bowyer saw two objects up to a mile across in the sky over Guernsey.

"I saw a bright yellow object, a light in the sky some miles ahead. I could see this specific shape of a flattened disc, like a CD on its edge, slightly tilted."

Many UFO enthusiasts believe governments hide the truth

He says some of his passengers, as well as another pilot, saw the objects and he has been told they were picked up on radar.

Mr Bowyer's sighting may be a prime candidate for the "earthlights" theory, coming just days before the Dover earthquake. He accepts this as a possible explanation.

"I'm open-minded about everything. It would be a fairly perverse universe if we were the only inhabitants."

Despite the drop-off in interest in UFOs, the ufologists and their acolytes carry on their work, and the UFO-loving public continues to believe in conspiracies.

"No matter how much material the authorities produce and release the people who want to believe a conspiracy to hide aliens will never be satisfied," Mr Clarke says.

"It is such an emotional thing. They are convinced they are here, that they are walking among us."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Mobile phones are near-useless for snapping UFOs on account of their wide angle lens, tiny CCD sensors and poor resolution. The point about satellites warding off UFOs is a good one, though...

Michal, Warsaw, Poland

Two mile-wide UFOs are seen by pilots near Guernsey. Not clouds, balloons, geese, etc. I really do think it's time for the authorities to own up about what they know or don't know. The objects were on radar for nearly an hour. I hope the story does not get the usual treatment.

Johann, Salford

About 10 years ago, I was woken by my father (I was at home during university vacation) telling me to look out of my bedroom window. He was already at the window, filming with hs video camera. What we saw can only be described as large, white, the shape of a teardrop on its side, and flying very fast. At that time, we lived in southwest Cornwall, and watched as it flew behind St Michael's Mount, and reappeared the other side after a second or so. My father got all of this on video, and had it analysed by several experts shortly after. The results were inconclusive, but we were advised categorically that it was not a cloud, and that it was, indeed, very large, some way in the distance, and travelling at great speed. As it happens, we weren't the only witnesses to this, and a large feature appeared a week later in the local paper. Certainly changed me from a die-hard disbeliever into your common or garden sceptic!

Kay, Plymouth, UK

I note the Roswell 'Cover Up' quoted that the debris contained indestructable, light as a feather material. If it was so light and indestuctable how come it crashed into the ground leaving debris?? It should still have been perfectly formed if it was indestructable!!

Mark, London

I have actually seen the electromagnetic discharge about 5 minutes before the earthquake that was centred around Clun in Shropshire struck in the early nineties and it didn't look like no UFO. It just looked like all the air surrounding me just lit up. I walked for one building to the other , heard a rumble, looked out of the window and the ground just looked like a series of waves running towards me then the building shook.

Pablo, UK

I saw a huge black triangle over a Roman town called Vienne in France. Using crude estimations with a tv aerial as point of reference, I guess it was perhaps 3-400 metres across. It was silent, moved very slowly and blocked the stars out as it passed over. It was very chilling indeed

Rene Pasini, Hammersmith

I find it strange that the UFO over Singapore in the 1970s never gets a mention in lists of sightings. It was around for days and thousands of people must have seen it, so why are the reports supressed?

John, Chesterfield, England

I personally doubt that we've been visited, because even if there is a possibility of other life in the universe, you have to reduce that possibility to life existing within a reasonable distance of earth, say 500 light years. On the other hand, a recend drying up of sightings could be due to an increase in the number of satellites that look down, ie. observe the skies and ground beneath them. This might cause an investigating visitor keep to a distance higher than satellite orbits, which would have a knock-on effect of reducing accidental naked-eye observations.

Luke, London

Pretty much all sightings are explainable, which leaves some which are "unidentified flying objects". Just because they're unidentified it doesn't mean they're alien spaceships - by definition they're unexplained. They could be spaceships but there's no way of knowing. If you want a real conspiracy theory try this one: the furore around government cover-ups of UFOs to make us think they're from another world is to divert us away from what they're really up to - and heaven alone knows what thet might be!.

Mark Grady, Southampton, UK

Yesterday evening at exactly 18.06:06 hrs I was walking on the Great Orme in Llandudno when to my amazement I saw a very strange object in the skies over the Irish sea. The object was shaped similar in configuration to a crucifix, as if you were looking at it side on but with a slight tilt, it also appeared to have a green symbol/shape on the side of it. The symbol/shape looked something like this: Ryanair.

paul richardson, Deganwy North Wales

My wife and her parents were scared by a low flying very fast UFO one night in South Yorkshire over 20 years ago. Last year I had my wife carefully draw what she saw then I loaded up google... what she saw was an F-117 stealth fighter years before the US admitted they existed. I suspect most of the 'credible' UFO sightings are new, top secret military aircraft.

Peter, Nottingham

I don't know if UFOs are real but it seems pretty obvious that intelligent life must exist elsewhere in the universe. I remember reading that scientits had calculated that with the number of stars in our galaxy, the milky way alone must contain at least 100,000 advanced civilisations. People who say extra terrestrial life doesn't exist seem to be the crank to me. It's like claiming the earth is flat, because it looks that way from our perspective on the ground. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that they will be friendly.

