NTS LogoSkeptical News for 13 November 2008

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings



Thursday, November 13, 2008

E.O. Wilson shifts his position on altruism in nature

http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2008/11/10/eo_wilson_shifts_his_position_on_altruism_in_nature/

In his new book, Edward O. Wilson says the widely accepted theory of kin selection doesn't explain the origin of altruism.

By Peter Dizikes
Globe Correspondent / November 10, 2008

It is a puzzle of evolution: If natural selection dictates that the fittest survive, why do we see altruism in nature? Why do worker bees or ants, for instance, refrain from competing with those around them, but instead search for food or build nests on behalf of their companions? Why do they sacrifice their own reproductive success for the good of the group?

In the 1960s, British biologist William Hamilton offered an explanation in a theory now called kin selection. When animals, often insects, help siblings or other relatives survive, they are enhancing the odds that their shared family genes will be passed on. In other words, the genes, not the individual or social group, are what counts in evolution.

Hamilton's idea was eventually accepted by most biologists, and found an enthusiastic backer, at the time, in Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard evolutionist.

That was then. Now, Wilson has changed his mind, startling colleagues by arguing that kin selection does not lead to altruism.

Kin selection is a scientific crutch, a "very seductive" idea that "doesn't tell us anything decisive about how altruism originated," Wilson says. He adds: "We need a whole new way of explaining things."

He has one. Wilson posits that altruism evolved due more to ecological circumstances than the influence of genes.

In his new book "The Superorganism," out today, Wilson and his co-author, Bert Holldobler, argue that natural selection operates on the group, not just the gene. The lavishly-illustrated volume examines the complex systems that help insect societies survive, from an intricate array of communication signals to the elaborate architecture of nests. But Wilson - though not Holldobler - goes further, saying altruism occurs not because animals share family ties, but because certain altruistic acts have become useful for the overall survival of insect groups.

"The close kinship of the members of these groups is a consequence, not a cause, of their evolution," says the ever-genial Wilson in an interview at his home in Lexington. He believes altruistic (or eusocial) societies developed in ecological conditions where food was plentiful enough to allow insects to practice "progressive provisioning," in which a mother leaves its offspring with food, as some wasps or bees do. This creates a need for others in the insect society to stand guard over the young.

Given these conditions, Wilson postulates, an insect group experiencing a single beneficial genetic mutation - such as the ability to distinguish nest mates from outsiders, a trait many insects possess - might adopt altruism as a useful social behavior.

Many biologists emphatically disagree.

"I have enormous respect for Wilson, he's a huge figure in the field of social evolution and beyond," said Andrew Bourke, a biologist at the University of East Anglia, in England. "But I just think he's got it wrong in this case. Kin selection is the leading theory we have for why animal societies are why they are, and the evidence for it is very strong."Continued...

Other scientists profess surprise because Wilson staunchly backed kin selection in the 1960s and 1970s. "We would all like to know what's going on with Wilson," says Francis Ratnieks, a biologist at the University of Sussex, also in England. Even Holldobler, a biologist at Arizona State University who says he and Wilson agree on "95 to 98 percent" of their work, continues to accept the kin-selection theory.

Those who disagree with Wilson suggest he is burdening kin selection with claims it does not make, then saying the theory comes up short. "Kin selection theory never said relatedness was the sole cause of eusocial evolution," argues Bourke. "But it is a necessary precondition."

In a study published in "Science" in May, four researchers (including Ratnieks) found eight separate instances in natural history when altruism developed, leading to the evolution of more than 250 altruistic species. All eight times, the reproducing females had single male partners, meaning the group largely consists of very close relatives as the kin-selection theory predicts.

In response, Wilson argues the paper's authors "didn't have a control" - studying closely-related species that do not become altruistic.

But kin selection advocates say they already believe that highly related groups do not always produce altruism. "There must have been some other factors," said Ratnieks, agreeing that ecological circumstances surely played a role.

For his part, Wilson remains open to discussion. "I would hate to treat this as a closed subject," he says.

But why is Wilson revisiting it?

Wilson says that reviewing the work in the field simply left him skeptical of kin selection theory. But his next project is a study of human sociability, which he thinks may also defy traditional kin-selection analysis. "It's comforting to believe our deep concern for kin must be fundamental to our existence," says Wilson. "And it might turn out to be the case. But maybe we should look at non-kin bonding more closely, such as a brave soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save a squad."

Wilson's intellectual style is one of grand synthesis, linking species and academic disciplines, and he may prefer an explanation of altruism that spans the living world.

Besides, Wilson enjoys an old-fashioned scrap - bringing to mind one of the many vignettes in "The Superorganism." The book describes how, in India, ants of the harpegnathos saltator species often engage in public duels: A pair at a time, they use their antennae to lash and charge each other. Eventually both ants walk away, usually unscathed.

Holldobler and Wilson write that its duels "may serve as a positive feedback loop," raising ant fitness no matter who wins. Perhaps the same applies to evolutionary biology.

In his new book, Edward O. Wilson says the widely accepted theory of kin selection doesn't explain the origin of altruism.

In the 1960s, British biologist William Hamilton offered an explanation in a theory now called kin selection. When animals, often insects, help siblings or other relatives survive, they are enhancing the odds that their shared family genes will be passed on. In other words, the genes, not the individual or social group, are what counts in evolution.

Hamilton's idea was eventually accepted by most biologists, and found an enthusiastic backer, at the time, in Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard evolutionist.

That was then. Now, Wilson has changed his mind, startling colleagues by arguing that kin selection does not lead to altruism.

Kin selection is a scientific crutch, a "very seductive" idea that "doesn't tell us anything decisive about how altruism originated," Wilson says. He adds: "We need a whole new way of explaining things."

He has one. Wilson posits that altruism evolved due more to ecological circumstances than the influence of genes.

In his new book "The Superorganism," out today, Wilson and his co-author, Bert Holldobler, argue that natural selection operates on the group, not just the gene. The lavishly-illustrated volume examines the complex systems that help insect societies survive, from an intricate array of communication signals to the elaborate architecture of nests. But Wilson - though not Holldobler - goes further, saying altruism occurs not because animals share family ties, but because certain altruistic acts have become useful for the overall survival of insect groups.

"The close kinship of the members of these groups is a consequence, not a cause, of their evolution," says the ever-genial Wilson in an interview at his home in Lexington. He believes altruistic (or eusocial) societies developed in ecological conditions where food was plentiful enough to allow insects to practice "progressive provisioning," in which a mother leaves its offspring with food, as some wasps or bees do. This creates a need for others in the insect society to stand guard over the young.

Given these conditions, Wilson postulates, an insect group experiencing a single beneficial genetic mutation - such as the ability to distinguish nest mates from outsiders, a trait many insects possess - might adopt altruism as a useful social behavior.

Many biologists emphatically disagree.

"I have enormous respect for Wilson, he's a huge figure in the field of social evolution and beyond," said Andrew Bourke, a biologist at the University of East Anglia, in England. "But I just think he's got it wrong in this case. Kin selection is the leading theory we have for why animal societies are why they are, and the evidence for it is very strong."

Other scientists profess surprise because Wilson staunchly backed kin selection in the 1960s and 1970s. "We would all like to know what's going on with Wilson," says Francis Ratnieks, a biologist at the University of Sussex, also in England. Even Holldobler, a biologist at Arizona State University who says he and Wilson agree on "95 to 98 percent" of their work, continues to accept the kin-selection theory.

Those who disagree with Wilson suggest he is burdening kin selection with claims it does not make, then saying the theory comes up short. "Kin selection theory never said relatedness was the sole cause of eusocial evolution," argues Bourke. "But it is a necessary precondition."

In a study published in "Science" in May, four researchers (including Ratnieks) found eight separate instances in natural history when altruism developed, leading to the evolution of more than 250 altruistic species. All eight times, the reproducing females had single male partners, meaning the group largely consists of very close relatives as the kin-selection theory predicts.

In response, Wilson argues the paper's authors "didn't have a control" - studying closely-related species that do not become altruistic.

But kin selection advocates say they already believe that highly related groups do not always produce altruism. "There must have been some other factors," said Ratnieks, agreeing that ecological circumstances surely played a role.

For his part, Wilson remains open to discussion. "I would hate to treat this as a closed subject," he says.

But why is Wilson revisiting it?

Wilson says that reviewing the work in the field simply left him skeptical of kin selection theory. But his next project is a study of human sociability, which he thinks may also defy traditional kin-selection analysis. "It's comforting to believe our deep concern for kin must be fundamental to our existence," says Wilson. "And it might turn out to be the case. But maybe we should look at non-kin bonding more closely, such as a brave soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save a squad."

Wilson's intellectual style is one of grand synthesis, linking species and academic disciplines, and he may prefer an explanation of altruism that spans the living world.

Besides, Wilson enjoys an old-fashioned scrap - bringing to mind one of the many vignettes in "The Superorganism." The book describes how, in India, ants of the harpegnathos saltator species often engage in public duels: A pair at a time, they use their antennae to lash and charge each other. Eventually both ants walk away, usually unscathed.

Holldobler and Wilson write that its duels "may serve as a positive feedback loop," raising ant fitness no matter who wins. Perhaps the same applies to evolutionary biology.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

Biologic Institute

http://biologicinstitute.org/2008/10/17/the-genius-behind-the-ingenious/

The Genius Behind the Ingenious — October 17th, 2008 by Biologic Staff

When evolutionary biologist Andrew Parker strolls through the vast collection of once-living specimens on display at the Natural History Museum in London, he sees "a treasure trove of brilliant design" [1]. If he's right about that, then the current fascination with living designs among engineers should come as no surprise. The hot new field of biomimetics was born out of this fascination, fueled by the irresistible thought of translating some of these brilliant designs into lucrative technologies.

But are engineers really even needed for this? What if these technological advances could be had 'on the cheap', without any design expertise? A recent National Geographic article put it this way: If "every species, even those that have gone extinct, is a success story, optimized by millions of years of natural selection", then "why not learn from what evolution has wrought?" [1] Indeed, why not?

