NTS LogoSkeptical News for 30 September 2008

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Texas Scientists Object to Teaching of 'Weaknesses' in Evolution


September 30, 2008

More than 800 Texas scientists, including hundreds of university and college professors, have signed a statement endorsing evolution as "an easily observable phenomenon that has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt" and opposing what they see as an effort to water down how it is taught in the state's public schools, reports the Associated Press.

The statement, drafted by members of the newly formed 21st Century Science Coalition, comes as the Texas State Board of Education works on revising the state's curriculum standards for science. The scientists support a proposed change in the standards for biology courses that would eliminate the long-held language of teaching students the "strengths and weaknesses" of theories. Talking of the "weaknesses" of evolution, they say, allows for the introduction of supernatural explanations into science courses.

But some members of the Board of Education — including its chairman, Don McLeroy — want to preserve that language. Dr. McLeroy, a dentist, told the Associated Press that "students need to understand what science is and what its limitations are," adding: "I look at evolution as still a hypothesis with weaknesses."

The 21st Century Science Coalition draws together Texas scientists who seek to ensure that science education "reflects the most current scientific knowledge and is based on established scientific data," according to the group's Web site. —Caitlin Moran

Posted on Tuesday September 30, 2008 | Permalink

Sunday, September 28, 2008

What Happens When We Die?


By M.J. Stephey Thursday, Sep. 18, 2008

A fellow at New York City's Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Sam Parnia is one of the world's leading experts on the scientific study of death. Last week Parnia and his colleagues at the Human Consciousness Project announced their first major undertaking: a 3-year exploration of the biology behind "out-of-body" experiences. The study, known as AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation), involves the collaboration of 25 major medical centers through Europe, Canada and the U.S. and will examine some 1,500 survivors of cardiac arrest. TIME spoke with Parnia about the project's origins, its skeptics and the difference between the mind and the brain.

What sort of methods will this project use to try and verify people's claims of "near-death" experience?

When your heart stops beating, there is no blood getting to your brain. And so what happens is that within about 10 sec., brain activity ceases —as you would imagine. Yet paradoxically, 10% or 20% of people who are then brought back to life from that period, which may be a few minutes or over an hour, will report having consciousness. So the key thing here is, Are these real, or is it some sort of illusion? So the only way to tell is to have pictures only visible from the ceiling and nowhere else, because they claim they can see everything from the ceiling. So if we then get a series of 200 or 300 people who all were clinically dead, and yet they're able to come back and tell us what we were doing and were able see those pictures, that confirms consciousness really was continuing even though the brain wasn't functioning.

How does this project relate to society's perception of death?

People commonly perceive death as being a moment — you're either dead or you're alive. And that's a social definition we have. But the clinical definition we use is when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working, and as a consequence the brain itself stops working. When doctors shine a light into someone's pupil, it's to demonstrate that there is no reflex present. The eye reflex is mediated by the brain stem, and that's the area that keeps us alive; if that doesn't work, then that means that the brain itself isn't working. At that point, I'll call a nurse into the room so I can certify that this patient is dead. Fifty years ago, people couldn't survive after that.

How is technology challenging the perception that death is a moment?

Nowadays, we have technology that's improved so that we can bring people back to life. In fact, there are drugs being developed right now — who knows if they'll ever make it to the market — that may actually slow down the process of brain-cell injury and death. Imagine you fast-forward to 10 years down the line; and you've given a patient, whose heart has just stopped, this amazing drug; and actually what it does is, it slows everything down so that the things that would've happened over an hour, now happen over two days. As medicine progresses, we will end up with lots and lots of ethical questions.

But what is happening to the individual at that time? What's really going on? Because there is a lack of blood flow, the cells go into a kind of a frenzy to keep themselves alive. And within about 5 min. or so they start to damage or change. After an hour or so the damage is so great that even if we restart the heart again and pump blood, the person can no longer be viable, because the cells have just been changed too much. And then the cells continue to change so that within a couple of days the body actually decomposes. So it's not a moment; it's a process that actually begins when the heart stops and culminates in the complete loss of the body, the decompositions of all the cells. However, ultimately what matters is, What's going on to a person's mind? What happens to the human mind and consciousness during death? Does that cease immediately as soon as the heart stops? Does it cease activity within the first 2 sec., the first 2 min.? Because we know that cells are continuously changing at that time. Does it stop after 10 min., after half an hour, after an hour? And at this point we don't know.

What was your first interview like with someone who had reported an out-of-body experience?

Eye-opening and very humbling. Because what you see is that, first of all, they are completely genuine people who are not looking for any kind of fame or attention. In many cases they haven't even told anybody else about it because they're afraid of what people will think of them. I have about 500 or so cases of people that I've interviewed since I first started out more than 10 years ago. It's the consistency of the experiences, the reality of what they were describing. I managed to speak to doctors and nurses who had been present who said these patients had told them exactly what had happened, and they couldn't explain it. I actually documented a few of those in my book What Happens When We Die because I wanted people to get both angles —not just the patients' side but also the doctors' side — and see how it feels for the doctors to have a patient come back and tell them what was going on. There was a cardiologist that I spoke with who said he hasn't told anyone else about it because he has no explanation for how this patient could have been able to describe in detail what he had said and done. He was so freaked out by it that he just decided not to think about it anymore.

Why do you think there is such resistance to studies like yours?

Because we're pushing through the boundaries of science, working against assumptions and perceptions that have been fixed. A lot of people hold this idea that, well, when you die, you die; that's it. Death is a moment — you know you're either dead or alive. All these things are not scientifically valid, but they're social perceptions. If you look back at the end of the 19th century, physicists at that time had been working with Newtonian laws of motion, and they really felt they had all the answers to everything that was out there in the universe. When we look at the world around us, Newtonian physics is perfectly sufficient. It explains most things that we deal with. But then it was discovered that actually when you look at motion at really small levels — beyond the level of the atoms — Newton's laws no longer apply. A new physics was needed, hence, we eventually ended up with quantum physics. It caused a lot of controversy — even Einstein himself didn't believe in it.

Now, if you look at the mind, consciousness, and the brain, the assumption that the mind and brain are the same thing is fine for most circumstances, because in 99% of circumstances we can't separate the mind and brain; they work at the exactly the same time. But then there are certain extreme examples, like when the brain shuts down, that we see that this assumption may no longer seem to hold true. So a new science is needed in the same way that we had to have a new quantum physics. The CERN particle accelerator may take us back to our roots. It may take us back to the first moments after the Big Bang, the very beginning. With our study, for the first time, we have the technology and the means to be able to investigate this. To see what happens at the end for us. Does something continue?

Study Challenges Two Icons of Evolution: Functional Junk DNA Shows "Surprising" Genetic Differences Between Humans and Apes


In 2004, cognitive scientist Keith E. Stanovich took the position that junk DNA "is essentially a parasite," and that "junk DNA is a puzzle only if we are clinging to the assumption that our genes are there to do something for us."1

In 2006, Michael Shermer asserted, "Rather than being intelligently designed, the human genome looks more and more like a mosaic of mutations, fragment copies, borrowed sequences, and discarded strings of DNA that were jerry-built over millions of years of evolution."2

The following year, a human physiology textbook stated that "junk DNA" is "considered defective" and comprises "inherited sequences [that] perform no currently known 'genetically useful' purpose, yet they remain part of the chromosomes."3

These sources promoting the classic "junk DNA" icon of neo-Darwinism need updating, as a Yale University news release from earlier this month recalls the fact that "[i]n the last several years, scientists have discovered that non-coding regions of the genome, far from being junk, contain thousands of regulatory elements that act as genetic 'switches' to turn genes on or off." In this case, the junk triggered genes that control human thumb and foot development.

But this wasn't the only interesting finding they made. According to the article, finding these genetic differences were "especially surprising, as the human and chimpanzee genomes are extremely similar overall."

Most studies that have claimed that humans and apes have nearly identical genomes have primarily looked at the gene-coding portions of the genome, not the non-coding DNA (formerly claimed to be "junk"). Perhaps as biologists study the non-coding regions of our genome, they will find evidence that challenges two icons of evolution: Not only does "junk" DNA have function, but humans aren't as genetically similar to apes as was once thought.

References Cited:
[1.] Keith E. Stanovich, The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin, pgs. 16-17 (University of Chicago Press, 2004).
[2.] Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, pg. 75 (Times Books 2006).
[3.] William D. McArdle et al., Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance, pg. 1024 (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007).

Posted by Casey Luskin on September 24, 2008 11:07 AM | Permalink

On creationism and the theory of evolution (4)


Written by Douglas Anele Sunday, 28 September 2008

THE key point of the argument from improbability against evolution is that the odds against the spontaneous generation of the basic building blocks of life is so astronomically huge that no reasonable person could entertain the idea that life on earth is the product of natural processes controlled by natural selection.

Now, the book Scientists Confront Creationism, is one of the best collections of anti-creationist perspectives by scientists. An essay in it, "Probability and the origin of Life" written by Professor Russell F.