Andrew, Edinburgh

I've always found it fascinating that UFO images are so rubbish, when people are regularly taking pictures of aircraft etc that look just fine. The western world now seems to have a camera in every pocket (camera phones?) and yet there have been no new photos for years. Military video allows us to see missiles slamming into bunkers in great detail but no UFOs with the same detail. Perhaps.... because they simply don't exist? Now open the lines to the conspiracy theorists... "Of course that's what THEY want you to think!"

Dan Thurgood, Liverpool UK

Another attempt at debunking.One of the leading officers who organised the Roswell 'Cover Up' recently died, but wrote an afadavit to say that he saw the craft debris, handled the material which was silver, indestructable and as light as a feather. He also organised the local undertaker to supply four child sized coffins for the UFO occupants and oversaw the entire weather balloon story. This was in a recent Daily Mail spread about the Roswell Truth.

Stuart Chambers, Mill Hill London

I served with the UK forces in the Falklands in the 90s and from our hill top perch one night, the 3 of us saw a bright blue light moving fast over the water in the distance (map showed about 50 miles away) You could see the blue reflecting off the sea. We reported it and had to fill out a classified report.. 2 Phantom jets were scrambled and we confirmed the light had also been picked up on a radar station. They followed the light for a while as we watched... It travelled up Falkland sound then just switched off leaving the jets flying in circles looking for it.

Witheld, UK

If there are aliens amongst us they can't be very intelligent, otherwise they would have started an immediate cull of the most destructive life form in the universe - humans!

Mike Preston, Blackpool

The idea that aliens would bother to travel across vast reaches of time and space to buzz grannies in cars, experiment with farmers in the mid-west of the USA and emit some kind of ray that only produces ambiguous grainy images on cameras is just - rediculous.

David Case, Westgate on Sea

Strange with the advent of digital phones with cameras and videos that UFO sightings have dried up....isn't it?

Puggy, Glasgow

With everyone these days carrying a camera in their mobile phones surely we should have a half decent photograph of a UFO by now. Or have the aliens stopped coming becouse the weather is so bad?

TeeGee, Belfast

If you type Area 51 itno Google Earth you will see an amazing area which does get the imagination going. Whether or not the Government knows about it, the chances of 'others' are very high. If we have evolved and survived this long, there are bound to be others. We may never see or hear from them but to think we are the sole beings in the universe is a bit naive.

Lewis, Portsmouth

I read about all these sceptics saying 80% or 90% or 99% of sightings are earthlights, or moonlight on geese or the planet Venus - and they quietly don't mention that fact that still leaves more than a few sightings that aren't explained. Doesn't it worry anyone that there are things in the sky and we don't know what they are? I'm not saying they're aliens, just that these sightings should be studied properly, not swept under the carpet and dismissed as cranks or drunks or idiots not be able to recognise a plane when they see it.

Nona, London

Creation and evolution remain controversial for St. Helena clergy


By Anna Abbott
Thursday, July 5, 2007 12:28 AM PDT

Creation and evolution are prominent issues among people of faith. On Memorial Day, a multi-million dollar creation science museum opened in Kentucky. In mid-February, several churches around the country, including the Methodist church in Napa, celebrated Evolution Sunday, honoring scientist Charles Darwin. Among St. Helena clergy, creation and science remain controversial.

The Rev. Amy Durward of the Methodist church in St. Helena said, "Evolution is compatible with faith. Evolution Sunday hasn't been on my calendar, but I consider doing it." She added, "I don't think a seven-day creation should be taught as science. It's theology, not science."

Durward also noted there are two different creation accounts in the Bible. She said, "The issue is what is more foundational — is it Genesis one or Genesis two? They're mutually exclusive. While they are different, they tell the same story. There is a dramatic difference with other creation stories. It is intentional, planned; (man) is invited to be part of creation. Many creation stories at the time were violent. (In Genesis), the Divine chooses creation and humanity."

Intelligent design is also an aspect of the creation/evolution controversy. In Pennsylvania, it was ruled that intelligent design is teaching religion in the classroom. Durward said, "Intelligent design makes sense to me. Faith engages science. Science needs to be taught in science classes. I don't want theology to be taught to my children in school. Intelligent design treads on my roles as parent and pastor. It shouldn't be in the context of science class, but brief references as storytelling of faith traditions."

Monsignor John Brenkle of St. Helena Catholic Church said, "I happen to believe that evolution is an irrefutable fact of science. The Bible doesn't tell us how the world was created, but why the world was created. The Bible doesn't tell us how the heavens go, but how to get to Heaven."

Since the Catholic Church follows a liturgical calendar, Evolution Sunday will not be celebrated. Brenkle said, "We'll never do that. We celebrate people for holiness in life, not for genius." He concluded, "I don't know how intelligent design fits between evolution and creation. Science needs to be taught in the schools."

The Rev. Michael Mautner of St. Stephen's Anglican Church in Oakville said that he doesn't have a position on the subject. He commented that the days of creation and their significance "is something reasonable minds can differ on."

However, he said that there could be no compromise "between the Biblical worldview and secular scientism."