In terms of time, of course, millions of years isn't cheap. But if time is really all the evolutionary process requires—no R&D, no design plans, no genius—shouldn't we be able to make it cheap by harnessing its power in a much more time-efficient way? For example, what if instead of waiting many generations for the effect of a real mutation to run its evolutionary course, we could simply let that course play itself out at ultra high-speed in a virtual world confined to a rack of computers?

Perhaps the end result, after many rounds of this, really would be impressive designs without the hard work of designing. Think of it this way: Neither spontaneous mutation nor natural selection has the slightest understanding of anything. So, if a mindless pair like that can come up with things like molecular motors, and adaptive camouflage, and nervous systems, and compound eyes, why should we invest so heavily in the laborious tools of education and understanding?

Actually, as you may have guessed, attempts to harness the principles of evolution on computers have been underway for many years now. The field dedicated to this undertaking is known as evolutionary computing, and the results are not altogether encouraging for evolutionary biology.

It's not that evolutionary design has failed on computers—far from it. One of the most celebrated successes, for example, is a NASA antenna that looks like a bent paper clip. [2] It may not be much to look at, but this odd little design works better than any known alternative, which is why NASA has deployed it in space.

Designs like this are achieved by first generating a number of virtual prototypes on computers, where design parameters are assigned more-or-less arbitrary values, and then using a mathematical model to calculate how good each of these initial prototypes is. Mirroring survival of the fittest, the bad prototypes are discarded and the better ones are replicated to fill out a virtual population. To simulate mutation, the prototypes are then altered by changing their parameter values slightly.

This spawns a large collection of second-generation prototypes. The process of culling, replicating, and mutating is then repeated until an acceptably good design solution results. Numerous variations to this procedure can be applied, but this describes the general approach used in evolutionary computing. And in many interesting cases, like the NASA antenna, it works.

How impressively it works, though, depends on what you were expecting. You can't fault the NASA engineers for choosing the automated evolutionary approach when you consider the alternative—a pair of needle-nose pliers, half a ton of paper clips, and a whole lot of wrist strain. But if you really saw evolutionary computing as a high-speed version of the process that produced all the jaw-dropping designs of biology, well… you ought to be more than a little disappointed.

Equally sobering is the likelihood that this striking disparity—between the stunning things attributed to evolution and the modest things we get by harnessing it—will persist.

Two major limitations to evolutionary processes seem to assure this. First, it turns out that if you want these processes to go anywhere, you really do need to master the design principles specific to your objective. You'd better believe the NASA team did their homework for the task they were tackling—they knew what materials to use, they knew the range of dimensions to explore, they knew what kind of geometric space to explore, and they knew how to model the performance of any prototype within those specifications. So the software they used was intelligently pre-configured for this particular design task and no other.

It's not at all obvious how spontaneous mutation and natural selection could pull something like that off in a much more general way sans knowledge. One tempting possibility is that the broad scope of fitness can come to the rescue here. Since fitness can potentially be improved in any number of ways, natural selection might seem like an all-purpose substitute for knowledge-based guidance. But ironically, this very open-endedness is what makes fitness problematic. If the head of NASA had said, "Forget about antennas! From now on I want you to optimize our success instead!", it's hard to see how anything would have come of it. Clearly, someone has to do some careful thinking about what success looks like if anything interesting is going to happen.

A similar need for insight has been formally proven in the area of algorithmic optimization. Specifically, landmark work in the mid 1990s shows that if there is no information supplied to guide the search for a better design, then no design procedure done on a computer, including any evolutionary search, consistently outperforms random guessing. [4, 5] Remarkably, then, unguided evolutionary searches cannot generate the information needed for new designs any more than random guessing can. [6, 7] We are led, rather, back to the important insight of information-theory pioneer Leon Brillouin: "The [computing] machine does not create any new information, but it performs a very valuable transformation of known information" [8].

So, the first major limitation is that evolutionary searches need to be intelligently configured in a problem-specific way if they are to outperform random trail and error. The second is that, for all but the simplest design problems, random trial and error is a nonstarter.

In fact, even with the input of intelligent insight, the evolutionary approach is most suited to these simple exceptions. Antenna design is one example. If antennas required complex designs and precision crafting in order to work, you wouldn't see coat hangers doing the job in a makeshift way. Compare this with something more sophisticated. If you lost your flash drive, would you expect to be able to rig one up the way people rig antennas?

In the case of antennas, it's easy to find prototypes that work, and nothing can go horribly wrong if you tweak one of those prototypes. That makes the task of zeroing in on a good design relatively easy. Flash drives, on the other hand, are a different story—no one expects to make a working prototype of one of those by accident, or to improve an engineered version by accident.

The problem, of course, is that the designs of biology look more like flash drives (on steroids) than coat-hanger antennas. Parker definitely got that one right.

So, in light of this, we think it's time to turn the logic around. If it was reasonable to think that selection ought to be as powerful in virtual worlds as it is in the real world (and we think it was), then the considerable limitations we now see demonstrated (even proven) in virtual worlds should perhaps make us re-think the extravagant claims we make about selection in the real world.

Maybe the intuitions that enable us to recognize brilliant design should be kept in mind when we try to explain it.

[1] http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/04/biomimetics/tom-mueller-text

[2] http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/news/releases/2004/04_55AR.html

[3] NASA photo (no copyright); dragonfly eye photo by David L. Green, obtained from Wikimedia Commons under GNU Free Documentation License.

[4] Cullen Schaffer, (1994) A Conservation Law for Generalization Performance, in Machine Learning: Proceedings of the Eleventh International Conference, H Hirsh and W W Cohen, eds., p259-265 (Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco).

[5] David Wolpert and William G Macready (1997) No free lunch theorems for optimization, IEEE Transactions on Evolutionary Computation 1(1): 67-82.

[6] William A Dembski (2006) No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, Rowman & Littlefield.

[7] http://www.evoinfo.org

[8] Leon Brillouin (1956) Science and Information Theory (Academic Press, New York).

rss — permalink

© biologic institute

Biologic Explores the Successes and Pitfalls of Evolutionary Biomimetics

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2008/11/biologic_explores_the_successe.html#more

The Biologic Institute has an excellent article discussing how biologists are copying the "brilliant designs" they see in nature for technological purposes. We've discussed this intriguing phenomenon of biomimetics many times before here on ENV. (For a couple examples, see here, here or here.)

The presumption of evolutionary biologists, of course, is that these "brilliant designs" evolved by natural selection preserving random, but beneficial mutations. Engineers operating under such presumptions have thus tried to mimic not only the "brilliant designs," but also the evolutionary processes that allegedly produced the designs. Biologic's article notes that one success story of such methods was the case of NASA engineers who used evolutionary computing to produce a better antenna.

Did they use truly Darwinian "evolutionary computing?" The article goes on to discuss how design parameters were smuggled into the simulation, such that it really wasn't a truly unguided Darwinian evolutionary scenario.

So what exactly can unguided Darwinian evolutionary computing actually produce? Probably not very much, but this is a research question that Biologic is attempting to tackle. As their research page says, they are exploring "fundamental laws governing the origin of information" by "building and testing computational models that mimic the role of genetic information in specifying functions by means of structure-forming sequences."

For more on Biologic's published research into evolutionary computation, see Intelligent Design Lab is Going Where no Evolution Simulation has Gone Before.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 10, 2008 7:57 AM | Permalink

Staring a hoax in the eye

http://www.manilatimes.net/national/2008/nov/12/yehey/life/20081112lif1.html

Filipinos ignore warnings on iridology

By Perry Gil S. Mallari, Reporter

Iridology, a branch of alternative medicine that professes that the eyes provide information about a patient's systemic health, has become a household name in the Philippines in recent years because of its daily advertisement in a popular noontime show.

In between gags and games goes a blurb raving about how iridology can solve a plethora of health maladies. And a lot of Filipinos have bought the idea hook, line and sinker.

Iridology is not a method of treatment but an alleged diagnostic tool. Its adherents often study other branches of alternative medicine such as naturopathy to prescribe treatments to their patients. Iridology practitioners observe a patient's iris to detect ailments or disorders in the internal organs.

"Iridology purports what is wrong with someone by changes in a patient's iris. Though it is true that complications from systemic diseases like diabetes and hypertension may show up in the retina, a different part of the eye, and not fairly late in the disease course, there is no sound scientific basis or evidence for iridology at present," declares Patricia Gatbonton, MD.

Gatbonton's opinion on iridology lacking scientific foundation has been echoed many times in numerous print and online articles as well as a number of television documentaries in the Philippines. The Philippine Medical Association for one has issued a strong position against the practice of iridology. The common thread in these expositions is the statement that iridology is grossly inaccurate as a diagnostic tool.

One study on the subject whose result was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Simon et al, 1979), recorded a case of three iridologists failing to identify kidney disease in photographs of irises. The opinions of these three iridology practitioners who participated in the study also often disagreed with each other.

The practice of alternative health care methods in the country where iridology belongs began to thrive with the signing of Republic Act 8423 known as the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act (TAMA) of 1997. An indication of the government's openness to the exploration of alternative healing modalities is evident in President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's declaration of the month of November as "Traditional and Alternative Health Care Month." With these developments, alternative healing methods are now clearly a viable alternative health care option for the public.

TAMA has led to affordable yet effective medicines. Examples include Ascof Forte derived from lagundi (vitex negundo) for asthma and cough and a soon-to-be-released pill derived from ampalaya (bitter melon) for diabetes. Having garnered the approval of the Bureau of Food and Drug, both have been scientifically proven to be effective and are packaged in safe and standardized doses.

However, not all alternative medicines and diagnostic tools are legitimate, effective and safe. Unlike lagundi and ampalaya, iridology has been disproven by doctors and scientists.