Doolittle, contains, in my view, a solid response from molecular biology to the improbability argument. Professor Doolittle argued that "life on earth developed in stages, each of which was built on the stabilizing, catalytic or replicative power of the stage before it". He also used an analogy to press home the point that occurrences which at first sight might seem improbable actually do happen sometimes.

How likely, he asks, is it that someone playing bridge, a card game for four players, will be dealt a perfect hand of all thirteen spades? The probability of this happening is 1 in 635,013,559,600, the number of different sets of thirteen cards in a standard deck of fifty two.

From this number, it appears that for someone to be dealt a perfect hand in a game of bridge is very improbable. But does this mean that it can never happen? No. Doolittle reports that when the game was popular in England in the 1920s and 1930s, it is estimated that "perfect hands" occurred annually in that small country alone.

If that is so, then consider the possibilities of all kinds of combinations and recombinations of the trillions upon trillions of simple molecules in the conditions of the primitive earth which lasted for more than a billion years after the planet was formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

Professor Richard Dawkins also provides some compelling arguments in this direction. In the book, The Blind Watchmaker, he distinguished between single-step selection and cumulative selection. In the single-step selection, the entities selected or sorted are sorted once and for all, whereas in cumulative selection, the entities reproduce or, in some other way, the results of one sieving process are fed into a subsequent sieving, and the process continues on and on. Consequently, the entities are subjected to selection or sorting over many generations.

Dawkins' interpretation of Darwin 's theory makes it possible for one to really understand how evolution from simple primordial entities to very complex ones like humans could have occurred. The key point is that evolution started by gradual step-wise transformations of entities which were sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance.

Dawkins argues, and I agree, that each successive change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its predecessor, to have been produced by chance. However, the entire sequence of cumulative steps is far from being the product of chance, especially when one reflects on the complexity of the final end-product relative to the original point of departure.

The cumulative processes are directed by nonrandom survival, since the direction of survival is crucially determined by the total situation currently in existence. Therefore, when the power of cumulative selection as a fundamentally nonrandom process that accounts for the emergence of organisms as we know them is thoroughly understood and properly digested, one can see that the peddlers of the improbability argument have overstated their case.

Earlier, I alluded to Karl Popper's assertion that the theory of evolution is a metaphysical research programme, because it is not testable. Is it indeed the case that the theory cannot be tested because it does not rule out any possible state of affairs in the world of biology?

Now, if Popper is right on this score, then the theory of evolution and creationism would be on the same footing as unscientific accounts of biological reality. It is surprising that an eminent philosopher like Popper failed to see that scientists have made testable predictions on the basis of evolutionary theory, predictions that have been corroborated experimentally.

In The Origin of Species, Darwin affirmed that "if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." In other words, Darwin predicted that, on the basis of his theory, no complex organ can ever be discovered which is not the product of slight successive modifications. Professor Dawkins confirms that since Darwin wrote, there is not a single case known to him of a complex organ that could not have been formed by a large number of successive slight changes.

Professor Dawkins ought to know; he is a globally acclaimed specialist in such matters.

Because of the time line at the heart of evolutionary theory, one crucial way of testing it is to find out whether the time sequence which the theory assigns to different phyla is congruent with the fossil record.

As Dawkins says, if genuine fossils are arranged in order, from the oldest to the youngest, the theory of evolution predicts some sort of orderly sequence starting from the oldest, instead of a higgledy-piggledy jumble.

The theory of evolution would be in serious trouble if human fossils were found in the record before mammals were supposed to have evolved, or if a well-verified mammalian fossil turned up in rocks which are six hundred million years old.

Even at the molecular level, the new science of molecular evolution has added more muscle to the scientific credentials of the theory of evolution. In a paper entitled "Molecular Evidence for Evolution", Professor Thomas H. Jukes posits that given the operation of a molecular clock, the evolutionary model predicts that closely related organisms will differ less in the amino acid sequences of their hemoglobin alpha and beta chains than will distantly related organisms.

This is due to the fact that closely related organisms have had less time to accumulate amino acid substitutions since they diverged from their common ancestor than have distantly related organisms. Furthermore, the theory predicts that the alpha and beta portions of any and all hemoglobin molecules should be more or less equally divergent.

Professor Jukes asserts that all these predictions have been confirmed. Once can go on marshalling facts to prove that whereas the scientific evidence for evolution is strong indeed, creationism has no scientific evidence whatsoever to back it up, because of the unverifiable nature of its major claims.

One of the favourite objections to Darwin 's theory of evolution is that there had not been enough time for a process as slow as natural selection to produce all the species of living things on earth.

As I pointed out earlier, most creationists accept a short time frame for the existence of both the earth and the universe. William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin) in the nineteenth century attempted to estimate the age of the earth by constructing a thermal history of a simple physical system such as a sphere the size of the earth, on the basis of certain assumptions.

He concluded that it is "most probable that the sun has not illuminated the earth for 100,000,000 years, and almost certain that it has not done so for 500,000,000 years". Professor Stephen G. Brush informs us, in "Ghosts from the nineteenth century: Creationist Arguments for a Young Earth", that the discovery of radioactivity led to a drastic change in previous estimates of the age of the earth.

The discovery meant that heat generated by radioactive substances on earth must be taken into account in studies of the thermal history of the planet. Thus, by the early decades of the twentieth century, the core assumptions underlying Lord Kelvin's estimate of a relatively young earth were proved untenable.

Accordingly, Professor Brush maintains that any attempt to estimate the age of the earth from its thermal properties alone is likely to be completely off the mark.

At present, there is solid evidence that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Creationists favour 10,000 years, a number orders of magnitude smaller from what the best evidence from radioactive dating suggests.

Commenting on the penchant of creationists to insist on a relatively young earth, Professor Brush has this to say: "The criticisms of radioactive dating published by creationists have no scientific basis and can be justified only by arbitrarily rejecting well-established results of modern physical science". Sometimes it is argued that the acceptance of the theory of evolution would lead to the glorification of cut-throat competition, oppression of the weak by the strong, rationalization of social inequalities and injustice as "natural", etc.

The idea that the world of living things is ruled by the inexorable law of the survival of the fittest is repugnant to a lot of people.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Brunswick school board to consider creationism teaching


By Ana Ribeiro Staff Writer

Published: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 10:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 10:40 p.m.

Bolivia | The Brunswick County school board is looking for a way for creationism to be taught in the classroom side by side with evolution.

"It's really a disgrace for the state school board to impose evolution on our students without teaching creationism," county school board member Jimmy Hobbs said at Tuesday's meeting. "The law says we can't have Bibles in schools, but we can have evolution, of the atheists."

When asked by a reporter, his fellow board members all said they were in favor of creationism being taught in the classroom.

The topic came up after county resident Joel Fanti told the board he thought it was unfair for evolution to be taught as fact, saying it should be taught as a theory because there's no tangible proof it's true.

"I wasn't here 2 million years ago," Fanti said. "If evolution is so slow, why don't we see anything evolving now?"

The board allowed Fanti to speak longer than he was allowed, and at the end of his speech he volunteered to teach creationism and received applause from the audience. When he walked away, school board Chairwoman Shirley Babson took the podium and said another state had tried to teach evolution and creationism together and failed, and that the school system must teach by the law.

"Evolution is taught because that's what the General Assembly tells us to teach," Babson said, adding that she doesn't agree with it, but that students must learn it to graduate.

In 1997, proponents in the N.C. General Assembly tried to amend the law to say that evolution must be taught as a theory and not as a fact in public schools, but that did not pass. Then at the national level in 2005, a federal judge barred the school system in Dover, Pa., from teaching "intelligent design" - which claims organisms must have been created by a higher power and that it's compatible with evolution - as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Board attorney Joseph Causey said it might be possible for the board to add creationism to the curriculum if it doesn't replace the teaching of evolution.

Schools' Superintendent Katie McGee said her staff would do research.

Babson said the board must look at the law to see what it says about teaching creationism, but that "if we can do it, I think we ought to do it."

The issue will continue to be discussed at the board's committee meetings on Oct. 21.

Ana Ribeiro: 343-2327


A biologist reviews an evolution textbook from the ID camp


By John Timmer | Published: September 24, 2008 - 11:15PM CT

The politics of exploration

Ars book reviews typically focus on works for the general public that we consider significant and insightful. But today we're making an exception: the work in question is meant for school children, and it's an atrociously bad book. So why review it? Because, unfortunately, it may well turn out to be very significant. The leading lights of the Intelligent Design Movement, the Discovery Institute, have written this textbook on evolution, and they are doing everything they can to make sure it gets into schools.

In response to a column I wrote a few months back, one of the authors of the text, called Explore Evolution, kindly sent me a copy. What follows is not a comprehensive examination of the information contained in the text (which would require more text than EE itself), but rather a summary of the history and politics that make the book significant, and my own perspective as a biologist on how that context produced a text that's wildly inappropriate for use in a science classroom.