On the other hand, the official position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is that the universe was created in six literal 24-hour days. Robert Hancock of St. Helena Seventh-day Adventist Church said, "Death is incompatible with the origins of life, since science teaches that evolution is dependent on cycles of death."

He continued, "When I dialogue with people on creation and evolution, scientific data seems to back up an aged Earth. DNA can be traced back to one woman, Eve who supposedly lived 200,000 years ago. They imposed an evolutionary timeline. The mitochondrial Eve is only six thousand years old in conformity with Biblical history."

Hancock is skeptical of science. He said, "Much of what's reported as scientific fact is hypothesis. There's data on both sides of the issue. An enormous amount of data points to a young Earth. I read an article about 30 percent of researchers falsify their data for corporations, to harmonize with academic standards."

Hancock concluded, "In the Adventist view, faith and science are compatible. There's a certain amount of the unknowable. I interpret data in terms of previous assumptions about the philosophy of life. … There's a lot at stake for an evolutionist to move to belief in God. The argument isn't about facts, but underlying philosophies."

Evolution education update: July 6, 2007

And now it's Richard Dawkins's turn to assess the latest "intelligent design" book.


Writing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (July 1, 2007), Richard Dawkins reviews The Edge of Evolution (The Free Press, 2007), the latest book from "intelligent design" proponent Michael Behe. Even in his opening paragraph, he pulls no punches: "I had expected to be as irritated by Michael Behe's second book as by his first. I had not expected to feel sorry for him." Alluding to Behe's testimony in Kitzmiller v. Dover, Dawkins writes, "After his humiliation in court, Behe -- the star witness for the creationist side -- might have wished to re-establish his scientific credentials and start over. Unfortunately, he had dug himself in too deep. He had to soldier on. The Edge of Evolution is the messy result, and it doesn't make for attractive reading."

Focusing on Behe's contention that there are not enough mutations to account for the history of life, Dawkins remonstrates, "If mutation, rather than selection, really limited evolutionary change, this should be true for artificial no less than natural selection. Domestic breeding relies upon exactly the same pool of mutational variation as natural selection," and notes that Behe's claim is thus already refuted by the results of artificial selection. "From Newfies to Yorkies, from Weimaraners to water spaniels, from Dalmatians to dachshunds, as I incredulously close this book I seem to hear mocking barks and deep, baying howls of derision from 500 breeds of dogs -- every one descended from a timber wolf within a time frame so short as to seem, by geological standards, instantaneous."

Dawkins concludes his review by castigating Behe for his hubris: "If correct, Behe's calculations would at a stroke confound generations of mathematical geneticists, who have repeatedly shown that evolutionary rates are not limited by mutation. Single-handedly, Behe is taking on Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith and hundreds of their talented co-workers and intellectual descendants. Notwithstanding the inconvenient existence of dogs, cabbages and pouter pigeons, the entire corpus of mathematical genetics, from 1930 to today, is flat wrong. Michael Behe, the disowned biochemist of Lehigh University, is the only one who has done his sums right. You think?" Dawkins holds the Charles Simonyi chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford University.

For Dawkins's review in The New York Times, visit:

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Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
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Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism

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What's New Friday July 6, 2007

Robert L. Park Friday, 6 Jul 07 Washington, DC


In a feature article in the June issue of Physics Today, John Rigden tells the story of President Eisenhower convening a meeting of scientists in the wake of Sputnik that opened a new chapter in the relationship between science and government. That was 50-years ago. In those 50 years, led by the U.S., homo sapiens learned more about the laws of nature than in the previous 50,000 years. But the U.S. is now falling behind.


A front-page story by Peter Brown in the Washington Post on Monday says the meetings are never listed on the president's public schedule, and remain unknown to many on his staff, but Bush is summoning "leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House." He is searching for answers to the collapse of his presidency but scientists were not consulted. Perhaps it was an oversight by the writer, but it may explain the number of terminally stupid Bush programs that could have been averted by checking with freshman science students. They could have told him: 1) Not even Dick Cheney can break The First Law of Thermodynamics - hydrogen is not an energy source and for that matter neither is corn ethanol. 2) Ballistic missiles are easier to make than they are to stop. 3) Because the sexual urge, even of presidents, is shaped by evolution to insure procreation - girls under 18 need access to Plan B. 4) Embryonic stem cells are not one-celled people - the "soul" is an ancient superstition with no legal standing.


Yesterday, a Dublin company, Steorn, was to demonstrate its "Orbo" technology at the Kinetica Museum in London. Orbo was claimed to produce unlimited free energy - it didn't. A year ago Steorn was recruiting scientists http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN06/wn082506.html to evaluate Orbo, but you can't pick the reviewers and then call it peer review. Today Steorn blamed the air conditioning in Kinetica, and said the demonstration will be delayed a "few weeks." Sure it will.

Opinions are the author's and not necessarily shared by the University of Maryland, but they should be.

Archives of What's New can be found at http://www.bobpark.org

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Evolution: We need to hear evidence from both sides


By Gerald Bruulsema, Dunnville

The Hamilton Spectator

(Jul 6, 2007)

Re: 'A contest of one' (Opinion article, June 19)

It's easy for a learned person like Antony Black to write so that evolution evidence seems foolproof, but similar bone and structure in different animals and people does not prove evolution.