The continuous popularity of iridology in the Philippines can be attributed to the aggressive campaign of its foremost local proponent Osaka Iridology, the media establishments that allow such advertising and the appeal of the non-invasive nature of the diagnosis itself. Save for bright light focused on ones' eye, a patient consulting an iridology practitioner is not required to undergo other uncomfortable or painful medical procedures. And for fear of a surgeon's scalpel, a lot of people are willing to gamble their well being on these alternative diagnostic methods.

But misdiagnosis means an illness will go untreated. Consulting an iridology practitioner can have a potentially lethal consequence if it steers away a patient from the necessary medical treatment. Diagnosis is more than what meets the eye.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bring On the 'Reality- Based Community'

http://www.newsweek.com/id/167618

Sharon Begley Published Nov 5, 2008

From the magazine issue dated Nov 17, 2008

It took a while to discern the guiding ideology behind the Bush administration's poisonous science policies. The real problem wasn't tax cuts and war spending, even though the combination did strangle domestic programs so severely that scientists at the nation's premier physics lab were ordered to take unpaid leave, and the government is allocating 13 percent less to biomedical research in 2009 than it did in 2004. Nor was the culprit the sop that Bush offered the religious right in 2001 by banning the use of federal money for research on new lines of human embryonic stem cells, paralyzing the field for eight years and sending some of the nation's most promising young biologists overseas. It wasn't even Bush's refusal to take any action to reduce greenhouse gases, allowing U.S. emissions to grow by 178 million tons during his years in the White House and making the needed cuts that much deeper now. No, Obama and Congress can reverse all of that if they want to. The truly poisonous legacy of the past eight years is one that spread to much of society and will therefore be much harder to undo: the utter contempt with which those in power viewed inconvenient facts, empiricism and science in general.

Look at how Bush justified inaction on greenhouse gases. Not by arguing that cuts would have cost too much, a stance that would at least have been intellectually honest, albeit debatable. Instead he had political appointees eviscerate scientific reports on climate change, censor climatologists and exaggerate scientific uncertainties, with the result that tens of millions of Americans think that the existence and cause of global warming are matters of opinion. The same mind-set governed abstinence-only sex education. The administration could have argued that any curriculum other than one teaching "no sex before marriage" was immoral. Again, intellectually honest. But no: instead it manipulated "scientific" evaluations of the programs to make them seem more effective at preventing teen pregnancy. The justification for limiting embryonic-stem-cell research was even more insidious. The White House and its allies could have taken the morally sustainable position that 32-cell embryos are human beings and thus cannot be destroyed. Instead, they claimed, falsely, that adult and umbilical-cord stem cells can treat 72 diseases and conditions, no embryonic cells required.

It turned out that the Bush administration had about as much respect for scientific facts as it did for facts about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq . As one official explained to author and journalist Ron Suskind in 2002, the administration had nothing but disdain for what it called "the reality-based community," people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." That would be science. Instead, said the official, "we create our own reality." That translated to such things as filling federal health-advisory boards with doctors who claim, against all scientific evidence, that low levels of lead are not neurotoxic to children. The message that expertise and facts do not matter has had a poisonous effect on young people's desire to go into science, which has played no small part in America's losing its competitive edge in R&D.

It has also undermined public trust in the integrity of science. That gives Obama a steep hill to climb as he tries to seize opportunities that Bush wasted, whether it's to convince Americans that climate change is real and man-made, that embryonic stem cells offer avenues to cures that adult stem cells do not, or any of the other science-based issues he'll grapple with. But Obama has shown, through his policy positions and choice of advisers, a respect for the values of scientific inquiry, for experts and expertise, for reaching conclusions based on evidence and disinterested empiricism rather than wishful thinking. The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. We will soon have an administration that agrees, freeing science to make the contributions to the nation's health, energy security and prosperity that only it can.

© 2008


Monday, November 10, 2008

Fossilized skull of tiny dino sheds light on evolution of plant eaters

http://www.entertainmentandshowbiz.com/fossilized-skull-of-tiny-dino-sheds-light-on-evolution-of-plant-eaters-200811014210

Posted on November 1, 2008

A team of scientists has discovered the fossilized skull of a tiny juvenile dinosaur, which may shed light on the evolution of plant eaters.

Discovered by a team of scientists from London, Cambridge and Chicago, the skull, which would have been only 45 millimeters (less than two inches) in length, belonged to a very young Heterodontosaurus, an early dinosaur.

This juvenile weighed about 200 grams, less than two sticks of butter.

The teeth suggest that Heterodontosaurus practiced occasional omnivory: the canines were used for defense or for adding small animals such as insects to a diet composed mainly of plants.

The researchers describe important findings from this skull that suggest how and when the ornithischians, the family of herbivorous dinosaurs that includes Heterodontosaurus, made the transition from eating meat to eating plants.

"It's likely that all dinosaurs evolved from carnivorous ancestors," said study co-author Laura Porro, a post-doctoral student at the University of Chicago.

"Since heterodontosaurs are among the earliest dinosaurs adapted to eating plants, they may represent a transition phase between meat-eating ancestors and more sophisticated, fully-herbivorous descendents," she added.

"This juvenile skull indicates that these dinosaurs were still in the midst of that transition," she further added.

Heterodontosaurus lived during the Early Jurassic period (about 190 million years ago) of South Africa. Adult Heterodontosaurs were turkey-sized animals, reaching just over three feet in length and weighing around five to six pounds.

"This discovery is important because for the first time we can examine how Heterodontosaurus changed as it grew," said the study's lead author, Richard Butler of the Natural History Museum, in London.

"The juvenile Heterodontosaurus had relatively large eyes and a short snout when compared to an adult, similar to the differences we see between puppies and fully-grown dogs," he added.

This bizarre suite of teeth has led to debate over what heterodontosaurs ate.

Porro and colleagues found that the juvenile already had a fully-developed set of canines.

"The fact that canines are present at such an early stage of growth strongly suggests that this is not a sexually dimorphic character because such characters tend to appear later in life," said Butler.

Instead, the researchers suspect that the canines were used as defensive weapons against predators, or for adding occasional small animals such as insects, small mammals and reptiles to a diet composed mainly of plants - what the authors refers to as "occasional omnivory."

The researchers found out that Heterodontosaurus was more similar to mammals, not only in the specialized, variable shape of its teeth, but also in replacing its teeth slowly, if at all, and developing tight tooth-to-tooth contact.

"Tooth replacement must have occurred during growth," the authors concluded. (ANI)

A brief encounter and life erupts

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article5114489.ece

Scientists have pinpointed the single event that led to our world of plants and animals

Jonathan Leake

Scientists have identified the single chance encounter about 1.9 billion years ago to which almost all life on Earth owes its existence.

It saw an amoeba-like organism engulf a bacterium that had developed the power to use sunlight to break down water and liberate oxygen.

The bacterium was probably intended as prey but instead it became incorporated into its attacker's body – turning it into the ancestor of every tree, flowering plant and seaweed on Earth. The encounter meant life on the planet could evolve from bacterial slime into the more complex forms we see today. "That single event transformed the evolution of life on Earth," said Paul Falkowski, professor of biogeochemistry and bio-physics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The descendants of that tiny organism transformed our atmosphere, filling it with the oxygen needed for animals and, eventually, humans to evolve."

It had been thought such organisms emerged many times over on the early Earth, but the unique nature of the event has become clear from studies of chloroplasts, the bodies in plant cells that absorb sunlight and use its energy to generate nutrients and oxygen.

They show that the genes within chloroplasts, and the proteins they produce, are so similar in all plants, ranging from tiny algae to oak trees, that they must all be the direct descendants of a single cell.

"It is an astonishing thought that a single random encounter between two tiny cells so long ago could have had such huge consequences," said Falkowski, who will describe the latest research to next month's meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Falkowski's group at Rutgers is one of several around the world using powerful scientific tools such as DNA analysis to work out how life evolved after Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

They have also refined methods for dating ancient rocks using radioactive isotopes. This method can show as well how much oxygen was in the atmosphere when the rocks were formed. Such evidence suggests primitive life emerged up to 3.5 billion years ago – but only as bacterial-type organisms. Then, more than 2.2 billion years ago, one group, the cyanobacteria, evolved the ability to use sunlight to break down water, making nutrients and liberating oxygen.

This event was a breakthrough, but cyanobacteria were inefficient, so oxygen levels in the air remained minimal. It took several hundred million more years before the chance encounter that would lead to flowering plants took place – a hiatus showing how unlikely it was to happen at all.

Nick Lane, a researcher at University College London and author of Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, said a picture of life evolving through a series of unique chance events was emerging. "Oxygen energises all life, and makes it big," he said. "Nothing else can provide the energy needed to fuel the demands of multicellular organisms. True photosynthesis evolved only once, and the chance encounter that gave rise to plants also happened just once. These were two freak accidents in the 3.5 billion-year history of life on Earth."

"As oxygen accumulated," he added, "plants could grow ever larger. Animals evolved as these new food sources became available."

One puzzle has been why oxygen accumulated in the air at all – because plants are consumed by organisms that use oxygen to break them down. This should mean oxygen is used up as fast as it is generated.

Falkowski suggests that, in reality, many plants never are consumed by other organisms and are instead permanently incorporated into rocks through geological processes.

In the sea, dead marine phytoplankton sink to the bottom and become incorporated into sediments that turn into rocks such as chalk. The white cliffs of Dover are made of the compressed remains of trillions of such organisms.

Falkowski calculates that in the past 2 billion years, about 15 billion billion tons of carbon has been removed from the atmosphere and locked into the Earth's crust by such means. He said: "The burial of large amounts of organic carbon by plants, especially over the past 750m years, caused a sharp rise in atmospheric oxygen, which almost certainly triggered the explosion of animal life seen since then."

Survival of the fittest theory of creationism

http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/domestic/10325366.asp?scr=1

ISTANBUL – Harun Yahya, a pseudonym for known creationist cult leader Adnan Oktar, has offered YTL 50,000 for the best "scientific" article disproving the theory of evolution.