This doesn't mean that I won't mention the scientific evidence that's referenced in EE, but I generally won't delve into it in extensive detail. For the most part, extensive details aren't actually essential to understanding the problems with EE. So, with that caveat, we'll do as the Discovery Institute has, and start with the politics.

The strategy for exploration

The Discovery Institute, as indicated by its wedge document, wishes to eliminate science's focus on natural causes. The group views this focus as the source of society's increasing materialism, which makes it anathema in the belief system of Discovery's members. Stephen C. Meyer, the lead author of EE, heads the Discovery Institute and is mentioned by name in the wedge document, as is coauthor Paul Nelson.

Evolution has been singled out for special ire by Discovery, as it provides an explanation for the origin of humanity based solely on natural processes. Although the ID movement has not developed a research program or even proposed a scientific formulation of its ideas, it has gotten a surprising amount of traction with its attack on the science of evolution. Tapping into a rich vein of American thought that dates back roughly a century, the group's members have used popular books and appearances in the press to argue that the scientific theory of evolution is on the verge of abandonment, having been pushed to its most recent "inevitable" collapse by new molecular evidence.

More significantly, however, Discovery Institute fellows have been attempting to have their arguments against evolution incorporated into the US public school system. They testified in favor of education standards in Ohio and Kansas that targeted evolution for special criticism—Kansas' standards went even further and eliminated reference to science's search for natural causes. In the wake of the Dover case, however, both states have reversed these policies, leaving Discovery without a foot in the door of the US education system.

EE appears to be part of a strategy to change that. In June, Louisiana became the first state to enact a law specifically enabling the use of supplemental materials for the critical evaluation of evolution; similar legislation has been introduced in several other states. EE appears to have been intelligently designed to be the sort of supplemental text that's appropriate under the Louisiana legislation, and so it's likely to be making an appearance in classrooms there. But EE may appear in other states, as the approval process for supplementary material is often far less strict than that governing textbooks.

Inquiry-based nonlearning

That said, Discovery faces at least one very significant challenge in its anti-evolution campaign: evolution is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community because the evidence for it is extensive and comprehensive. Taking on that evidence runs the risk of simply emphasizing its significance, so EE maneuvers its way around this roadblock by using (and abusing) an approach to teaching called inquiry-based learning (IBL).

IBL avoids the rote memorization endemic in past science classes by having a teacher guide students through a limited version of the scientific process. Students are given a question or problem, provided with the opportunity to obtain information and data relevant to that problem, and then guided through the process of analyzing that information and reaching conclusions based on it. This isn't an "anything goes" approach to science education, though—teachers and lesson plans play an extremely important role in ensuring the students obtain accurate and relevant information and adhere to the rules of logic when drawing conclusions based on it. After all, it's not a good educational method if students come out of it deciding that the force of gravity is random or unmeasurable.

EE gives its authors the chance to determine what information is relevant for students in order to apply IBL to evolution, taking the teachers and professional educators out of the equation. It neatly dodges the issue of the vast evidence that has led to the acceptance of evolution by the scientific community; the book's introduction says that the students will see that in their normal textbooks anyway, so EE's authors can simply present an abbreviated version of mainstream science.

Perhaps more significantly, it omits the entire process of assisting students in reaching a conclusion. It divides evolution into a series of topics that are discussed separately. Each topic includes a case for standard science, a reply to it, and then a further discussion area, where it switches back and forth between the two. The text assiduously avoids suggesting that any conclusion can be reached at all. At best, it could be described as a partial implementation of IBL, if it weren't for the atrocious presentation of scientific information it contains (more, much more, on that below).

Divide and conquer

There are two obvious tactical reasons for the book's omission of any explicit conclusions about the "debate." The first reason is simply that the authors know precisely the sort of conclusions they'd like everyone to reach: some variation of the creationism that has been deemed legally intolerable by the courts. But they're also undoubtedly aware of survey results that indicate that well over 10 percent of US teachers "teach creationism as a 'valid scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species.'" By avoiding any conclusions, EE will allow those teachers to lead their students into precisely those conclusions that the book's authors desire, all while providing them, and the Discovery Institute, with plausible deniability.

But the "divide and conquer" approach has a third feature that may also have been precisely what the authors intended. As the book switches back and forth between perspectives and quickly changes topics, what gets completely lost is the internal consistency—the consilience—among the different lines of evidence. The molecular, cladistic, and fossil evidence agree on the derivation of whales, birds, tetrapods, and other evolutionary transitions. But EE presents them separately, attacking each in isolation.

One of science's great strengths is the ability to create a coherent understanding from disparate lines of evidence. One of the hardest tasks faced by science teachers is to weave the lines of evidence together for students, so that they can appreciate just how many phenomena a major theory ties together. By attacking these lines of evidence separately, EE's authors make it easier to claim that the fact that any one of them supports evolution was just a lucky fluke (and they do precisely that). This makes the hardest job of a teacher that much harder, and it makes a mockery of the use of IBL in the sciences.

Unscientific from the subtitle on

The scientific community has very valid reasons for accepting evolution as an accurate description of the history and current development of life on earth, reasons that are so so compelling that aspects of the theory can be safely treated as fact. Even presenting the "nobody knows for sure" conclusion as scientific would seem to be an insurmountable challenge, so authors have responded the only way they apparently knew how: skip the science.

This avoidance of science plays out in countless ways, some of which we'll discuss in detail, but it's worth pointing out that it starts with the book's subtitle, "The arguments for and against neo-Darwinism." During the roughly 20 years I was directly involved in biology research, I'd never come across the term "Darwinism." To confirm that this wasn't my imagination, however, I turned to PubMed, which archives information about, and abstracts from, over 18 million publications.

Searching for "neo-darwinism" netted 30 references; "neodarwinism" another five. Trying "neodarwinian" and "neo-darwinian" pulled out a whopping 96 references. The term appears to have no significant presence in scientific communications. In contrast, searching for "evolution" pulled out 226,476 papers, while the more specific "selective pressure" 21,553. If this book is all about science, why not use the terminology actual scientists do? Presumably, because the institute producing the book promotes the idea that evolution isn't science, but an ideology, one that their fellows have pulled a Godwin on and attempted to tie to Nazism. Most of the issues with this book are more subtle than that, but the treatment of science doesn't get much better.

Building the tree of life

Darwin's Origin of Species proposed a mechanism by which a selective pressure, acting on inherited variations, could transform a single species or bifurcate it into two distinct species. Reasoning that there was no inherent limitation to this branching process, Darwin's single illustration in the book was a tree, with existent species being derived from a single trunk. Darwin concluded that life had been initially breathed, "into a few forms or into one," and all current species were derived from that event.

Darwin's conclusion has been spectacularly confirmed in the 150 years since. The basic biochemistry of the cell is shared by all known organisms, a fact that supports a common origin, while everything from fossil evidence to modern genomic sequencing has supported the tree-like pattern of common descent within the animal kingdom. There are some scientific debates remaining—some argue that horizontal gene transfer has created a web of life at the microbial level, rather than a tree—but scientists don't debate the general outlines of limited origins and organisms related through descent from a common ancestor.

But EE, in seeking to present a case against evolution, argues that there are viable alternative models of the history of life on earth. It favors what it calls an "orchard model," one in which there are many origins of life. In the orchard, current species are the product of severely restricted variation from an undefined number of origin events. Any time a problem with evolution is discussed, a separate origin is the implicit or explicit alternative, and that undefined number of separate origins appears to be very, very large. If that sounds familiar, it should—it's essentially biblical special creation of kinds.

So has creationism's orchard model achieved a sudden surge in scientific attention? Again, turning to PubMed, the answer is no. There is a lot of agricultural literature on orchards, so I searched for orchard occurring in the same paper as the competing theory, evolution. That netted 22 references on the evolution of crop plants and their pests, and three papers on evolution originating at institutions located on roads named after orchards. The more technical term for multiple origins, polyphyletic, pulls out a significant number of papers, but they seem to focus on specific features that have multiple origins, such as flightlessness in birds, rather than on the proposition that individual species do. It's worth noting that "orchard model" was easy to find if Google was set loose on the entire web, however—at sites such as "Answers in Genesis."

Leaving aside the whole choice of "orchard" and its implications of intelligent action, how can biblical creation possibly be presented as a viable scientific model, or the tree of life as so controversial that the orchard might actually be preferred to it? Very carefully, as it turns out.

What if we had a controversy and no one showed up?

EE's authors manage the feat of making well-studied science appear muddled using a variety of approaches. Part of the argument relies on what I call the "find a PhD" approach: basically, if you look hard enough, you can find someone with a PhD who's willing to say anything.

One such individual is Malcolm Gordon of UCLA. One of the triumphs of recent years has been the elaboration of fossil evidence that reveals the transitional species that existed as tetrapods evolved from lobe-finned lungfish. But Malcolm Gordon of UCLA (at least in the past) has noted that the fossils were found at sites that were widely separated, and concludes that there may have been a couple of distinct origins of tetrapods.