I work on machines that do totally different jobs, but they all have similar gears and shafts in them.

I do not have the knowledge to prove or disprove evolution, but Jesus said, "Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find."

So, I asked. I prayed: "Creator God, if you exist, show me." And He sure showed me.

A 1992 Gallup Poll showed some 13 million Americans had an after or near-death experience. I have met several of them and they all claimed the truth of life after death, as the Bible says.

I have seen people healed in the name of Jesus. Archeological digs prove the Bible true. Even history is unfolding as the Bible predicts.

Christianity is not a fairy tale, but has solid evidence to know the truth. We need to hear the evidence from both sides.

Infinite-energy theory challenges materialist thermodynamics dogma


Ask a materialist if an infinitely powerful entity is possible, and they will give you a "No!", without even bothering to consider the question for a moment. The materialist understanding of the laws of thermodynamics exclude any understanding of systems that have infinite energy. Unfortunately for materialists, their understanding of these basic scientific principles is about to receive a major challenge.

Sean McCarthy and Richard Walshe, the two boffins behind Steorn Research unveiled their latest gizmo: The Orbo, a magnetic engine which according to carefully controlled experiments can produce up to three times as much energy as is put into it,effectively creating an infinite amount of energy from apparently nowhere.

Steorn's findings totally undermine the basic premise of materialism, simply by demonstrating a confirmed physical effect that materialists predict cannot happen. These clever Irish researchers have demonstrated that the principles of thermodynamics function in a manner far closer to the predictions of William Dembski and William Brookfield than the clearly flawed thermodynamic claims of Hawkings and Maxwell.

The same scientists who tell you that Intelligent Design is impossible also dispute the hard-facts of Steorn's peer-reviewed findings. I predict that this humble contraption will show the world just how much materialists have misled mainstream-science.


Helena B

Guyana Scrutinizes Alternative Healers


By BERT WILKINSON 07.06.07, 4:25 PM ET

Guyana announced Friday it was drafting regulations for alternative healers who promise cures for cancer, AIDS and other diseases with potions and herbs found in the Amazon.

The growing ranks of herbalists peddling their cures nightly on TV have raised safety concerns for the South American country's government, which said it was seeking to demand a minimum of training for practitioners.

"It is a wild, wild west out there that must be regulated," said Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy, who noted that some claim a "divine right" to heal as their only medical qualification.

Herbs from the rainforest near the English-speaking country's borders with Venezuela and Brazil have been used to treat ailments ranging from snakebites to arthritis. Some specialists market their concoctions by claiming the ingredients are popular among the Amerindian communities in the interior.

Harold Peters, the chief executive of Guyana Rainforest Herbs, said he believes oversight will validate alternative practices and lead to integration with conventional medicine. He dismissed fears elsewhere that the government aims to squash the industry.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Peters, whose company develops and sells herbal treatments for prostate ailments, infertility and sexual dysfunction to Guyanese here and abroad.

About a third of the dozen local television channels in Guyana broadcast evening call-in programs promoting a range of medicines. Many show videotaped testimony from patients praising miracle cures for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

The proposal to require licenses for specialists making such claims will likely be introduced to Guyana's parliament within a few months, the health minister said.

"I do believe that there is a place for alternative medicine in Guyana but not in the form in which we have it at the moment," Ramsammy said. "No one has offered any credible evidence of proper academic training."

Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Copyright 2007 Associated Press.

Friday, July 06, 2007

County school board adopts controversial science textbook


By Darleen Principe darleenp@theacorn.com

After extensive review and consideration, the Ventura County Board of Education voted 3-1 last Thursday to adopt a seventhgrade science textbook that critics say portrays the theory of evolution as fact and contains other content that some call questionable.

Area 4 trustee Dean Kunicki, representing Simi Valley, Moorpark and Santa Susana Knolls, was absent from the meeting.

Of the four trustees present, only Ron Matthews, who originally expressed concern about Pearson Prentice Hall's "Focus on California Life Science" during a board meeting in February, remained opposed to the textbook in the final vote.

Despite his opposition to the book, Matthews nevertheless recommended it to the board.

"Out of the other textbooks that we did review, this was the least onerous," said Matthews, who represents Oxnard and El Rio. Matthews said he'd reviewed a total of seven available state-approved texts since the board's wellpublicized February meeting on the subject.

The action came four months after the original motion to approve the text was tabled because of a written objection by San Fernando Valley resident Carl Olson, whose daughter is a student at Simi Valley High School.

In February, Olson asserted that the book was inaccurate, causing the board to delay a decision.

"The publisher, Prentice Hall, has a reputation for mistakes," Olson said at last week's meeting.

He and several other members of the community addressed the hearing before the board moved to vote.

"I've studied every scientific journal and there's no proof of evolution anywhere," said Ed Rockland of Thousand Oaks. "In order to be scientific, it must be testable, supportable and disprovable."

While most of the public comment was geared toward challenging the alleged inadequacies of the book, John Gentry, a retired teacher from Ventura, said he had no objection to the text but wanted to see the other side in the debate over the origin of human existence included.

"Let it be there, but put in the other side too," Gentry said. "Are we trying to educate students on this subject or inculcate them?"