Oktar, who has written over 200 books trying to prove Darwinism is the biggest enemy of humankind and that the theory of evolution is false, has appeared recently in Western media after having famous scientist Richard Dawkins's Web site banned in Turkey by court decision, after complaining that its atheist content was blasphemous. He also succeeded in shutting down daily Vatan's Web site because a viewer's comment was deemed insulting to his person.

Science research foundation

The contest is organized by the Science Research Foundation, which holds conferences and seminars in line with Oktar's anti-evolutionist opinions. Everyone is invited to participate but only the first 1,000 articles sent by May 19, 2009, will be judged.

The organizers say in the second stage scientists will assess the articles and 100 contestants will be invited to participate in an 80-question test. The winner will receive YTL 50,000.

According to the Harun Yahya's Web site, the aim of the contest is "to inform the youth about the topic of Darwinism, which has damaged humanity, and to warn them about this scientific fraud."

Another ID debate

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/11/another_id_debate.php
http://www.ntskeptics.org/news/news.htm#spanked

Posted on: November 10, 2008 7:43 AM, by PZ Myers

Here's a fun account of a four-way debate on Intelligent Design in Fort Worth, Texas. Actually, it sounds like it was more of a two-way, with Lawrence Krauss, who is very, very good, speaking on the side of science, against David Berlinski, who is very, very supercilious (that word always comes up when Berlinski's name is mentioned) speaking on the side of … well, it's not clear. He doesn't really have any pro-ID arguments, but mainly seems to be on the side of cashing checks from the Discovery Institute.

You know the debate went well when creationists have temper tantrums afterwards.

ID Was Spanked In Fort Worth

http://goosetheantithesis.blogspot.com/2008/11/id-was-spanked-in-fort-worth.html

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Zachary Moore Permalink

...so hard that you can probably still see the palm print.

"The Great Debate," as it was billed, was sponsored by St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas. It featured a four-way roundtable format, with a participant from each quadrant of the atheist/theist and pro-ID/anti-ID axes. I was there along with some fellow members of the North Texas Church of Freethought primarily to see Dr. Lawrence Krauss (atheist/anti-ID) and also, somewhat guiltily, to see Dr. David Berlinski (theist/pro-ID) in action. The field was rounded out by Dr. Denis Alexander (theist/anti-ID) and Dr. Bradley Monton (atheist/pro-ID). The debate was held at the Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium, and I would estimate about 1000 people in attendance.

After a short introduction by St. Andrews' rector, we met Dr. James Tour, an organic chemist at Rice University who was chosen because he was raised as a secular Jew but now embraces Christianity, and considers himself agnostic (or just insufficiently informed) on the subject of evolution. He performed his task admirably, and was as impartial (and time-sensitive) as anyone could have wanted.

But enough about all that: what were the arguments? Reasonably predictable, actually.

Berlinski started by lobbing grand-sounding but skeptically vacuous questions at naturalism. How does science explain science? How does science explain the origin of the Cosmos? How does science explain the origin of life? Et cetera ad nausem. If you've ever seen him on a Discovery Institute DVD, you've already heard the same thing, probably with the same cadence and inflection - the guy is a total performance pro. Importantly, he never made a single argument in favor of intelligent design; merely threw some chewy questions out to the audience, and offered that intelligent design certainly had the right to be considered as a hypothesis.

Krauss countered by going straight for the throat of the intelligent design movement, and spent some time detailing what science is, how the scientific process works (research - hypothesis - experiment - interpretation - peer review - consensus - textbook), and contrasting that with how the intelligent design movement works (just write the damn textbook). He brought up the Wedge Document, and explained that the intelligent design movement is a thinly-veiled (and evolving!) strategy to attack naturalism in society and replace it with Christian theism. Importantly, none of these points were ever contradicted, or even contested by any of the other participants.

From my perspective, the other two participants were just seat-warmers; it really was "The Krauss and Berlinski Show." But Dr. Alexander's presence was probably just as important for the majority of the audience (whom I presume were Christian of some stripe); as a Christian himself who vehemently discounts intelligent design, his opinion was probably the most stinging for any of the Discovery Institute faithful who were present. He argued that using the concept of "design" as an agent-directed process in science was completely inappropriate, and instead advocated an appreciation of the entire natural world (as determined using methdological naturalism) as God's over-arching plan, acheived through secondary causes. Essentially, this is theistic evolution, as championed by Ken Miller and just about the most hateful concept to the Discovery Institute.

I don't quite know what to make of Dr. Monton. He is a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and an atheist. And yet, he seems to be the Discovery Institute's flavor of the month because he's pro-ID. Well... not actually. Just like Berlinski, at no point in the debate did he ever actually argue for intelligent design. In fact, he stated quite plainly that the current arguments used by ID advocates are awful and ineffective, and he was interested in trying to develop better arguments for them to use in the future. Idiotsayswhat??? Turns out the reason he's interested in doing this is because he doesn't like methodological naturalism, and he'd like to see supernatural explanations at least given a place at the table. I really don't see why this would be helpful or interesting, but then again, I'm not a low-level philosopher getting friendly with the Discovery Institute. The less said about Dr. Monton the better, quite frankly- I'm sure he's a nice fellow, but he had about as much relevance to the discussion as an expert in 17th century French poetry.

That's about it in terms of content. Krauss continued to rain the smack down on anything resembling intelligent design arguments, and even (out of deference to fair play) spent some time taking Alexander to task about his Christianity. Even that was poorly defended, as Dr. Alexander hid behind the "historical evidence of the Gospels" or some such warmed over apologetical nonsense, which Krauss easily dispatched. There really wasn't much of debate after the first hour, as Berlinski was all too eager to agree with Krauss at nearly every opportunity, and Alexander didn't have a contrary thing to say about atheism.

There were a few more interesting tidbits, though.

In attendance was Roy Abraham Varghese, the fellow who "turned" Antony Flew from atheist to deist. He's apparently something of a local ID celebrity, operates an "institute" out of the Dallas suburb of Garland (model for Arlen, Texas), and apparently doesn't know how bees fly. I saw him pass near my seat, where he attracted a small group of very excited, old, and white men who buzzed around him like he was the prettiest girl at the dance. Later, while I was talking with Dr. Krauss in the lobby, Varghese sidled up to us with that half-crooked grin of his; while I was handing Dr. Krauss my North Texas Church of Freethought card, I stopped and gave one to Varghese at the same time. "Oh, Roy," I said, looking at him, "Nice to see you here. I'm a big fan of your work too." He took the card and looked down at it... then looked harder. A few seconds later he began to giggle nervously to himself and slowly walked away.

I ran afoul of a few other Christians; the first batch had followed me back up to the lobby to speak with Dr. Krauss, and got a little bit of me instead. One fellow named Craig was adamant that the names attributed to the Gospel writers were historically accurate; what's more, all the Gospels taken together are evidence of the message God is trying to communicate to us which is that God so loved the world, he sent His only begotten son that whosoever believes... As he slipped neatly into an evangelical spiel, I rolled my eyes and told him that yes, I'd read that verse before, and no, it didn't have any effect on me now. Still, he asked if he could pray on my behalf then and there. I didn't have the heart to say no to the guy, so I stood there with a pained expression waiting for him to finish, as if he were an amorous dog with so much leg.

I also bumped into Dr. Ray Bohlin, Fellow of the Discovery Institute and President of Probe Ministries and whom I've blogged about before. I asked casually about how he thought the debate went, and he nearly exploded in anger. He claimed that Dr. Krauss' statements were half-full of lies, especially the accusation that intelligent design advocates wanted to skip the scientific process and go straight to textbooks. "Ray, what then was 'Of Pandas And People?'" I asked. What followed was a comically (in retrospect) bizzare display of frustration, anger, and flopping desperation in front of the auditoriuma and the small crowd that had gathered around us. 'Pandas' shouldn't matter because it's also okay to direct kids to read the Bible in a public school library, he said. I was a fool for thinking that the evidence points to evolutionary relationships, he said. Yes, he once studied pocket gophers by forming hypotheses, collecting data, and making interpretations, but that has nothing to do with science, he said. It was all very disturbing, and looking back I somewhat regret being pulled into his tantrum; I can only assume that he was so upset at the spanking Dr. Krauss gave intelligent design and the Discovery Institute, that he needed a little release. If so, I hope he got what he needed.

But I don't think the Discovery Institute got what it needed. There was a substantial presence on hand of our friends from Seattle, who had two large tables, posters, and banners in the front lobby to advertise the books and DVDs (including Expelled!) they were selling. I can't help but wonder if the DI was footing part of the bill for the event. At the very least, they were paying the way for Berlinski and Monton. On the former count, I wonder how much of their money's worth they're actually getting. A fellow NTCOF member was seated near me, and ventured over to speak with Drs. Krauss and Berlinski during the break (they had wandered off to a corner of the auditorium, and were engaged in a private discussion). Upon drawing close, he heard Krauss ask Berlinski why he wasted his intellect advocating for intelligent design. To which Berlinski replied that he doesn't believe a word of it, but is happy to cash the checks the Discovery Institute writes him. Strangely enough, this would be consistent with Berlinski's odd statement early on in which he admitted that his own ethical orientation was focused on living as contentedly and as selfishly as possible. It was a weird aside at the time; realizing that he could be exercising that ethic by making chumps of the Discovery Institute seems somehow poetically appropriate.

All in all, a great night for science and rationalism, a poor night for anyone who was hoping to see intelligent design championed in Texas.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Evolution education update: November 7, 2008

In Florida, the new state science standards may have to be reconsidered, while the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, will be hosting a multidisciplinary student conference on "Darwin's Legacy: Evolution's Impact on Science and Culture."

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD IN FLORIDA?