There are a number of serious problems with citing Gordon's work as evidence for the orchard model. The first is that Malcolm appears to be essentially the only person in the biological community that holds this opinion, meaning that this isn't actually a scientific controversy of any significance. Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that Gordon recognizes that the origin of tetrapods occurred over 25 million years through the standard scientific explanation: evolutionary descent from a common ancestor. Yet somehow, his argument over a single detail has been portrayed as if it raised questions about evolution in general.

Another PhD the authors found is Christian Schwabe, who apparently has established a career studying a protein called reflexin, along with its relatives. But every couple of years he publishes a paper in which he argues in favor of his belief that the genomes of all modern and extinct species originated during the formation of life billions of years ago. According to Schwabe, those genomes have continued to exist, hidden underground as stem cell-like entities. Whenever these cells sense a favorable environment above ground, they head for the surface and self-organize into a fully formed, multicellular animal. No, I am not making this up.

This isn't simply evidence-free (although it is); it's borderline deranged. And yet, in the hands of Discovery's authors, it becomes a serious scientific controversy about the existence of the tree of life. And, if there's any controversy, then students should apparently think twice before accepting that science actually knows anything about the evolution of life on earth.

These are not scientific controversies; they're not part of a coherent scientific case that can be made against evolution. They're actually opinions that have barely registered within the wider scientific community.

Texas Darwinists Reject the Scientific Method of Analyzing "Strengths and Weaknesses" of Scientific Theories


Editor's note: I cannot post this with a straight face. These kinds of statements from the Discovery Institute are so absurd. They consider that wagging outrageous explanations in front of high school students to be practicing science. The real name for this kind of activity is "propagandizing." These are the people who will not practice real science and will not submit their theories to scientific publications for review by real scientists. There is a reason for this.

Over the coming months, the Texas State Board of Education will be deciding whether to remove or bolster its requirement that students learn the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories, "using scientific evidence and information." The pro-Darwin lobby group National Center for Science Education (NCSE) does not want that standard to be applied specifically to evolution. In fact, Texas Darwinists want that language completely removed from the Texas Science Standards. To reasonable people, it is apparent that investigating the "strengths and weaknesses [of scientific theories] using scientific evidence and information" is exactly what scientists do all the time. Discovery Institute believes that if scientists can dispute the core claims of neo-Darwinism (as these scientists do), then students can learn about those views:

Discovery Institute believes that a curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on.
(Discovery Institute Science Education Policy)

Texas Darwinists reject this approach because they will accept nothing less than the one-sided dogmatic presentation of the pro-Darwin-only position in public schools. Thus, the NCSE and other Darwinist groups have developed arguments to convince people that when science standards say teach the "strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information," they're really conspiring to teach religion.

For example, a recent NCSE press release states that learning about the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinism will "dilute the treatment of evolution." Not only is this a false claim, but it isn't even an argument: this merely shows that what the NCSE wants is the dogmatic presentation of only the pro-Darwin viewpoint in schools. For the NCSE, allowing students to learn about scientific critiques of neo-Darwinism will "dilute" their dogmatic approach.

Likewise, the NCSE quotes Texas Darwinists saying that teaching the strengths and weaknesses will "damage and corrupt science textbooks." Again, such rhetoric is not an argument: it merely demonstrates Darwinists think it will "damage and corrupt" education if students learn that neo-Darwinism might have scientific flaws because in their dogmatic view, neo-Darwinian evolution has nothing that rises to the level of a weakness. Such authoritarian statements have no place in science, and they serve to indoctrinate students rather than teach students how to think critically and skeptically—like scientists.

But perhaps when it comes to evolution, that's exactly what Texas Darwinists want.

Posted by Casey Luskin on September 27, 2008 5:23 AM | Permalink

Patsy Jindal


John Derbyshire

What do I have to say about Louisiana Governor Jindal signing the Louisiana Science Education Act? Very little more than I said here back on June 20.

Whether or not the law as signed is unconstitutional per se, I do not know. I do know, though — as the creationist Discovery Institute that helped promote the Act also surely knows — that the Act will encourage Louisiana local school boards to unconstitutional behavior. That's what it's meant to do.

Some local school board will take the Act as a permit to bring religious instruction into their science classes. That will irk some parents. Those parents will sue. There will be a noisy and expensive federal lawsuit, possibly followed by further noisy and expensive appeals. The school board will inevitably lose. The property owners of that school district will take the financial hit.

Where will the Discovery Institute be when these legal expenses come due? Just where they were in the Dover case — nowhere! What, you were thinking that those bold warriors for truth at the Discovery Institute will help to fund the defense in these no-hope lawsuits? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Helping to defend creationist school boards in federal courts is not the Discovery Institute's game. Their game is to (a) make money from those spurious "textbooks" they put out, and (b) keep creationism in the news so that they don't run out of lecture gigs and wealthy funders. So far as those legal bills are concerned, Discovery Institute policy is: Let the dumb rubes fund their own stupid lawsuits.

Or, as the Discovery Institute's John West put it in an interview with a New Orleans news service:

"This bill is not a license to propagandize against something they don't like in science," West said. "Someone who uses materials to inject religion into the classroom is not only violating the Constitution, they are violating the bill."

See, the Discovery Instutute does not want any Louisiana school boards bringing religious instruction into science lessons. Heaven forbid! They would never encourage that. Absolutely not! Why, that would be wrong.

All they do is encourage state legislators to pass, and clueless governors to sign, laws that tempt local boards to unconstitutional behavior. The sucker school boards are then on their own, stuck with spending their taxpayers' dollars on the defense of hopeless lawsuits. But, you know, the Discovery Institute had absolutely nothing to do with it. Nothing! Not a thing! All they did was offer some mild support to a perfectly harmless bill. Heck, they didn't even lobby the Governor. From that same news story:

At the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design and backed the new education act, senior fellow John West said he and his colleagues did not directly lobby Jindal.

The creationists have pulled off their little stunt once again, and Bobby Jindal has been their patsy. I know there is a pro-Jindal factor among my colleagues here on The Corner, and I'm not stepping on toes for the fun of it. I must say, though, I can't see voting into national office a guy who is duped as easily as this into acting against his voters' interests. I'd prefer that my President or Vice President not be such an easy mark for a gang of sleazy confidence tricksters.

07/09 09:14 AM

Evolution education update: September 26, 2008

Newly released drafts of the Texas science education standards are being praised for their treatment of evolution. Rabbis in the United States are expressing their support of teaching evolution, while the Church of England is devoting a new section of its website to Darwin. And Canadian geologists have voiced their opposition to teaching creationism in Canada's classrooms.


The Texas Education Agency released proposed drafts of the state's science education standards on September 22, 2008. Not surprisingly in light of the ongoing controversies over teaching evolution in Texas, reporters focused on the place of evolution in the draft standards, with the Dallas Morning News (September 23, 2008) reporting, "Proposed curriculum standards for science courses in Texas schools would boost the teaching of evolution by dropping the current requirement that students be exposed to 'weaknesses' in Charles Darwin's theory of how humans and other life forms evolved. Science standards drafted by review committees of teachers and academics also would put up roadblocks for teachers who want to discuss creationism or 'intelligent design' in biology classes when covering the subject of evolution."

In particular, a requirement in the current standards for high school biology that reads "The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information" would be replaced with "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing," and a description of the limits of science (adapted from the recent National Academy of Sciences publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism) -- "Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods" -- would be added.

Such revisions may seem small and unimportant, but in 2003, the "strengths and weaknesses" language in the Texas state science standards was selectively applied by members of the board attempting to dilute the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks then under consideration. At the time, board member Patricia Hardy observed that it was invidious to apply the language only to a single topic; while if it were applied across the board, "we'd need a crane to carry the books to the schools." In the end, all of the textbooks were adopted without substantial changes, but it was clear that the "strengths and weaknesses" language would be a matter of contention when the standards were next revised. As Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network told The New York Times (June 4, 2008), "'Strengths and weaknesses' are regular words that have now been drafted into the rhetorical arsenal of creationists."

Groups supporting the integrity of science education therefore applauded the changes. In a September 23, 2008, press release, the Texas Freedom Network's Kathy Miller was quoted as saying, "These work groups have crafted solid standards that provide a clear road map to a 21st-century science education for Texas students ... These common-sense standards respect the right of families to pass on their own religious beliefs to their children while ensuring that public schools give students a sound science education that prepares them to succeed in college and the jobs of the future." "It's time for state board members to listen to classroom teachers and true experts instead of promoting their own personal agendas," she added. "Our students can't succeed with a 19th-century science education in their 21st-century classrooms. We applaud the science work groups for recognizing that fact."