Gentry's comment was in keeping with a Discovery Institute video presentation that followed the public comment period.

The video, which described the potential problems the institute sees with Darwinism and presented fossil evidence, also addressed whether high school students have the ability to critically analyze such subjects as evolution in an educational format.

"It's amazing what schools keep from students," said trustee Chris Valenzano, who motioned to adopt the book under the condition that the board communicate with state officials to improve science education.

When Valenzano's first motion died for lack of a second, Marty Bates, the county school board president, emphasized the board's need to make a final decision.

The trustees considered options including supplementing the text, offering online resources, providing further training for faculty and refusing to adopt the book.

Valenzano argued that it was important to adopt the book despite its take on evolution in order to remain in compliance with state law. The adoption would also prevent the board from putting students at a disadvantage by withholding information they would potentially need for standardized tests, he said.

To comply with state law as directed by Williams v. State of California, the county board is responsible for adopting an updated textbook within 24 months of state approval, said Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Sandra Shackelford.

According to Larry Dunn of the California State Board of Education, "Focus on California Life Science" was approved by the state in November and will remain on the state-approved curriculum at least until 2012.

Before taking a second vote, Bates appointed trustee Mary Louise Peterson to a committee that will seek assistance from the California County Boards of Education and the state Board of Education in expanding the science curriculum.

After assuring the public that adoption of the textbook would not deter the board from moving forward with addressing the state, Valenzano renewed his motion, which was seconded by Bates.

The trustee asked that communicating with Sacramento regarding the issue be placed as a future agenda item.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

'This Is the Front Line … Where I Can Really Make a Difference'


Science 6 July 2007:
Vol. 317. no. 5834, p. 67
DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5834.67

Elizabeth Culotta

Lisa Park and her colleagues take on creationism and other antiscientific attitudes in the classroom--and in the voting booth

AKRON, OHIO--Lisa Park's introductory physical geology class at the University of Akron fills from the front and the back of the room simultaneously. Some students hustle into the front seats and chat eagerly with Park, while others drift into the very last row, leaving empty seats in front of them.

When Park announces that the upcoming final exam will cover material from the whole term, rather than just the last few weeks, the students in the back row aren't happy. "This is the hardest class!" hisses one student, blonde hair wet but eye makeup firmly in place at 9:15 a.m. Her neighbor, whose head is down on the desk, doesn't appear to hear.

By the end of the hour, however, even those in the back row have bestirred themselves to do a smallgroup exercise with giant plastic relief maps. The entire class can now explain that mountains form where tectonic plates converge. Score one for scientific literacy.

"I've been at a private liberal arts school, a big research I university, and here. This is the front lines," says Park about the University of Akron, an open-enrollment university in a northeastern Ohio city that's hoping to replace its lost manufacturing base with polymer science and biotechnology. A sizable fraction of students at the university are the first in their families to go to college, and a third don't make it beyond the first year, says geology professor David McConnell, co-author with Park and others of a new introductory earth science textbook. "This is their leg up to get somewhere," says Park. "This is where I can really make a difference."

Park, 41, can identify with them. She grew up in a blue-collar suburb of Cleveland, the daughter of a NASA engineer and a teacher. "I tell people I couldn't be elitist even if I tried. I'm from Parma, Ohio," says Park. She received her B.A. from the nearby College of Wooster and headed west--to the University of Arizona--for her Ph.D. before returning to the area in 1995 to join the faculty of the University of Akron.

With relatively few of their students aiming to become research scientists, Park and her colleagues are gearing their efforts toward scientific literacy. "The goal is that 5 years from now, they can process information on, say, global warming in a reasonable way," says McConnell. Adds Park, "We need to educate [students] as citizens."

To engage their students, Park, McConnell, and others try to make science relevant with "inquiry-based" exercises like the one with the relief map. During another of Park's classes, for example, students brought in bottled and tap water. Sophomore Sarah Rolan, 24, recalls that a chemical analysis found that a leading brand of water had a pH of only 4.5. Says Park: "You've got to make it relevant or you lose them. … Their eyes glaze over when you talk about groundwater. But water they personally drink? They were totally into it."

Having a diverse cross section of students also means that Park and her colleagues often confront mainstream attitudes toward science, including creationism. In recent years, Park has seen a tide of creationism rising both on campus and off. "We teach almost literally in the shadow of The Chapel," notes anthropology instructor John Reeves, referring to an evangelical megachurch on the edge of the university's urban campus.

Creationist speakers visit the campus fairly regularly, sponsored by religious groups or a "critical thinkers club." In her geology classes, Park explicitly debunks the idea that the biblical flood formed the Grand Canyon. Many of her students have only a sketchy background in evolution. "My high school biology teacher only went over it for a couple of days--didn't want to get into it," says freshman accounting major Kacy Grogg, 19. Junior Brandon Behnfeldt, 21, who plans to be a biology teacher, allows that the scientific age of Earth is more reliable than the biblical one. But when it comes to evolution, he says, "I hold with intelligent design." If he takes Park's paleontology course, he'll hear an entire lecture that skewers intelligent design arguments.