After a long and contentious wrangle, the Florida state board of education voted 4-3 at its February 19, 2008, meeting to adopt a new set of state science standards in which evolution is presented as a "fundamental concept underlying all of biology." But now there are concerns that, due to a recent state law, the standards will have to be approved again. The St. Petersburg Times (November 6, 2008) explains, "The new law requires the state Board of Education to adopt new academic standards by the end of 2011. That may include a new set of science standards, because the Board of Education adopted the latest standards a few months before the bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist."

It is not yet clear whether the standards will indeed have to be approved again, but Brian Moore, a staff attorney, with the state legislature's Joint Administrative Procedures Committee (which reviews the rules proposed by state agencies to ensure that they are in compliance with state law), told the department of education that he thought so. According to Education Week's curriculum blog (November 5, 2008), "It's possible, Moore explained, that Florida's commissioner of education could seek to have various experts certify that the recently approved science standards comply with the Next Generation law. But it appears likely that new standards would have to be re-approved in some form by the state board of education."

If so, the prospect of a renewed fight over the treatment of evolution in the standards looms. "Hallelujah" was the response of Terry Kemple, who opposed the treatment of evolution in the new standards. "This is an opportunity for both sides to step back and let this be a fairer endeavor," he said. Brandon Haught of the grassroots organization Florida Citizens for Science told the Times, "Maybe the legislators simply overlooked this and there's a simple solution," adding that the group would "hope for the best but plan for the worst." For now, the situation remains uncertain. A spokesperson for the department of education told the Times, "We are currently researching the matter so there are no specifics to offer at this point."

For the story in the St. Petersburg Times, visit:
http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/article892815.ece

For the story in Education Week's curriculum blog, visit:
http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2008/11/about_those_new_florida_scienc.html

For Florida Citizens for Science's website and blog, visit:
http://www.flascience.org
http://www.flascience.org/wp/

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Florida, visit:
http://www.ncseweb.org/news/florida

CALL FOR PAPERS: DARWIN'S LEGACY

The Evolution Learning Community at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, will be hosting "Darwin's Legacy: Evolution's Impact on Science and Culture" -- a multidisciplinary student conference to be held March 19-21, 2009. The conference will be a unique opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts who are conducting research or creative endeavors related to evolution to present their research, investigate graduate study opportunities, network, enhance their CVs, and enrich the body of knowledge surrounding evolution. Abstracts are due on January 30, 2009; authors will be notified of acceptance by February 12, 2009.

Abstracts may be submitted to any of the following theme sessions: evolution and the social sciences; evolution and religion; evolution and human uniqueness; economics of evolution and its consequences; the biodiversity crisis and conservation; Darwin's impact on art, music, and literature; sex and evolution; genomes, race, and medicine; evolution and ethics; the future of humanity; species in space and time; speciation and the species problem. Note that papers need not be submitted to a theme session; presentations on any topic related to evolution are welcome. In addition to the student presentations, there will be addresses by keynote speakers, including Kevin Padian, David Mindell, David Buss, and Peter Carruthers.

For information about the conference, visit:
http://library.uncw.edu/web/outreach/evolution/conference.html

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

Sincerely,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://www.ncseweb.org

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

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

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

New evidence supports theory of birds' evolution from dinosaurs

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/nationworld/sfl-flabreakdinosaur1102sbnov02,0,9599.story

November 2, 2008

The fossils of a previously unknown dinosaur discovered in South America are delivering insights on a long-suspected evolutionary relationship.

Bird lungs don't expand when they breathe. Instead, air sacs that work like bellows shunt air through the bird's rigid lungs.

Paleontologist Paul Sereno, a discoverer of the fossils, says dinosaurs may have developed the air sac breathing system and grown feathers for temperature control and that birds used both for flight millions of years later.

Chicago Tribune

Archaeologists report finding oldest Hebrew text

http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2008/10/30/archaeologists_report_finding_oldest_hebrew_text/

By Ari Rabinovitch

October 30, 2008

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Archaeologists in Israel said on Thursday they had unearthed the oldest Hebrew text ever found, while excavating a fortress city overlooking a valley where the Bible says David slew Goliath.

The dig's uncovering of the past near the ancient battlefield in the Valley of Elah, now home to wineries and a satellite station, could have implications for the emotional debate over the future of Jerusalem, some 20 km (12 miles) away.

Archaeologists from the Hebrew University said they found five lines of text written in black ink on a shard of pottery dug up at a five-acre (two-hectare) site called Elah Fortress, or Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Experts have not yet been able to decipher the text fully, but carbon dating of artifacts found at the site indicates the Hebrew inscription was written about 3,000 years ago, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by 1,000 years, the archaeologists said.

Several words, including "judge," "slave" and "king," could be identified and the experts said they hoped the text would shed light on how alphabetic scripts developed.

In a finding that could have symbolic value for Israel, the archaeologists said other items discovered at the fortress dig indicated there was most likely a strong king and central government in Jerusalem during the period scholars believe that David ruled the holy city and ancient Israel.

Modern-day Israel often cites a biblical connection through David to Jerusalem in supporting its claim, which has not won recognition internationally, to all of the city as its "eternal and indivisible capital."

Palestinians, saying biblical claims have been superseded by the long-standing Arab population in Jerusalem, want the eastern part of the city, captured by Israel in a 1967 war, to be the capital of the state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"The chronology and geography of Khirbet Qeiyafa create a unique meeting point between the mythology, history, historiography and archaeology of King David," said Yosef Garfinkel, the lead archaeologist at the fortress site.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

© Copyright 2008 Reuters.

Does chelation therapy work for MS?

http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/reallife/story.html?id=6e921f74-0dfb-48e4-86fb-f17129d3a107

Dr. Andrew Weil, For The Calgary Herald

Published: Monday, November 03, 2008

Q: How does the new oral chelation compare with intravenous chelation therapy? Could you also tell me what you think of removing metals from one's body as a means of curbing the symptoms of multiple sclerosis?

A: In 2005, the FDA approved the drug deferasirox (Exjade), an oral chelating agent for treating chronic iron overload due to multiple blood transfusions. Until then, the only way to treat iron overload was with daily prolonged intravenous therapy. Chelating agents grab metal atoms, forming complexes that can be excreted in the urine. Their use is standard treatment for heavy metal poisoning. Many popular, but unproven and unapproved "alternative therapies" for cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis and other chronic conditions claim to use the process of chelation.

It would be convenient to have a safe and effective orally active chelating agent, especially for iron. However, on May 22, 2007, the FDA and the drug manufacturer, Novartis, warned doctors that Exjade has been associated with some cases of kidney failure and other serious medical complications, some of which were fatal. Most of the patients involved had advanced, pre-existing blood disorders; a few had bone marrow failure.

I'm aware that various oral chelating agents are promoted on the Internet for everything from removing mercury from the body to treating chronic fatigue syndrome. There is no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of these products. Intravenous chelation therapy (with a compound called EDTA) is effective but will do nothing for diseases unrelated to toxic metals in the body. Because MS does not have such an association, chelation therapy is not indicated for it.

By the way, I've always been skeptical of claims that IV chelation effectively removes plaque from arteries (supposedly by extracting calcium from it). This issue may finally be settled when the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine completes a five-year, $30 million study of EDTA chelation therapy in patients with heart disease. The study, called TACT (Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy), is recruiting volunteers and will conclude in 2009.

For more information, go to clinicaltrials.gov/show/NCT00044213.

Bottom line: Chelation therapy, whether oral or IV, has no role in the treatment of MS.

Dr. Andrew Weil is director of the program of Integrative Medicine of the College of Medicine, University of Arizona. He is an internationally recognized expert on medicinal plants, alternative medicine and the reform of medical education.

Alternative medicine 'a dangerous scam'

http://www.thelocal.se/15450/20081104/

Published: 4 Nov 08 18:37 CET

The field of complementary and alternative medicine is misguided at best and may even be dangerous, agues Joel Jansson.

Swedish alternative medicine sector in danger of fragmentation (29 Sep 08)

In response to the article, Swedish alternative medicine sector in danger of fragmentation, I would argue that it is not without good reason that the sale of snake oil to children and the dying is illegal, since there is a serious risk of exploitation.

We can take as an example the case of homeopathy, which lacks any substance and to all intents and purposes offers nothing more than placebo effects at best.

Why should it be permissible to sell entirely ineffectual homeopathic concoctions to people who are ill and in need of proper medical treatment? How can it not be viewed as a scam?

I am sick and tired of arguments that say: "It's accepted in most of the rest of Europe so there must be something to it."

On the contrary, the fact that is accepted in places like Germany and the UK is largely down to politics rather than any proof of its efficacy.

Is it morally acceptable for parents to treat their children using methods that don't work simply on the basis of anecdotal evidence? For a parent to treat a child for a deadly illness using homeopathy is essentially no different to resorting to prayer.

When discussing the importance of using only scientifically tested medicines, we can take as an example the use of mistletoe therapy as a treatment for cancer.

As Sweden's TV4 revealed on its investigative TV show Kalla Fakta ('Cold Facts'), 100 million kronor of taxpayers' money has been used to fund the anthroposophic clinic in Järna outside Stockholm. Vidarkliniken markets the supposed 'anti-tumour' qualities of a mistletoe-based substance.

But a number of doctors interviewed on the show were deeply critical of the clinic.

"Targeting a weak group in society - people who out of desperation are prepared to try almost anything - and lying right to their faces: I just think it's wrong," said senior physician Gunnar Eckerdahl from Västra Götaland.

The doctors at Vidarkliniken meanwhile continue to argue that their treatment works.

"It has been shown to have an immediate effect on tumours. What we can see is that tumours become smaller and can disappear completely," said Jackie Swarz, a doctor at the clinic.

But a study carried out by the chairman of ECCO (European CanCer Organisation) has shown that mistletoe therapy can lead to serious side effects and may in fact cause tumours to spread.

"It has been proved that it does not have any positive effects. In fact it appears to speed up the illness, causing patients to die more quickly."