In a September 23, 2008, blog post for the Houston Chronicle, Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman also welcomed the the addition of the description of the limits of science and the removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" language, which he described as "the primary weapon that Creationists have to attempt to damage and corrupt science textbooks." He expressed regret, however, that those revisions were not emulated in all of the standards. Schafersman also lamented the omission from the biology standards of any requirement to learn about human evolution in particular, commenting, "I'm sure the competent teachers on the biology panel discussed a requirement for human evolution, but they ultimately decided against it. They should have included it and forced the [state board of education] members to remove it by majority vote rather than by giving their prior permission to continue censorship."

The chair of the state board of education, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, defended the "strengths and weaknesses" language, telling the Austin American-Statesman (September 23, 2008), "I'd argue it doesn't make sense scientifically to take it out ... Evolution shouldn't have anything to worry about -- if there's no weaknesses, there's no weaknesses. But if there's scientifically testable explanations out there to refute it, shouldn't those be included too?" The newspaper added, "he prefers the 'strengths and weaknesses' language because it allows the board to reject a textbook that doesn't cover the weaknesses of evolution." But Kevin Fisher, who helped to write the draft biology standards, told the American-Statesman, "Something doesn't become a theory if it's got weaknesses. There may be some questions that may yet to be answered, but nothing that's to the level of a weakness."

What's next? The Texas Education Agency is expected shortly to solicit public comment on and expert review of the draft standards. The draft standards will then be revised in light of that input, and submitted to the state board of education for its approval. Their fate is uncertain, since, as the American-Statesman reported, "In previous public discussions, seven of 15 board members appeared to support, on some level, the teaching of the weaknesses of evolution in science classrooms. Six have been opposed, and two -- Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, and Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio -- are considered swing votes." And, as Schafersman commented, "Since there are no scientists on the SBOE and since seven members are Young Earth Creationists -- most of whom have publicly stated their intention to distort evolution standards and damage science instruction -- it is likely that the public debate and approval will be contentious."

For the drafts of the standards, visit:

For the story in the Dallas Morning News, visit:

For information about Science, Evolution, and Creationism, visit:

For the story in The New York Times, visit:

For the Texas Freedom Network's press release, visit:

For information about the Texas Freedom Network, visit:

For Steven Schafersman's blog at the Houston Chronicle, visit:

For information about Texas Citizens for Science, visit:

For the story in the Austin American-Statesman, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:


The Clergy Letter Project's "Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science From American Rabbis" was the topic of a story in the Chicago Tribune (September 19, 2008), beginning, "For Rabbi Gary Gerson of the Oak Park Temple B'nai Abraham Zion, evolution does not oppose religious belief but strengthens it. ... Seeing evidence of the divine in the theories of Charles Darwin meant that Gerson did not hesitate to sign an open letter drafted by a suburban Chicago rabbi this summer supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools."

The letter, which urges public school boards to affirm their commitment to teaching evolution, was written by Rabbi David Oler of Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. It follows in the footsteps of the Clergy Letter Project's similar open letter for Christian clergy, formulated in 2004 and currently endorsed by over 11,000 members of the clergy across the country and around the world. The Clergy Letter Project also sponsors Evolution Weekend, on or about Darwin's birthday, in which religious leaders are encouraged to discuss the compatibility of faith and science.

Rabbi Oler told the Tribune, "I would say that as Jews, being a minority, we're particularly sensitive to not having the views of others imposed on us ... Creationism and intelligent design are particularly religious matters that don't belong in [the] public school system." Michael Zimmerman, the founder of the Clergy Letter Project, added, "the goal of both letters is to say that religious leaders, both Jewish and Christian, can come together and be secure in their faith without having their faith impact and pervert modern science."

For the story in the Chicago Tribune, visit:

For the rabbis' letter, visit:

For further information about the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend, visit:


Anticipating the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the Church of England unveiled a new section of its website entitled "On the origin of Darwin," discussing Darwin's relationship to the church and the development of his own views on faith, and including a brief historical sketch, bibliography, and listing of celebrations of the Darwin anniversaries. Attracting the most attention, however, was "Good religion needs good science" -- a short essay by the Church's director of mission and public affairs, the Rev. Malcolm Brown -- owing to its call for the Church of England to apologize to Darwin.

Addressing Darwin, Brown wrote, "200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests." As the Associated Press (September 15, 2008) reported, however, Brown's statement was not an official apology on behalf of the church.

Reaction to Brown's call for the church to apologize for misunderstanding Darwin was mixed among his descendants. Andrew Darwin, a great-great-grandson of Darwin, told the Daily Mail (September 13, 2008) that the apology was pointless: "'Why bother?' he said. 'When an apology is made after 200 years, it's not so much to right a wrong, but to make the person or organisation making the apology feel better.'" But Horace Barlow, a great-grandson of Darwin, thought that Darwin would have been pleased to hear the church's apology; he noted also, "They buried him in Westminster Abbey, which I suppose was an apology of sorts."

Reaction was also mixed in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Church of England's sister church. Episcopal News Service (September 17, 2008) quoted the Rev. Norman Faramelli of Episcopal Divinity School and Boston University as concurring with Brown's apology, with the caveat that "it's not just the Church of England that owes him an apology." The Rev. Canon Ed Rodman, a member of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council and the council's Committee on Science, Faith and Technology, however, felt that it didn't go far enough, saying that it was time for the church to "fully acknowledge its culpability in discrediting Darwin's work."

The question of apologizing to Darwin arose in the Catholic Church as well, according to Reuters (September 16, 2008). In discussing "Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories" -- a conference of scientists, theologians, and philosophers addressing the Origin, to take place in Rome in March 2009 -- Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's culture minister, indicated that the church was not planning to issue a posthumous apology to Darwin. "Maybe we should abandon the idea of issuing apologies as if history was a court eternally in session," he said, while adding that Darwin's theories were "never condemned by the Catholic Church nor was his book ever banned."

For the "On the origin of Darwin" website, visit:

For the Associated Press story (via the International Herald-Tribune), visit:

For the Daily Mail story, visit:

For the Episcopal News Service story, visit:

For the Reuters story, visit:

For information about the "Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories" conference, visit:


The Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences recently issued a statement on creationism, beginning, "Canadian media report growing public pressure to introduce Creationism and its equivalent Intelligent Design (ID) in school curricula, hinting that Creationism/ID is a 'theory', thus suggesting that it shares common ground with science-based theories. Such reporting ignores the fundamental difference between faith and measurable facts. CFES-FCST is extremely concerned about this trend, and not only because of the demonstrated importance of science to Canadian society."

"Creationism and ID do not qualify as science, because the scientific method is not deployed and these ideas are therefore not theories or hypotheses in universally accepted scientific sense," the statement continues. "Hence, Creationism and ID do not belong in any K-12 science curriculum." The Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences describes itself as "the unified voice of more than 15 Canadian learned and professional earth science societies"; it represents more than 15,000 practicing earth scientists in Canada.

For the CFES statement, visit:

For information about CFES, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Canada, visit:

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


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

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!

Friday, September 26, 2008

New contender for Earth's oldest rocks


By Sid Perkins October 11th, 2008; Vol.174 #8 (p. 12)

Northern Quebec may host intact rocks as old as 4.28 billion yearsOLD BUT NOT CRUSTYThese banded rocks found along the eastern shore of Canada's Hudson Bay are estimated to be 4.28 billion years old, making them Earth's oldest intact rocks. (Hammer shown for scale.)AAAS/ScienceScientists may have found the world's oldest intact rocks in a 10-square-kilometer patch of bedrock on the eastern shore of Canada's Hudson Bay. Geochemical analyses suggest the rocks are around 4.28 billion years old, which would mean they solidified less than 300 million years after Earth formed.

If the dating holds true, the new oldest rocks could be a trove of information about geological processes during Earth's earliest history, the researchers report in the Sept. 26 Science.

The rocks have the same chemical composition as volcanic deposits, says Jonathan O'Neil, a geochemist at McGill University in Montreal and coauthor of the new study. He and his colleagues measured the ratio of two rare chemical isotopes — neodymium-142 and samarium-146 — to come up with an age estimate for the rocks. The previous oldest known rocks formed about 4.03 billion years ago and were found in what is now Canada's Northwest Territories.

Scientists have discovered zircon crystals that are about 4.4 billion years old. However, those individual mineral grains, which are now part of much-younger sedimentary rocks found in Western Australia, originated in rocks that eroded long ago (SN: 8/2/08, p. 13). The rocks from Hudson Bay, which have been heated and squeezed deep within Earth at least once since they formed, may be the world's oldest rocks that remain intact, O'Neil and his colleagues speculate.

Geochemical analyses of the Hudson Bay rocks are the first to show an unusually low proportion of neodymium-142 to another isotope, neodymium-144, says O'Neil. Scientists have long been looking for this signal, which indicates that the outer mantle — the layer just below Earth's crust — had, before 4.1 billion years ago, begun to segregate into zones having different chemical compositions.