Last fall, Park and her colleague, biology professor Stephen Weeks, worked nonstop to elect a pro-science candidate to the Ohio Board of Education. "I could not stand by and do nothing," says Park. She analyzed local polling data that were later used to deploy volunteers on voting day. "I realized, this is paleoecology. I have two species, Democrat and Republican, and I'm looking at their site distribution."

Such hard work involves tradeoffs, however: Park and Weeks each missed a January deadline for submitting research proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF). "To me, fighting for evolution is part of my job," says Weeks. "But the system is not set up to benefit those who make this kind of move."

Park has been funded by NSF, despite a low success rate in paleobiology, and by other sources--enough to support research by a small group of undergraduate and master's students. "One thing that got me into paleontology is just handling the fossils," says Park. Her goal is "to keep that wonderment, that discovery, alive."

To judge by senior Melissa Kindle, Park's approach is working. "I want to do what she does," says Kindle, confidently screening core samples in the sink. "I want to be a paleontologist."

Barbara Forrest up to her old tricks


5 July 2007 William Dembski

Welcome to Uncommon Descent! If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to our RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!

As you link to read the following by Barbara Forrest, ask yourself if ID proponents are really that big a threat to the body politic and if in fact it isn't the dogmatic materialists, such as Barbara, who pose the bigger threat to our democratic institutions. Also ask yourself who is drawing on public funds to promote his/her point of view (hint: the notorious "Wedge Strategy" is not tax-supported).


Japanese acupressure technique targets blocked energy


Last updated July 4, 2007 10:22 a.m. PT


Gentle fingertips are strategically placed on the patient's body, separated only by a thin sheet. The room is still as the practitioner's focus becomes apparent in her furrowed brow. A throbbing pulse quickens, felt simultaneously at separate points, until a flowing energy dominates the atmosphere.

Some may call it the healing touch.

Colleen Foye Bollen, however, refers to her practice as Jin Shin Jyutsu.

The method, a type of acupressure, is an ancient Japanese form of healing that adherents say uses touch to harmonize life energy with the body.

By applying her hands to specific points on a patient's body, Bollen, a certified Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner, becomes a channel through which energy flows and balances the receiver of the treatment.

"Most practitioners don't see themselves as doing the healing but rather acting as the jumper cables," she said.

Jin Shin Jyutsu, which roughly translates as "the art of the creator expressed through knowing and compassionate man," identifies 26 points, or safety energy locks, that are arranged in pairs on each side of the body. These are used to "unlock" energy that may be stagnated. Bollen keeps her hands on a pair of points until they pulsate at the same rate.

"That indicates they're in unison," she said.

The excess energy is then unblocked and harmony restored.

Doctors and nurses have been open to the practice because it is non-invasive and can be done with ease, Bollen said. As researchers study the effectiveness of acupressure for patients, specifically those with heart problems, she hopes the practice will become more widespread.

"The more they use it, the more it will be accepted," Bollen said.

Each treatment is tailored to meet a patient's needs. For some, only five points are focused on during a treatment. Others, like Jan Rainier of Edmonds, who Bollen was working on this day, require 12 points to be used.

For 20 years, Rainier has had a series of chronic illnesses that include chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia (chronic pain in muscles, ligaments and tendons) and a bad neck. Helping energy flow is her main focus during treatment.

"(Jin Shin Jyutsu) is very, very relaxed and open, but with that comes energy," Rainier said. "It's the right kind of energy -- not agitation."

The results of the treatment are more dramatic than other methods, she added.

In addition to chronic illnesses, the practice can help ease a variety of other ailments. Bollen said a number of her recent clients have been cancer patients.

"One of the ways this is good for people with cancer is they can't receive deep massage," Bollen said. Risks of massage for cancer patients include tumor spreading, bleeding and flulike symptoms.

Dr. Patricia Dawson, a breast cancer surgeon at the Swedish Medical Center Cancer Institute, said alternative medicine treatments can help the muscle tightness, nausea and sleep disruption sometimes experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy.

"I would never recommend that they be used instead of traditional medicine, but I think they can be very complementary in a patient's well being," she said.

However, when choosing an alternative medicine practitioner, patients should be careful, Dawson said.

"People need to be really good at seeing what are their credentials, what is their experience," the surgeon said. "One way to do that is to get referrals from people who have been in the field for a long time."

Tuan Nguyen, a local acupuncturist with private practices in Seattle and Tacoma, who also volunteers at Harborview's International Medicine Clinic, agreed.

"You really need someone who knows what they're doing," he said. "It's powerful but I think just blindly pushing on something will not get you the results you want."

Rainier, who knew Bollen before beginning acupressure treatments, is confident in her practitioner.

"Colleen is an incredible channel," she said. "I think it's because she's so open to being a channel."

Bollen, who began studying Jin Shin Jyutsu in 2002, holds her practice, Flowing Stillness, at her home in Shoreline and has worked with patients at the University of Washington Medical Center. She became interested in the practice after reading "The Mayan Factor" by Jose Arguelles, a Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner who incorporated many of the practice's teachings in the novel.

To become a certified Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner, Bollen attended a series of three five-day classes in Seattle that were stretched out over a number of years to allow her to practice what she had learned. The classes were taught by an instructor, certified by Jin Shin Jyutsu Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz. Bollen's certificate confirms she has attended 105 hours of class time, which included lectures and hands-on teaching.