Isn't it bothersome that the Swedish healthcare system demands real evidence that medication sold to sick and desperate patients actually works and is not an ineffectual or even dangerous alternative?

Joel Jansson is a molecular biology student and a member of Vetenskap och Folkbildning (VoF), "a Swedish non-profit organization set out to promote popular education about the methods of science and its results. By engaging in open debate, the organization particularly sets its task to discredit false ideas about matters that can be resolved scientifically."

The views expressed in the article are entirely those of the author.

Comment: When not to write about autism

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn15125-comment-when-not-to-write-about-autism.html

18:26 04 November 2008 NewScientist.com news service Ewen Callaway

USA Today heads its story: Study: Counties with more rainfall have higher autism rates. The BBC has Rainfall autism theory suggested, while The Daily Telegraph opts for Heavy rainfall could be linked to autism, scientists claim.

These were some of the headlines in stories reporting a paper from scientists at Cornell University showing that between 1987 and 1999, counties in Washington, Oregon and California that got more rain had more cases of autism.

There is no claim that rain causes autism, and the authors are exceedingly conservative in making the connection. They argue that some unknown environmental factor related to precipitation or accompanying behaviour might contribute to autism.

To be fair, the sources mentioned above managed to keep sensationalism to a minimum, but others were not so restrained.

The Palm Beach Register, for example, had a Milli Vanilli-inspired headline as lame as it is misleading: "Autism: Blame it on the rain". Its opening line goes as far as to mention the discredited link between autism and a mercury preservative used in some childhood vaccines.

Misleading the public?

But should the story have been reported in the mainstream media at all? It offers nothing useful for the general public, parents, and even physicians. And press reports, blogs and other accounts of the study could even mislead the public.

I spoke with the study's lead author Sean Nicholson of Cornell last week. He is an insightful economist, and he carefully went over his team's data and its limitations with me.

His team accounted for some variables that might confound an association between autism and precipitation, and they back their claims up with impressive statistics.

They also underscore the speculative nature of the connection between autism rates and rainfall throughout the manuscript, which took a year and a half to get published.

Unclear links

But, Noel Weiss an epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who wrote an editorial on the paper – with the peculiar title Do These Results Warrant Publication? – makes an important point in answering "yes" to his rhetorical question:

"The authors' analysis and the editor's decision to publish it are to be lauded, despite the uncertain ultimate contribution of this work and the possibility (likelihood?) that non-professionals are going to misinterpret and misuse it."

The paper, he writes, is best digested by other epidemiologists, who may use the results to design trials that address potential links to autism that could be related to precipitation and related behaviour, such as lack of vitamin D exposure.

"Hopefully someone will be inspired to do a study that will be more direct and ultimately more persuasive for clinicians," Nicholson agrees.

Most media reports mention vitamin D and other "theories" – TV, household chemicals, and computer games – and the need for follow-up research to confirm these links.

Yet few reports say that these studies likely won't pan out under the microscope of well-designed clinical trials. Nor do they mention the importance of studying individuals with autism, rather than county-wide records, to gain true insight into a potential cause. This is epidemiology 101.

Skip the story

It's unrealistic to expect reporters to always wait for such confirmation before reporting on a study, especially one so tantalising.

An inevitable part of science and medical writing is covering research that others will eventually discredit. It's nearly impossible to determine what will stand the test of time – especially under deadline.

However, irresponsible reporting of the unproven link between autism and vaccines probably led some parents to pursue unproven and potentially dangerous chelation therapies for their kids, or to miss out on protective vaccines.

I can see worried parents hearing about the rain association, second- or third-hand, and keeping their kids in on showery days, or forcing them to play in the rain, or whatever "news you can use" suggestion gets tagged on to these stories.

For this reason, and it might be idealistic, but I think reporters and editors should have taken a pass on this story. There must have been a story on the benefits of broccoli out there.

Journal reference: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (vol 11, p 1026)

Oldest evidence for complex life in doubt

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/38303/title/Oldest_evidence_for_complex_life_in_doubt

By Sid PerkinsNovember 22nd, 2008; Vol.174 #11 (p. 5)

Chemical fossils may have migrated into rock after sediments formed

The isotopic composition of this pyrobitumen, one form in which carbon is preserved in rock, suggests that one of the earliest known markers for complex life may be younger than thought. Full story. Rasmussen et al./NatureChemical biomarkers in ancient Australian rocks, once thought to be the oldest known evidence of complex life on Earth, may have infiltrated long after the sediments were laid down, new analyses suggest.

The evidence was based on biomarkers — distinctive chemical compounds produced today by modern-day relatives of cyanobacteria and other complex life forms. In 1999, a team of researchers contended that the biomarkers in the 2.7-billion–year-old rocks pushed back the origins of cyanobacteria by at least 550 million years and of eukaryotes by about a billion years.

Although some scientists interpret the new findings, published in the Oct. 23 Nature, as disproving the older dates, others contend that the results still allow for the presence of the organisms or their kin at that time.

Experts believe that the first life on Earth consisted of single-celled organisms, or prokaryotes, such as bacteria. Later came the cyanobacteria, the group of photosynthesizing bacteria that produce oxygen. Before the 1999 work, the oldest known fossils of this group were about 2.15 billion years old. Likewise, the oldest fossils of eukaryotes, the group whose cells contain nuclei, were about 1.7 billion years old. The remains of any of these organisms can be destroyed when intense heat and pressure deep within Earth convert the molecules into petroleum and kerogen, a mixture of long-chain, carbon-rich compounds.

Results of the first analyses of the Australian rocks (SN: 8/28/99, p. 141) were controversial, says Birger Rasmussen, a geochemist at Curtin University of Technology's campus in Bentley, Australia. For one thing, the shale — which had been laid down as sediments about 2.7 billion years ago — contained tiny particles of pyrobitumen, coal-like remnants of oil droplets that had solidified as the sediment layers cooked. Pyrobitumen is a sign that the sediments and any organic material they contained experienced temperatures from 200° Celsius to 300°C for an extended time. The rocks also contained significant amounts of kerogen.

Yet the samples also held small quantities of hopanes, a class of organic chemicals produced by cyanobacteria and some other bacteria, as well as steranes, which are produced only by eukaryotes. That the rocks hosted these biomarkers, which should have been destroyed by the heat and pressure required to generate the pyrobitumen, "presented a bit of a conundrum," Rasmussen says.

However, because the Australian rocks otherwise showed little evidence of heat-driven degradation, scientists at the time largely dismissed the notion that the hopanes and steranes had migrated into the rocks many years after the sediments had formed. But that interpretation led to yet another conundrum — the inferred presence of oxygen-generating cyanobacteria at least 350 million years before significant amounts of oxygen showed up in the atmosphere (SN: 1/24/04, p. 61).

The tests reported in 1999, and others conducted since then, compared the ratios of carbon isotopes in the biomarkers, which could be extracted from the strata, with those of the pyrobitumen and kerogen left trapped in the rocks. Comparing those ratios enables researchers to determine whether the two derived from the same batch of organic material.

Previous isotopic measurements were analyzed in bulk, so they couldn't distinguish isotope ratios in the pyrobitumen from those of the kerogen nearby, says Ian Fletcher, also of the Curtin University of Technology and a coauthor of the new report. In the new analyses, however, he, Rasmussen and their colleagues — including one scientist who was part of the 1999 team — used an instrument with a microprobe that enabled them to measure the carbon-isotope ratios on spots of intact rock as small as 5 micrometers across, about the size of a single bacterium.

Typically, the proportion of the carbon-13 isotope found in kerogen and other hydrocarbons is between 1 and 3 parts per thousand less than the proportion found in the original organic matter from which those substances derived, Fletcher says. But the team's new analyses show that the proportions of carbon-13 isotopes of the kerogen and pyrobitumen in the Australian rocks is between 10 and 20 parts per thousand less than those found in the hopanes and steranes — the presumably unmodified biomarkers for cyanobacteria and eukaryotes — extracted from the same rocks. This difference indicates that the kerogen and the pyrobitumen are probably unrelated to the biomarkers, says Fletcher. It's also a strong sign that the biomarkers migrated into the rocks sometime after 2.2 billion years ago, when the rocks underwent most of the metamorphosis that formed pyrobitumen. "We can't say where the biomarkers came from, or when," he notes. "We can't pretend to know."

Instruments that can detect substances present in concentrations as small as a few parts per billion pose a challenge because the sensors can also pick up trace contaminants, comments Woodward Fischer, a geobiologist at Caltech in Pasadena. Biomarkers such as hopanes are produced by organisms but are also detected in diesel exhaust, fossil fuel emissions and urban air pollution (SN: 9/8/07, p. 152).

The new findings "are interesting observations but Rasmussen and his colleagues pose only one explanation for the results," says Jennifer Eigenbrode, an organic geochemist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

While some of the organisms in microbial communities 2.7 billion years ago got carbon from carbon dioxide, others took it from methane. Both gases were abundant in the oxygen-free atmosphere at that time. "It was a completely different planet then," Eigenbrode says.

Because those microbes often recycled carbon among themselves many times, the proportions of carbon-13 in their biomarkers ranged more widely than they do across most microbial communities today.

It's possible that a community of microbes could make hopanes and steranes that, when cooked, would produce the kind of isotopically light pyrobitumen and kerogen seen in the Australian rocks. So the biomarkers could still be legitimate indicators of early complex life.

Since the 1999 study of the 2.7-billion-year-old Australian rocks, other analyses of rocks of similar age elsewhere in the world, particularly some from South Africa, also have detected biomarkers that bolster the early appearance of cyanobacteria, says Andrew H. Knoll, a biogeochemist at Harvard University. Even if the new results "take some specific evidence off the table, all is not lost," he says.

Obama promises new era of scientific innovation

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn15130?DCMP=ILC-hmts&nsref=top1_head_Obama%20promises%20new%20era%20of%20scientific%20innovation

13:02 05 November 2008 NewScientist.com news service Colin Barras

Yesterday, the American people chose Barack Obama as the country's 44th president, promising a sea change in US policy that could affect not just the US, but the whole world.