"I'm very excited about this work," says Vickie C. Bennett, a geochemist at Australian National University in Canberra. "Now we're beginning to see into the first 500 million years of Earth's history," she adds. Scientists can now start to assess how the geophysical processes early in Earth's history have influenced those occurring today, she notes.

Ancient Fish Had Primitive Fingers, Toes


Ker Than for National Geographic News

September 24, 2008

An ancient fish possessed primitive digits that may have been the precursors to our own fingers and toes, according to a new study.

The finding supports recent studies that suggest primitive fish and sharks had the genes necessary to develop digits, even if the animals didn't grow those appendages.


Ancient Fish Fossil May Rewrite Story of Animal Evolution (October 18, 2006)
Dino-Era Lizard Is Missing Link to Swimming Reptiles, Experts Say (November 21, 2005)
Explore a Prehistoric Timeline

"The contrary position was that the hand and foot was a complete novelty that appeared [out of nowhere]" in the first four-legged land animals, called tetrapods, said study team member Per Ahlberg, a paleontologist at Uppsala University in Sweden.

That theory "can now pretty much be dismissed," Ahlberg added.

Arm-Like Fin

Using medical x-rays, Alhberg and his team created a three-dimensional image of a fin belonging to Panderichthys, a coastal fish that lived about 385 million years ago during the Devonian period.

The scans revealed the ancient fish had many of the same bones that make up a modern human arm, including the humerus, radius, and ulna, as well as four small "radial" bones that look remarkably like rudimentary fingers, the authors said.

Unlike human fingers, however, Panderichthys's digits were concealed in the fleshy arm-like base of its fin.

With the origins of tetrapods, the outermost part of the fin was lost, allowing the "fingers" that were always present at the base of the fin to emerge, Ahlberg said.

The research was detailed September 21 in the journal Nature.

Missing Link

Curiously, the radial bones of Panderichthys are more finger-like than those of Tiktaalik, a fish with stubby leg-like limbs that lived about five million years later.

Many scientists regard Tiktaalik as a "missing link": the crucial transitional animal between fish and the first tetrapods.

One possibility, Alhberg said, is that finger development took a step backward with Tiktaalik, and that Tiktaalik's fins represented an evolutionary return to a more primitive form.

Michael Coates, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, called the new findings "intriguing" but is not convinced that the digit-like structures in Panderichthys's fin are the equivalent of our fingers.

For one thing, they seem unusually flat for radial bones, Coates said.

"Radials are generally cylindrical. When you look at [a] cross-section [of the digit], they're dumbbell-shaped."

The structures are so peculiar, they might just be fragments of damaged bone, he added.

Coates agreed, however, that fingers and toes—or at least their precursors—were probably present in early fish.

"Nothing comes from nothing in evolution," he said.

Chromosomal evolution of the PKD1 gene family in primates


The autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) is mostly caused by mutations in the PKD1 (polycystic kidney disease 1) gene located in 16p13.3. Moreover, there are six pseudogenes of PKD1 that are located proximal to the master gene in 16p13.1.

In contrast, no pseudogene could be detected in the mouse genome, only a single copy gene on chromosome 17. The question arises how the human situation originated phylogenetically.

To address this question we applied comparative FISH-mapping of a human PKD1-containing genomic BAC clone and a PKD1-cDNA clone to chromosomes of a variety of primate species and the dog as a non-primate outgroup species.

Results: Comparative FISH with the PKD1-cDNA clone clearly shows that in all primate species studied distinct single signals map in subtelomeric chromosomal positions orthologous to the short arm of human chromosome 16 harbouring the master PKD1 gene. Only in human and African great apes, but not in orangutan, FISH with both BAC and cDNA clones reveals additional signal clusters located proximal of and clearly separated from the PKD1 master genes indicating the chromosomal position of PKD1 pseudogenes in 16p of these species, respectively.

Indeed, this is in accordance with sequencing data in human, chimpanzee and orangutan. Apart from the master PKD1 gene, six pseudogenes are identified in both, human and chimpanzee, while only a single-copy gene is present in the whole-genome sequence of orangutan.

The phylogenetic reconstruction of the PKD1-tree reveals that all human pseudogenes are closely related to the human PKD1 gene, and all chimpanzee pseudogenes are closely related to the chimpanzee PKD1 gene. However, our statistical analyses provide strong indication that gene conversion events may have occurred within the PKD1 family members of human and chimpanzee, respectively.

Conclusion: PKD1 must have undergone amplification very recently in hominid evolution.

Duplicative transposition of the PKD1 gene and further amplification and evolution of the PKD1 pseudogenes may have arisen in a common ancestor of Homo, Pan and Gorilla ~ 8 MYA. Reticulate evolutionary processes such as gene conversion and non-allelic homologous recombination (NAHR) may have resulted in concerted evolution of PKD1 family members in human and chimpanzee and, thus, simulate an independent evolution of the PKD1 pseudogenes from their master PKD1 genes in human and chimpanzee.

Author: Stefan Kirsch, Juanjo Pasantes, Andreas Wolf, Nadia Bogdanova, Claudia Muench, Petra Pennekamp, Michael Krawczak, Bernd Dworniczak and Werner Schempp

Credits/Source: BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:263

Published on: 2008-09-26

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Curriculum Matters


A wide-ranging forum for discussing school curriculum across the subject areas.

Evolution in Play in Texas

Texas officials are embarking on a revision of their state's science standards, a process that has generated a furious debate in several states in recent years—most of it focused squarely on the topic of evolution.

A first draft of the new standards, released this week, seems likely to please the scientific community. The new document removes language from the current document that says students should study the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. Many scientists consider that to be code language used to suggest—falsely, they say—that the theory is pocketed with holes, rather than being one of the most well-supported theories in all of science.

The new document describes evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. The committee that drafted it also seemed intent on providing a thorough definition of what science is, and what it is not. It says that ideas "based upon purported forces outside of nature" are not scientific, because they can't be tested through science. Many scientists make that same point when they rejected alternative explanations for life's development, such as intelligent design and creationism.

Here's the section on the definition of science. It cites the National Academy of Science as a source:

"Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods. Scientific explanations are open to testing under different conditions, over time, and by independent scientific researchers. Many theories in science are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially; however, they are subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously."

Public dramas over how to define and discuss evolution in state academic standards have played out memorably in Ohio, Kansas, and Florida in recent years. The discussion in Texas is likely to unfold over several months. The state's board of education is scheduled to accept public comments and discuss the document in November. A final vote could occur in March of 2009, Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, told me.

Board members' initial reaction to the draft document seemed fairly muted, judging from this story in the Austin American-Statesman.

The draft includes language on another topic that will probably please scientists: climate change, which has been largely absent from many state standards and textbooks to date.

"The interacting components of the Earth system change by both natural and human-influenced processes," the draft says. "Natural processes include hazards such as flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, meteorite impacts, and climate change. Human-influenced processes, such as pollution and nonsustainable use of Earth's natural resources, may damage the Earth system. Examples include climate change, soil erosion, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss. The time scale of these changes and their impact on human society must be understood to make wise decisions concerning the use of the land, water, air, and natural resources. Proper stewardship of Earth will prevent unnecessary degradation and destruction of Earth's subsystems and diminish detrimental impacts to individuals and society."

Posted by Sean Cavanagh on September 24, 2008 11:56 AM | Permalink

Proposed standards could boost evolution


By: Associated Press - Texarkana Gazette - Published: 09/25/2008

AUSTIN—A proposal for curriculum standards for science courses in Texas would remove language requiring students be taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories, wording which some say has been used to undermine the theory of evolution.

Proposals released Tuesday from review committees of teachers and academics would also put up roadblocks for teachers who want to discuss creationism or "intelligent design" in biology classes when covering the subject of evolution.

The biology review committee proposed language that states supernatural and religious-based concepts such as creationism have no place in science classes.

The standards are subject to approval by the state Board of Education, where a majority of members have said they are in favor of retaining the current mandate to cover both strengths and weaknesses of major scientific theories, notably evolution.

The issue comes before the board early next year. A close vote is expected. Standards adopted by the board will remain in place for the next decade.

The recommendations would drop the strengths-and-weaknesses rule for all science courses except astronomy and chemistry.

Groups backing science teachers lauded the proposed changes, but a conservative foundation said such a change would amount to censorship of teachers.

"These common-sense standards respect the right of families to pass on their own religious beliefs to their children while ensuring that public schools give students a sound science education that prepares them to succeed in college and the jobs of the future," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network.

Miller said the "strengths and weaknesses" requirement has been seized on by creationists to promote unscientific attacks on evidence supporting evolution.

Jonathan Saenz of the conservative Free Market Foundation said: "This type of pure censorship in shutting down a debate is the exact opposite of what true science is supposed to be. We strongly disagree with their recommendation."

State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station, said Tuesday he will oppose the recommendation.