In addition to the treatments she provides, Bollen encourages patients to take advantage of the self-help component of Jin Shin Jyutsu. There are certain points a patient can hold to help energy flow, such as the thumb to ease worry and the middle finger to alleviate anger.

"It empowers the person because you're not just doing it," she said. "They can go home and do it for themselves."


For more information on Jin Shin Jyutsu, visit the Jin Shin Jyutsu Inc. Web site at jsjinc.net.

P-I reporter Meghan Peters can be reached at 206-448-8161 or meghanpeters@seattlepi.com.

Evolution of platypus venom revealed


Wednesday, 4 July 2007

by Anya Weimann Cosmos Online

Ouch!: The sharp hind leg spur of a male platypus can inflict severe pain on people, but it's mostly used to compete with other males during the spring breeding season.

Both male and female platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) are born with hind leg spurs, but only males produce a cocktail of venom there, which helps them compete with other males for mates and defend themselves against predators. The venom is powerful enough to kill dogs and though it is not fatal to humans, it can cause pain so intense that the victim is debilitated for weeks.

"Extreme pain"

"The platypus is one of the few venomous mammals. It derives its venom from hind legs spurs, only produced during the breeding season in spring," said Camilla Whittington of the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science. "In humans, platypus envenomation causes extreme pain and swelling. As it is very difficult to extract a venom sample, our knowledge has been incomplete and there is no antivenin available."

To further probe the unusual adaptation, Whittington and other researchers involved in the platypus genome project have sequenced its venom genes. By comparison with the genes of other venomous species, such as snakes, the team have discovered that they have evolved by duplication from genes that were once involved in the immune system.

As they revealed at the Annual Conference of the Genetics Society of Australasia held at the University of Sydney last week, the venom of the platypus is partly composed of 'defensin-like' proteins.

Defensin proteins are produced by the immune system of the platypus, and are also produced as an antibiotic in the milk of some marsupials to help bolster immunity of young koalas, wallabies and other species.

The molecular basis of pain

Understanding the basis of platypus venom might help us to understand more about the pain response in humans and could lead to new painkillers and antivenin, commented physiologist Jamie Vandenberg of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

"Envenomation is very painful. Thus if we could identify which of the toxins in the venom are causing the pain and then identify the protein molecules in the body that the toxin is stimulating, that will give us insights into the molecular basis of pain sensation," he said

"By extension of that once you know the proteins involved in pain sensation, you have the opportunity to start to design new drugs that will interfere with those molecules and prevent them transmitting pain signals," added Vandenberg.

The platypus venom study has come out of efforts to sequence the entire genome of the species. As the platypus is a monotreme – a primitive group that branched off early on in the mammalian tree of life – new insights on its genetic make-up could help us better understand mammalian evolution.

Earlier this year, researchers published the genome of the South American opossum (Monodelphis domestica) the first marsupial to be sequenced. Other marsupial genome projects such as the Tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii), representing the kangaroo family, are also underway.

Evolution as a scientific principle has been seriously challenged


Wednesday, July 4th 2007

Dear Editor,

Reading Kowlessar Misir's letter captioned "Science and Religion are mutually exclusive: belief is a matter of faith!" (07.06.30) is a tortuous journey. Throughout the letter, one senses the difficulty in conceptualizing the big picture, and also a desperate search for meaning. An indication of Misir's dilemma is the fact that, in the tight space of a single page, he asked 21 questions rather than exercise diligence in rationalizing their answers. The reason for this, sadly, is found in the very last line of his effort as he quotes Miller on Darwin, denying the existence of a soul. Could this intellectual panic be about Misir's infatuation with atheism and evolution? He is now engaged in the ultimate deception, making a case for a "God of diversity" while at the same time denying His (God's) existence. Remember Psalm 14:1 …

The available "scientific" evidence will add to his misery. He should recognize at once that it takes more faith to believe in evolution, Darwin and atheism than to believe in Jesus Christ!

In any belief system, it surely is a comfort to find that the "scientific" (however defined) basis upon which that system rests acts itself out with the reassuring consistency or probability of a "law". Likewise, it must surely portend disaster and crisis when the system has to be held up with the bandages of deception and denial. Dr. Hugh Ross (Reasons To Believe) adopts a view that is completely opposite to Misir's: "… science and faith are, and always will be, allies, not enemies. ... since (for) the same God who "authored" the universe also inspired the writings of the Bible, a consistent message will come through both channels. In other words, the facts of nature will never contradict the words of the Bible when both are properly interpreted." To believe any less of any belief system would be self-deluding indeed. Misir is fundamentally deficient in advocating that "These two concepts are mutually exclusive and there is never any convergence". He denies his own system, whatever that is, since he maintains that science cannot uphold it.