Here we take a look at what Obama has pledged over the lengthy presidential campaign, to see what his administration will mean for science and technology.

In September, Obama unveiled a comprehensive Science and Technology Policy (pdf).

In it he promised to lead a new era of scientific innovation in America and to restore integrity to US science policy. This would be achieved by doubling the federal investment in basic research and by addressing the "grand challenges" of the 21st century, he said. The rhetoric gained him the public endorsement of 61 Nobel laureates.

Obama lacks a science background, though, and over the past 50 years it has been Republican, rather than Democratic administrations, that have tended to spend more on science. Whether Obama and his team can buck this trend in the current dire financial situation remains to be seen.

Key adviser

Although he consulted a range of Nobel prize winners during his presidential campaign, it is also crucial that Obama chooses his presidential scientific adviser early in his term, Joanne Carney of the American Association for the Advancement of Science told New Scientist in September.

"Having the science adviser in place early is going to be critical," Carney said. "It means that an individual can play a role in placing other key scientists throughout the federal agencies."

The outgoing Bush administration took 10 months to appoint John Marburger as the presidential science adviser – a position that didn't exist until Russia sent Sputnik into space 50 years ago.

By the time Marburger took up his post the president had already made clear his position on stem cells and climate change, leaving his new adviser with few decisions to make.

To the heavens

We already have some idea of Obama's own position on the big scientific issues – at the beginning of September he answered 14 questions posed by a consortium of scientific organisations.

Obama promised to lift the current ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and support recommendations on genetic engineering as proposed by the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

Technology could benefit under the Obama administration too, with promises to re-establish the National Aeronautics and Space Council – scrapped in 1993 by George Bush senior. The move would "expand our reach into the heavens and improve life here on Earth," said Obama.

Obama's attitude to the problem of climate change appeals to many in the scientific community – he aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and expand research funding into energy resources that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Read our environmental analysis of what the Obama victory will mean for the fight against climate change.

Health of the nation

Obama's policy on healthcare will be among the most carefully scrutinised. The US spends twice as much per head on healthcare as many other developed nations, but has little extra benefit to show for it.

With a healthcare bill that currently stands at over $2 trillion per year and is rising rapidly, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the US's health spending will soar to 49% of GDP in 2082 – it currently stands at 16%.

Shannon Brownlee, a specialist in health policy with the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank in Washington DC, told New Scientist that the antidote to soaring costs is more research into the comparative effectiveness of medical interventions.

That, coupled with greater use of electronic medical records and information technology, could help reduce the likelihood of duplicated diagnostic tests and minimise errors in drug prescribing.

Obama has already pledged billions of dollars for such systems, and supports further biomedical research into disease and responses to bioterror attacks.

Playing catch-up?

For too long the US has "[reduced] support for science at a time when many other nations are increasing it," Obama said in September. "A situation that already threatens our leadership in many critical areas of science."

That comment prompted New Scientist to wonder whether Obama feared America was falling behind in the scientific rat-race.

Whether or not Obama's scientific motives are to improve the world we live in, or to play science and technology catch-up with the other leading nations, the new US president has certainly been making the right noises for those that value science and technology. Now we have to wait and see if he can deliver.

Q&A About Texas Science Standards Review and Debate Over How to Teach Evolution

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2008/11/qa_about_texas_science_standar.html

What is the science standards issue currently before the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE)?

During 2008-09, the Texas SBOE is reviewing the state's science standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for science, which were originally adopted in 1998. The controversial issue before the SBOE is whether the TEKS will retain existing language calling for students to learn about both the scientific "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. Some have proposed removing that language from the TEKS entirely, while others have suggested that good science education that encourages critical thinking should apply to all aspects of the curriculum, especially to the teaching of controversial scientific theories like neo-Darwinian evolution.

In September 2008, writing committees working for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) proposed revised TEKS that would largely eliminate the "strengths and weaknesses" language found throughout the existing TEKS, making critical thinking a less important part of the curriculum. The apparent goal is to shield biological evolution from critical scrutiny and to teach it in a one-sided fashion. To help the SBOE decide whether to retain the "strengths and weaknesses" language, board members nominated in October a review panel of six experts to supply critical feedback on the proposed TEKS for science. These expert reviewers submitted their written analysis and recommendations in late October, but the SBOE is not expected to vote to adopt final revisions to the TEKS until sometime in 2009.

What is the problem with the current standards?

The current TEKS appropriately call for students to "analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information." There is nothing wrong with this "strengths and weaknesses" standard, except it is a general provision that is not specifically applied to particular scientific theories and hypotheses. When evolution is covered in the current TEKS, for example, there is no indication that students should engage in any meaningful form of critical analysis of the theory.

Who is proposing to remove the "strengths and weaknesses" language?

Interest groups like the misnamed "21st Century Science Coalition" and "Texas Citizens for Science" are pushing for removal of the language in order to shield Darwinian evolution from scrutiny. Unfortunately, writing committees working with the TEA have acceded to the demands of these pressure groups for the most part. A few sections of their proposed TEKS inconsistently require students to learn about the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories, but when it comes to fields like biology (which covers biological evolution) or earth sciences (which covers both biological and chemical evolution), their proposed TEKS do not encourage students to engage in such critical thinking. It is not surprising that the proposed TEKS single out evolution as being beyond scientific critique since the writing committees included dogmatic Darwinists such as Steven Schafersman, head of the activist group Texas Citizens for Science.

What recommendations have the expert reviewers made who favor the "strengths and weaknesses" language?

(See expert reviews here.) Three scientists—biologist Ralph Seelke, philosopher of science Stephen C. Meyer, and chemist Charles Garner—have proposed that the TEKS retain the "strengths and weaknesses" language. They have advised the State Board that good science education will encourage students to learn the scientific facts and engage in more critical thinking than they would under the TEA's proposed TEKS. In this regard, these scientists have made three key recommendations:

While some Darwinists claim that teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" will hurt science education, Dr. Stephen Meyer points out that the National Research Council (a sister organization to the National Academy of Sciences) has suggested inquiry-based science education should lead to learning about "both the strengths and weaknesses of [scientific] claims":

At each of the steps involved in inquiry, students and teachers ought to ask 'what counts?' What data do we keep? What data do we discard? What patterns exist in the data? Are these patterns appropriate for this inquiry? What explanations account for the patterns? Is one explanation better than another? In justifying their decisions, students ought to draw on evidence and analytical tools to derive a scientific claim. In turn, students should be able to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of their claims. (National Research Council, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning, pg. 19 (National Academy Press, 2000), emphasis added.)

The National Research Council similarly stresses that "[t]hroughout the process of inquiry" students should "constantly evaluate and reevaluate the nature and strength of evidence and share and then critique their explanations and those of others." (Ibid., pg. 124.) These scientists argue that general requirements for critical thinking in the current TEKS and the lack of scientific inquiry in the proposed TEKS fall short of the high standard of inquiry-based science education that students in Texas deserve to receive.

What recommendations have the other expert reviewers made?

Three Darwinists—Gerald Skoog, David Hillis, and Ronald Wetherington—have reviewed the proposed TEKS and suggested removing or de-emphasizing the "strengths and weaknesses" language from the TEKS. In particular, they suggest students learn about evolution in a one-sided pro-Darwin-only fashion. These reviewers are proposing that the State Board adopt a pro-Darwin-only curriculum for Texas students that would discuss only the evidence that "ha[s] reinforced the scientific strength and validity of the evolutionary concept." They propose either removing the "strengths and weaknesses" language from the standards completely or watering it down such that students will not apply critical thinking when studying controversial scientific theories like neo-Darwinian evolution or chemical evolution. They argue that allowing students to learn about any scientific weaknesses of neo-Darwinism "is well beyond what is possible or reasonable or productive in a high school classroom."

Posted by Robert Crowther on November 6, 2008 10:05 AM | Permalink

Creationism survey is not all it seems

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2008/nov/07/evolution-education

Comments (52) I'm not quite sure what to make of this survey from the website and TV station Teachers TV. It apparently shows that 29% of teachers think creationism should be taught as science and 18% of science teachers think evolution and creationism should be given equal status.

To anyone who cares about science, evidence and rational argument these results should be shocking. Any science teacher who is at all ambiguous about the difference between a scientific based explanation for the diversity of life and a faith based one that contradicts a mountain evidence is not doing their job.

But we should take this survey with a pinch of salt. Firstly, the sample of 1210 is self-selecting - these are people who responded to a survey that was emailed to 10,600 education professionals. So it is possible that people at both extremes of the debate would be more likely to reply.

Also, only a minority of the respondents would actually be teaching evolution anyway - 336 were at primary school, 61 weren't teachers at all and just 248 are actually science teachers. Does it matter what an English or Religious Education teacher thinks about what is taught in science lessons?

One of the most controversial findings was that 31% of the total (and 18% of science teachers) believed that intelligent design and creationism deserved "equal status" in the classroom. But unfortunately, the question did not specify which classroom it was referring to - science or RE?

Nonetheless, I was most struck by the fact that 29% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the government's guidelines on teaching evolution. These state:

Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science national curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science. [corrected, Friday 7 November, 14:40]

Any science teacher who disagrees with that should be seeking alternative employment.

The developmental biologist Prof Lewis Wolpert at University College London said he was concerned about the findings.

"It is worrying, it's certainly worrying. It means they have a very poor understanding of science," he said. "Creationism has got nothing to do with science."

Third of teachers believe creationism should have the same equivalence as evolution in class

http://www.secularism.org.uk/103188.html

Nearly a third (31.1%) of teachers agree that creationism or intelligent design should be given the same status as evolution in the classroom, according to a poll of over 1200 Teachers TV 'Associates'. The poll, published to coincide with a week of programming dedicated to the evolution debate, also revealed that nearly a third (30.1%) of schools already consider creationism or intelligent design to some extent during science lessons.