A review of Explore Evolution


Posted on: September 25, 2008 7:27 AM, by PZ Myers

The Discovery Institute has been gearing up to pollute classrooms across the country with a new 'textbook' called Explore Evolution, which is to replace their old propaganda of choice, Of Pandas and People (which had its sorry creationist origins exposed in a little trial in Dover, Pennsylvania). John Timmer of Ars Technica has now reviewed the DI's masterwork and…well, I hate to give the ending away, but he didn't like it.

But the book doesn't only promote stupidity, it demands it. In every way except its use of the actual term, this is a creationist book, but its authors are expecting that legislators and the courts will be too stupid to notice that, or to remember that the Supreme Court has declared teaching creationism an unconstitutional imposition of religion. As laws similar to Louisiana's resurface in other states next year, we can only hope that legislators choose not to live down to the low expectations of EE's authors.

I've read it, too, and it is as awful as Timmer says. Don't buy this book. Watch your local school board, and make sure they don't buy it either. Some will be trying to do so.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Evolutionists Flock To Darwin-Shaped Wall Stain


September 5, 2008 | Issue 44•36

DAYTON, TN—A steady stream of devoted evolutionists continued to gather in this small Tennessee town today to witness what many believe is an image of Charles Darwin—author of The Origin Of Species and founder of the modern evolutionary movement—made manifest on a concrete wall in downtown Dayton.

"I brought my baby to touch the wall, so that the power of Darwin can purify her genetic makeup of undesirable inherited traits," said Darlene Freiberg, one among a growing crowd assembled here to see the mysterious stain, which appeared last Monday on one side of the Rhea County Courthouse. The building was also the location of the famed "Scopes Monkey Trial" and is widely considered one of Darwinism's holiest sites. "Forgive me, O Charles, for ever doubting your Divine Evolution. After seeing this miracle of limestone pigmentation with my own eyes, my faith in empirical reasoning will never again be tested."

Added Freiberg, "Behold the power and glory of the scientific method!"

Since witnesses first reported the unexplained marking—which appears to resemble a 19th-century male figure with a high forehead and large beard—this normally quiet town has become a hotbed of biological zealotry. Thousands of pilgrims from as far away as Berkeley's paleoanthropology department have flocked to the site to lay wreaths of flowers, light devotional candles, read aloud from Darwin's works, and otherwise pay homage to the mysterious blue-green stain.

Capitalizing on the influx of empirical believers, street vendors have sprung up across Dayton, selling evolutionary relics and artwork to the thousands of pilgrims waiting to catch a glimpse of the image. Available for sale are everything from small wooden shards alleged to be fragments of the "One True Beagle"—the research vessel on which Darwin made his legendary voyage to the Galapagos Islands—to lecture notes purportedly touched by English evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace.

"I have never felt closer to Darwin's ideas," said zoologist Fred Granger, who waited in line for 16 hours to view the stain. "May his name be praised and his theories on natural selection echo in all the halls of naturalistic observation forever."

Despite the enthusiasm the so-called "Darwin Smudge" has generated among the evolutionary faithful, disagreement remains as to its origin. Some believe the image is actually closer to the visage of Stephen Jay Gould, longtime columnist for Natural History magazine and originator of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, and is therefore proof of rapid cladogenesis. A smaller minority contend it is the face of Carl Sagan, and should be viewed as a warning to those nonbelievers who have not yet seen his hit PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

Still others have attempted to discredit the miracle entirely, claiming that there are several alternate explanations for the appearance of the unexplained discoloration.

"It's a stain on a wall, and nothing more," said the Rev. Clement McCoy, a professor at Oral Roberts University and prominent opponent of evolutionary theory. "Anything else is the delusional fantasy of a fanatical evolutionist mindset that sees only what it wishes to see in the hopes of validating a baseless, illogical belief system. I only hope these heretics see the error of their ways before our Most Powerful God smites them all in His vengeance."

But those who have made the long journey to Dayton remain steadfast in their belief that natural selection—a process by which certain genes are favored over others less conducive to survival—is the one and only creator of life as we know it. This stain, they claim, is the proof they have been waiting for.

"To those who would deny that genetic drift is responsible for a branching evolutionary tree of increasing biodiversity amid changing ecosystems, we say, 'Look upon the face of Darwin!'" said Jeanette Cosgrove, who, along with members of her microbiology class, has maintained a candlelight vigil at the site for the past 72 hours.

"Over millions of successive generations, a specific subvariant of one species of slime mold adapted to this particular concrete wall, in order to one day form this stain, and thus make manifest this vision of Darwin's glorious countenance," Cosgrove said, overcome with emotion.

"It's a miracle," she added.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Was that fun, or what?


Posted on: January 31, 2008 5:59 PM, by PZ Myers

That radio debate was a hoot and a half, but I can't take credit. All the joy came straight from the mouth and brain of my lovely opponent, who obviously didn't do a lick of research for either the debate or for his books. I was shocked for a moment when, after I'd mentioned the recent discovery of Indohyus, he went on to claim that there were no intermediates between that deer-like artiodactyl and modern whales … and when I tried to mention Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, Rhodcetus, Basilosaurus, etc., he seemed to have never heard of them, claimed his information came from a Scientific American article some months ago (way to plumb the depths of the scientific literature, Dr Simmons!), and then started making stuff about them not exhibiting dorsoventral flexion in swimming, and not having dorsal blowholes. He wrote a whole book about "Billions of missing links"! His other book, What Darwin Didn't Know, needs to be retitled in a new edition, What Geoffrey Simmons Doesn't Know. It will be a very large book.

I shouldn't have been surprised at his performance, though. I have a secret: I read part of What Darwin Didn't Know before the show, and knew exactly what kind of creationist I was engaging.

I have to share a few tidbits with you from that hilarious book. It has a chapter titled "Purposeful Design" which purports to list 81 examples of design. He has very low standards. Basically, anything that works is evidence of design.

The mouth, vagina, urethra, and anus are sealed by mucus when not in use and yet can open and close in controlled ways as needs arise.

This is a man who thinks the fact that he isn't drooling and feces aren't dribbling down his leg is a miracle from god. After reading his book, I kind of agree.

The book is full of confessions like that.

Menopause: Are women designed not to have babies when they age or are physically less fit, or is it the reverse, that babies shouldn't be born to women who might not live until their children have grown up? Most women go through menopause around 52 years of age, and they all go through menopause in much the same way. It is clearly programmed. A similar pattern is found in men. As they approach 50, many have lower testosterone levels, lower sperm counts, and less interest in having sex.

What a bizarre argument. So, when the life expectancy was around 30 or 40 (say, in the time of Jesus), shouldn't women have entered menopause around the age of ten or twenty? And if a designer is setting the timers on women's fertility for optimum utility, I have a complaint: I want daughters' fertility switched off until they're old enough to handle it. Like around 30.

All women don't go through menopause in the same way. There is an underlying similar cause, but the symptoms and expression of that mechanism is different in everyone.

And, umm, how old is Geoffrey Simmons?

His age might not matter. I don't think he knows very much about sex. Look at this argument: women's bodies are perfectly designed to maximize their enjoyment of the missionary position!

Intercourse: Face-to-face intercourse is relatively rare in the animal world, found only among whales, dolphins, dugongs, manatees, beavers, sea otters, centipedes, some crustaceans, a aNew Zealand songbird, and some primates like orangutans and bonobos [and squid. "Relatively rare," huh? -- pzm]

One might ask, how did human males and females evolve to be so perfectly compatible? Pelvic thrusting during intercourse stimulates both individuals and deposits the sperm in the deepest possible spot. Vaginal rugae (folds) stimulate the penis. Every male aspect of intercourse—from the initial excitement set off by visual cues and pheromones, to a good mechanical fit, to stimulation, to the placement of sperm—matches up well with the female's equivalent interest, her means of being stimulated, the delivery of the egg, and her mechanisms to help the sperm on their voyage. Dopamine, a chemical responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure, is released into the bloodstream in males and females after sex, just as it is released after ingesting a good meal or certain illicit drugs.

Please, somebody, show Dr Simmons where the clitoris is and explain female orgasms to him…for the sake of Mrs Simmons!

After that mercy is taken care of, explain evolution to him. I will note that Dr Simmons is the product of parents who had sufficient interest in sex and sufficiently compatible plumbing that they could generate him, and that they in turn had parents with compatible genitalia, and they came from parents likewise, and on and on back into the past. There was never a point where anyone had two parents who did not have sex with each other, so his observation, from an evolutionary perspective, is completely trivial. Design is unnecessary.

I was really tempted to turn this debate into a sex education discussion, which would have been good for the Christian listeners. Imagine a Christian talk station that patiently explained to the male listeners what a clitoris was … there would be many happy smiling ladies in church.

More conservapædic foolishness


Posted on: September 15, 2008 11:52 AM, by PZ Myers

I have just read the Conservapædia article on me. It is a marvel. Let me single out one jewel of misdirection among many.