We should turn to Marilyn Adamson (Is there a God?) for a brief rebuttal of Misir's evolutionary concept that the "… world is a complex heterogeneous system and that evolved from a complex heterogeneous system". This idea of Misir's sounds impressive indeed until one carries the process to its absurdly infinite iteration. One must finally make a decision on where the first "complex" heterogeneous system came from. Complexity, by its very definition is ordered not chaotic, is multi-faceted, and reflects intelligence. Adamson offers six simple but compelling lower-order observations for the existence of the God of the Bible, and it is this level of abstraction in reasoning that Misir must aim at, rather than rhetorical thrust and parry. He may want, for example, to rationalize his concern with the validity of "philosophies that predate the common Biblical era" against the Christian position that the "Biblical era" begins, well, at the "beginning itself" per Genesis 1:1.

I sense that the most meaningful insight into Adamson's foresight is in her fifth point. Here, she maintains that "We know God exists because he pursues us. He is constantly initiating and seeking for us to come to him." Misir is no different from billions of Christians in this regard, and here's the proof: after vowing to address "God" in a later treatment in as early as the second paragraph, he almost unconsciously refers to "God" no less than 15 times in the paragraphs thereafter. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob comforts him, and us, with the soothing words of Jeremiah 29:11-14. Misir has thereby found his answer as to why God gave him the "ability to intellectualize". To choose to seek God from a wide range of intellectual distractions is worship indeed, this with a peace that passes all understanding.

But I also sense that it is the higher-order arguments regarding Biblical creation/ evolution that Misir's attention is really focused on, since he says in concluding: "Scientific thought has provided the necessary tools of investigation that yielded knowledge and information, enabling us to make informed statements on the development of humankind." He however cites none of them, and I admire his caution, because evolution as a scientific principle has been all but disproved. A formidable body of evidence already exists in such works as Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? by Jonathan Wells (Regnery Publishing, Inc, 2000. 338 pages) and Science & Christianity: Four Views (InterVarsity Press, 2000. 276 pages) http://www.reasons. org/resources/fff/2001issue05/index.shtml# book_reviews. There are others.

Wells, for one, carefully documents his thesis from the work of evolutionary biologists, explaining that the "icons" of evolution-considered to be the best evidence for evolution-are nothing more than scientific myths, in most cases.

The lack of experimental and observational support for evolution's so-called best evidence comes not from recent scientific advances, in most instances, but from long-acknowledged mainstream scientific literature. This lack of support prompts Wells to repeatedly question why textbooks consistently present these "icons" as evidence for evolution when evolutionary biologists understand that these "icons" are equivocal at best in their support for evolution.

He believes that the answer to this question stems from a deliberate effort by Darwinian ideologues to suppress scientific truth out of concern that without these widely known "icons" of evolution, public support for evolution will wane.

The evolutionary "icons" addressed by Wells include: 1) the Miller-Urey experiment; 2) the evolutionary "Tree of Life"; 3) the homology of vertebrate limbs; 4) Haeckel's drawings of vertebrate embryos; 5) Archaeopteryx as the missing link connecting birds to reptiles; 6) the peppered moth story; 7) beak evolution and speciation among Darwin's finches; 8) the laboratory-directed evolution of four-winged fruit flies; 9) equine evolution; and 10) human evolution.

In Misir's world of evolution and atheism, the scientific tools have been applied, and the concepts found wanting. Now what?

We conclude that it takes more "faith" to believe in a lie called "Darwinian evolution", and the tragedy of atheism, than to believe in Jesus Christ! Now, we should examine how the scientific tools validate intelligent design and, by inference, creation!

Yours faithfully,

Roger Williams

Scientology tapped to fight substance abuse


MULTI-AWARDED recording artist, composer, lyricist and performer David Pomeranz is sharing his music to help the government curb drug abuse through a major breakthrough in self-healing.

At a forum, Pomeranz announced the goodwill tour initiated by the Scientology Volunteers Ministry in Manila and other cities, to teach people how to handle various problems and illnesses that could trigger drug dependency.

He said he is recommending the hands-on approach to hinder drug problems as well as resolve conflicts, broken marriages, suppression, child abuse, unfair labor practices, illiteracy, poverty and poor social relationship, "unburden" traumatic experiences and cure illnesses.

"This is for everybody. I just want to help our friends in trouble. I am here in the Philippines for the 20th time," he told Standard Today.

"What makes a man unhappy every day. Remove the filter, be happy in life. Emotional baggage must be a thing of the past. Man has a body, a mind and a spirit. We must unburden our past."

Pomeranz joins actor Tom Cruise among the celebrities devoted to scientology.

He said the positive impact of the scientology approach was remarkable not only in his country, but also in Asia.

Director Anselmo Avenido, of the Dangerous Drugs Board, showed up at the forum and praised the Church of Scientology for introducing the philosophy to the agency several years back.

"When we learned about the scientology, we immediately coordinated with its representatives and sent our officials to the US," he said.

"We are happy to report to the Scientology church that your technique has been very effective in delivering our message to the people. We appreciate your efforts to help us in our antidrug campaign," Avenido said.

Pomeranz, born in New York City, is known for hundreds of his hit songs, such as "Got to Believe in Magic" and "King and Queen of Hearts." He penned other hits for Barry Manilow, Cliff Richards and other rock stars as well as movie themes.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development, represented by Undersecretary Alicia Balang, and the University of the Philippines' School of Labor and Industrial Relations have adopted scientology to improve their services.

Rio N. Araja