Commenting on the results, Andrew Bethell, Chief Executive of Teachers TV, said:

"This poll data confirms that the debate on whether there is a place for the teaching of creationism in the classroom is still fierce. Although over half (50.4%) of teachers either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the idea that creationism should be given the same status as evolution, there is a significant minority who believe that it should be given equal weight.

"Nearly half (49.9%) of teachers also agreed with Professor Michael Reiss' sentiment that excluding alternative explanations to evolution is counter-productive and alienates pupils from science.

"Perhaps most telling is the fact that, almost 9 out of 10 (87.9%) teachers take the pragmatic view that they should be allowed to discuss creationism or intelligent design in science, if pupils raise the question."

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: "The findings in this survey are extremely alarming. It seems that such is the sensitivity around religion in schools now that pupils with fundamentalist ideas are able, in some circumstances, to force their beliefs into science lessons."

Mr Sanderson continued: "Although teachers should be allowed to challenge and respond to such ideas when pupils raise them, they should also make clear that they have no place in science. Creationism is a religious idea that is fixed and immutable, evolution is research and evidence-based and subject to constant development. The idea that the two approaches have some sort of equivalence in science lessons is something that must be stamped on hard. It is time for the Government to issue instructions to schools that creationism is not to be given credence in science lessons. The place to discuss it is in religious education classes."

7 November 2008 Science Education Experts Recommend Strengthening Students' Critical Thinking Skills by Retaining 'Strengths and Weaknesses' Language in Texas Science Standards http://www.marketwatch.com/news/story/Science-Education-Experts-Recommend-Strengthening/story.aspx?guid=%7B109C2A45-C246-4AFA-8043-4320F7481945%7D

Last update: 9:01 a.m. EST Nov. 7, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas, Nov 07, 2008 /PRNewswire-USNewswire via COMTEX/ -- Three of six experts selected by the Texas State Board of Education to review a proposed update of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for science have recommended that the TEKS retain controversial language calling on students to examine the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories in order to strengthen students' critical thinking skills.

"Some activist groups are pressuring the State Board to cut that language from the TEKS in order to artificially shield Darwin's theory from the normal process of scientific inquiry," said Casey Luskin, an education policy analyst at Discovery Institute. "However, as these three experts point out, examining the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories is a core part of the scientific process, and abandoning such critical analysis merely to satisfy ideological demands of Darwinists harms students by giving them a false view of scientific inquiry."

"Science education that does not encourage students to evaluate competing scientific arguments is not teaching students about the way science actually operates," emphasized expert reviewer Dr. Stephen Meyer in his written report submitted to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Meyer added that the need for students to study the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific explanations has been noted by the National Research Council, a sister organization to the National Academy of Sciences.

Meyer directs the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute. A Cambridge-trained philosopher of science, he was formerly a geophysicist with ARCO in Dallas.

Meyer was joined in recommending the preservation of the "strengths and weaknesses" language in the TEKS by Baylor University chemistry professor Dr. Charles Garner and University of Wisconsin-Superior biology professor Ralph W. Seelke, whose laboratory research investigates the ability of natural selection to produce new functions in bacteria.

In separate written reviews, all three experts advised the TEA that good science education should encourage students to learn the scientific facts and engage in more critical thinking than they would under the currently proposed TEKS.

Key recommendations made by one or more of the reviewers include:

-- the TEKS should not only retain the "strengths and weaknesses" language, but strengthen critical thinking skills by explicitly applying this approach to the study of specific scientific theories and hypotheses, including biological and chemical evolution.

-- the TEKS should not include pejorative or inaccurate language in their definition of science, but they should encourage students to understand how scientists think skeptically and critically and engage in scientific debate when solving scientific problems.

-- the TEKS should encourage students to learn about the impact of science on culture and society, providing both positive and negative examples of such impacts.

Luskin noted that despite efforts by Darwin-only activists to inject religion into the discussion of the TEKS for science, the expert reviews of Meyer, Garner, and Seelke all focused on scientific and pedagogical concerns, not religion. "None of the expert reviewers are calling for religion in science classes, and any suggestions to the contrary show just how bankrupt the Darwinists' arguments are for insulating Darwin's theory from honest analysis. Whenever Darwinists can't respond to scientific or educational arguments, they try to change the subject to religion. Students in Texas deserve better."

If you'd like to speak with science education policy analyst Casey Luskin about the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, please contact Anika Smith at (206) 292-0401 x155, asmith@discovery.org

SOURCE Discovery Institute

http://www.discovery.org

Copyright (C) 2008 PR Newswire.

A new edition of Voices for Evolution

http://ncseweb.org/news/2008/11/new-edition-voices-evolution-002806

November 7th, 2008 NCSE 2008

NCSE is pleased to announce the publication of the third edition of Voices for Evolution. As NCSE deputy director Glenn Branch explains in his foreword, "Amid the dizzying panoply of creationist activity, what is gratifyingly constant is the thoughtful, balanced, and authoritative opposition from the scientific, educational, and civil liberties communities, as well from a considerable portion of the faith community. Organizations small and large, local, national, and international, have expressed their unflinching support for evolution education. Their statements are collected here, in Voices for Evolution."

Equally gratifying is the increase in the number of organizations taking a stand in defense of the teaching of evolution. The first edition of Voices for Evolution, edited by Betty McCollister and published in 1984, contained 68 such statements; the second edition, edited by Molleen Matsumura and published in 1995, contained a round 100; and the third edition, edited by Carrie Sager and published in 2008, contains 176. Also included in the third edition are summaries of and excerpts from significant court decisions, including Kitzmiller v. Dover.

Neil deGrasse Tyson praised Voices for Evolution as "a beacon for students, teachers, and the curious public who never knew the full extent that biological evolution is recognized and accepted among secular as well as religious organizations"; Michael Ruse described it as "a wonderful guide to the reasons for teaching evolution in our schools, and proof that we do our students a grave disservice if we keep them from one of the jewels in the crown of science"; and Nina Jablonski maintains that "it needs to be in the hands of every teacher in the United States."

Printed and bound copies of the third edition of Voices for Evolution are available from the NCSE office and from Lulu.com for $12.95 plus shipping and sales tax (if applicable); electronic copies in PDF format are freely available from Lulu.com (PDF). Additionally, we are in the process of adding the individual statements to the NCSE website. And, of course, we will be adding new statements to the NCSE website — and, eventually, to a fourth edition of Voices for Evolution — as they become available.

One-third of teachers back creationism in science syllabus

http://www.inthenews.co.uk/news/healthandscience/sport/pakistan/one-third-teachers-back-creationism-in-science-syllabus-$1248325.htm

Friday, 07 Nov 2008 11:13 Significant support for creationism teaching in schools At least one-third of teachers think creationism should be given equal status as evolution in the curriculum, according to a survey of over 1,000 teachers published today.

The poll also discovered that a third of schools already include divine explanation of the universe in their science syllabus, on the grounds that highly religious students would otherwise feel 'left out'.

In addition to finding that 30 per cent of teachers think creationism should be given the same attention as evolution, the survey also showed that 18 per cent of science teachers also believe this.

The Teachers TV poll caused much surprise among education leaders, especially given the controversial comments of the ex-director of education at the Royal Society, Rev Professor Michael Reiss.

Prof Reiss argued for the inclusion of intelligent design in lesson plans, a move that cost him his job.

The argument for such inclusion, however, is not always based in religious motives.

"Perhaps most telling is the fact that, almost nine out of ten teachers take the pragmatic view that they should be allowed to discuss creationism or intelligent design in science, if pupils raise the question" Teachers TV director Andrew Benthall said.

Atheist and secular groups have found the survey's results alarming as they mirror the large number of students who hold fundamentalist views.

But the poll showed that over 50 per cent of teachers did oppose the provision of creationism lessons, some of whom were strongly against it.

God and evolution: One evangelical minister says the two go hand in hand

http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2008811080304

Leslie Boyd • LBoyd@CITIZEN-TIMES.com • published November 8, 2008 12:15 am

As a conservative, evangelical Christian, the Rev. Michael Dowd once was furious when he heard evolution discussed by his peers.

God created the Earth in six days and rested on the seventh. That was all there was to it.

Then, in 1988, he was introduced to Thomas Berry, and within 30 minutes, his view of the universe and the sacred had changed profoundly.

"It was like a religious epiphany," he said. "I saw that evolution could enrich and deepen my faith."

Immediately, Dowd began studying geology, cosmology, astrophysics, biology and anthropology. He came to the conclusion that science and faith are two sides of the same coin. Dowd is author of the book, "Thank God for Evolution," which "marries" the two.

Dowd and his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, will be in Asheville for three presentations this month and in December to talk about his book and the belief that knowledge of science can deepen one's faith in God.

"We humans are the universe becoming aware of itself," he said. "My thoughts, my feelings, are an extension of the universe. ... We can honor God by honoring creation."

Dowd speaks with the fervor of an evangelist, which he still is. He was pastor of three churches in the 1980s and 1990s, but in 2002, he and his wife took to the road. They travel the country, speaking up to 200 times a year to both religious and secular audiences.

Dowd and Barlow carry their possessions with them and stay with families who open their homes to them. They tell the "Great Story," as Dowd calls his conviction that God is the creative force behind evolution and that humans are the universe becoming aware of itself.

He explains the creation story in the Bible as the way people explained the unknown before they became aware of the scientific evidence of evolution, plate tectonics, geology other science.

"If you lived in the Pacific Northwest hundreds of years ago and you saw a boulder in the middle of a meadow, how would you explain it if you had no knowledge of glacial activity?" he said. "Now that we have scientific ways of explaining some of these mysteries doesn't mean we throw God out the window."

Dowd's book has been endorsed by five Nobel laureates and dozens of other scientists, as well as religious leaders from a variety of faith traditions.

"Facts are God's native tongue," he said. "Every new discovery we make is a new communication from God."