In January 2008, Myers participated in a debate with Discovery Institute fellow Geoffrey Simmons on KMMS. He was unable to counter criticisms of the fossil record, in particular the absence of transitional forms in the whale fossil record. Geoffrey was invited back for an hour long talk the next week. PZ Myers now refuses to debate creation scientists.

The first sentence is harmlessly wrong: the station call letters are KKMS. It's a nice indicator of their quality control, however.

The second sentence is completely wrong. This was the radio debate in which Geoffrey Simmons made claims about the absence of transitionals in the fossil record, was utterly bewildered when I rattled off a long list of well-known species names, and then admitted that he got all his information from an apparently cursory reading of a Scientific American article. Mr Simmons was the one lacking any counters of substance, not me.

I love the next two sentences. Simmons was invited back, Myers wasn't…ah, the delicious implication that I had flopped, when the truth is that I had embarrassed the Christian radio station's position by crushing Simmons so thoroughly. And then to state that I no longer debate creationists, as if I'd run from a humiliating defeat! That was a debate in which even the creationist onlookers were averting their eyes and whining that Simmons had been pwnz0red.

Sorry, Conservapædians, if that's an example of the way you guys slant your articles, I have to laugh.

Review of Herbalife Complaints and Side Effects - Is it Safe? Is it a Scam?


Herbalife is a company that has been selling health products and supplements since 1980, and its products are distributed via multilevel marketing. The company offers a variety of weight loss products, including ShapeWorks (protein-based weight loss shakes and pills), Snack Defense (appetite control), Total Control (metabolism booster), and Cell-U-Loss (cellulite reducer).

Herbalife has experienced some major health-realated complaints: The original formula was manufactured with the herbs Ma Huang and Sida cordifolia, which contain ephedrine. Some people taking the supplements experienced adverse reactions and Herbalife's insurance premiums were rising, so the company stopped putting ephedrine in its products. In 2004, the FDA banned any supplements that contained ephedra.

Despite the formula change, there have been more recent complaints related to Herbalife: In 2007, doctors in Israel did scientific studies on Herbalife, which resulted in a link between Herbalife consumption and hepatitis. The Spanish Ministry of Health put out an alert as a result of this, cautioning citizens to be careful if taking Herbalife supplements.

A laboratory test by The Fraud Discovery Institute found higher lead levels in Herbalife products than is legal in the company's home state of California, but other commissioned lab tests did not find the same results. Additionally, in May of 2008 a woman who developed lead-related liver problems filed a suit against Herbalife, claiming their products caused her health problems.

In 1996 the Food and Drug Administration evaluated Herbalife and stated that the products were safe at that time, but it's important to note that none of the Herbalife products are actually approved by the FDA, which monitors the safety and effectiveness of products. Some sites that sell Herbalife, such as AmazingDiet.com, say "Since these products are nutritional food supplements they are safe." That is not true; the nutritional food supplement industry is mostly unregulated, and there is no guarantee they are safe unless they are FDA approved - which Herbalife's website explicitly says the products are not. Alli is the only over-the-counter weight loss product that has been approved by the FDA, meaning it is the only one that is guaranteed safe.

The Herbalife company itself has had some problems, with a 2004 settlement to resolve a class action law suit. Almost 9,000 former Herbalife distributors claimed the company is running a pyramid scheme. Oddly, Herbalife is also the company that has put out the oft-aired Crazy Fox commercials, with a vague invitation to go to a website for a home-based business opportunity.

So is Herbalife safe? The company says yes, that all their products exceed Good Manufacturing Practices and are made with the highest ingredients. Meanwhile, some studies show that it may cause dangerous health problems. Because it is not FDA-approved, it's not quite clear. Use your best judgment here, and perhaps consider a weight loss program that does not involve unapproved supplements.

Did you find this review on whether Herbalife works or is a scam useful?

There is more must-know information based on user feedback in addition to a full independent Herbalife review

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Daniel_Delaney

Ancient reef find 'may push back evolution'


By Heather Catchpole for ABC Science Online

Posted September 22, 2008 19:02:00
Updated September 22, 2008 19:27:00

The find may be the missing piece of the puzzle in the evolution of early animal life. (Estee Woon)

The discovery of an ancient reef north of Adelaide by Australian scientists may push back the evolution of the earliest animals by 80 million years.

The unpublished research, by geoscientists Associate Professor Malcolm Wallace, Estee Woon and Jonathan Giddings from the University of Melbourne, will be presented at the Selwyn Symposium on Thursday.

The researchers say they have uncovered complex organisms that in some ways resemble multicellular life in a large reef located in the Northern Flinders Ranges, 700 kilometres north of Adelaide in South Australia.

If the fossils - which are around 650 million years old - are of multicellular organisms, they would be the earliest examples of primitive animal life discovered so far, the researchers say.

The fossils are yet to be described scientifically, but look like cauliflowers and were probably sponge-like organisms up to two centimetres in diameter, Associate Professor Wallace says.

'Nothing else like them'

He says the reef-building organisms were "certainly more complex than any fossil of their age anywhere on Earth".

"They've never been described from anywhere else in the world," Associate Professor Wallace said.

"There's nothing else like them."

The ancient reef, which is now exposed on the surface, was 10 times higher than the Great Barrier Reef, and consisted partly of stromatolites, layered structures built by microbes, and partly of the sponge-like organisms.

The find is especially significant because it may be the missing piece of the puzzle in the evolution of early animal life.

Before the Ediacaran geological period, 635 million years ago, the only life forms were simple, single-celled organisms.

Then suddenly, 570 million years ago, very complex animals appear in the fossil record.

Scientists have long debated just what caused this evolutionary explosion in life.

"When you see the Ediacara they resemble jellyfish and modern arthropods [the group that contains insects and spiders]," Associate Professor Wallace said.

"There is no doubt they are animals. The real puzzle is why they appeared 570 to 540 million years ago.

"Maybe this reef system will tell us something about that."

'Extremely important'

Dr Jim Gehling, a palaeontologist from the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, says if verified the find will be "extremely important" and "very exciting".

"We know these things [the Ediacara] must have had ancestors, [but] when they occurred is the great debate," Dr Gehling said.

He says the find would confirm predictions based on the molecular record that pinpoint evolutionary steps based on the rates of DNA mutation.

Most branching of the molecular tree occurred in the Ediacaran when there was an evolutionary explosion in life.

But according to the molecular record, sponges should have branched off 650 to 680 million years ago, which is about when these reefs occur, Dr Gehling said.

"If he's found evidence of sponges, and that would need to be verified, that's exactly what the molecular records predict and that would be very exciting," he said.

The Selwyn Symposium will have international and Australian scientists debating theories on what led to the "evolutionary explosion" of life at the time of the first animals.

MIOS Event in Plano 10.4.08

MIOS has secured an organizational booth at a local festival to be held in the City of Plano next month on Saturday, October 4th from 11am to 5pm. See web site www.planointernationalfestival.org for more details about this event.

Weather permitting, the booth will provide scientific evidences for creation science in an effort to promote public awareness to these evidences and to the MIOS organization. MIOS is also hoping to collect names from the community for follow up work.

As many of you are aware, Don Patton is in Turkey and will not be able to assist in running this event. We are in need of some volunteers to help run the booth on this date. Please let Zynda Patton, know this week in what capacity you would be available to assist at the booth so we can finalize our plans for this upcoming event.

Please respond to ZYNDA at zyndap@aol.com since Don is out of the country. If you have any questions, please feel free to call Zynda at 214-538-5178.

Thank you,
Zynda Patton

Sunday, September 21, 2008



Saturday, September 20, 2008; Page B09


Professor Dismayed at Rejection

A professor at a Vatican-sponsored university has expressed dismay that some Christians reject the theory of evolution.

Gennaro Auletta, who teaches at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, told reporters that recent popes have "recognized the scientific value of the theory of biological evolution."

Joining him at the news conference was a Vatican official who said, "Creationism from a strictly theological view makes sense, but when it is used in scientific fields, it becomes useless."

Pope Benedict XVI warned last week against literal interpretations of the Bible. He told intellectuals in Paris that "the word of God can never simply be equated with the letter of the text."

-- Associated Press

Church of England Issues Apology

Some 126 years after Charles Darwin's death, the Church of England has gone into 21st-century cyberspace to issue an official apology to the naturalist for its own 19th-century "misunderstanding" over his theory of evolution.

Darwin's thesis that all life evolved over millions of years was published in 1859 in his book, "On the Origin of Species," and almost instantly triggered controversy that still continues.

His antagonists, including the Church of England, vilified him for questioning their own creationist convictions that the universe and all its parts were solely the work of God, perhaps around 6,000 B.C. and certainly no earlier than 10,000 years ago.

But in a new section of the Church of England's Web site, the Rev. Malcolm Brown, director of missions and public affairs, addressed Darwin and conceded that the church "owes you an apology for misunderstanding you, by getting our first reaction wrong."

That reaction, Brown added, resulted in "encouraging others to misunderstand you still."

-- Religion News Service