NTS LogoSkeptical News for 15 November 2008

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cats, Dogs, and Creationism: On Intelligent Design and the Left


by Jean Bricmont

"The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism."
-- Karl Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right

With all due respect to cats and dogs, I don't expect them to ever understand the laws that govern planetary motion. Does this prove the existence of God? Of course not! What a silly question! Yet, if you replace cats and dogs by humans and the problem of planetary motion by the question of the origin of life, or of the universe, or why a number of physical constants take certain precise values, then the "yes" answer summarizes the entire content of the so-called Intelligent Design movement.

Why devote a whole book to that argument, as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York do in their recent Critique of Intelligent Design (Monthly Review, 2008)? Well, one reason is that the argument is unfortunately extremely popular, especially in the United States. Besides, the book is not about only that, but it also reviews brilliantly the eternal struggle between materialism and spiritualism or idealism, going through the works of Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Lewontin and Gould and their adversaries. Materialism can be defined as the attempt to explain the world in terms of itself, an idea that goes back to the Greeks. Of course, to avoid tautologies, one has to know what one means by "itself." For religious people, God is part of the world and therefore explaining the world in terms of God is part of explaining the world in terms of itself.

Here is where modern science and British empiricism (which can be characterized as the working philosophy of most scientists) enter. Science explains the visible world, let's say the structure of matter, by appealing to the invisible one, the properties of atoms. So, why can't science postulate an invisible Intelligent Design to account for the origin of the Universe or its unexplained properties? The difference is that we do not use merely the word "atom" in our explanations, but also its many quantitative and testable properties. On the other hand, the Design of the ID movement is just a word -- nobody has ever proposed that it possesses any given properties, nor how, if such properties were proposed, one could test them. The postulated Design has just whichever properties were needed to make the world as it is and not otherwise. But then why was the ID not intelligent enough to create a world without birth defects, tsunamis, or American imperialism? The only thing that the defenders of ID are able to establish is that there are certain things we don't know -- and with that, of course, all scientists agree.

Because of the specificity and testability of its explanations, modern science has introduced a new factor into the spiritualism/materialism debate that was absent among the classical materialist philosophers. The latter had their hearts in the right place but, because of lack of experiments, their physics was fanciful and open to the objection that it was not any more credible than religious stories. Since then, modern science has turned the tables decisively in favor of materialism.

More to the point, this postulated Design has nothing whatsoever to do with the Gods of the traditional religions. Theologians constantly try to present such "arguments" as ID in favor of a deity as if they supported their favorite belief systems. But those belief systems are all based on some kind of revelations and "sacred" scriptures. Even if the ID arguments were valid, they would tell us nothing about particular revelations. The God of ID is a philosopher's God, like the one whose existence St Thomas Aquinas or Descartes thought to have proven. But the God of the traditional religions is entirely different . It is a being that defines what is good and evil, answers our prayers, and punishes us in the afterlife. Those belief systems are even more radically undermined by modern science than ID. Indeed, whenever one looks at the facts in an undogmatic way, the sacred books turn out to be essentially wrong. Not only about evolution but about almost everything. There is no independent evidence for the story told in the Gospels, the Bible is mythological, and even the Jewish people is, as Shlomo Sand puts it, "an invention."

Given that, there are two routes open to the believer. There is that of Sarah Palin, clinging literally to the belief system, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. That school of Christians enter into direct conflict with science. Or one can choose the metaphorical route, which most liberal and European Christians (including even the Pope, at times) follow -- declare that, whenever the Scriptures conflict with science, they have to be "interpreted" in a non-literal way. That leads to total defeat for religious belief, because, if the parts of the Scriptures that can be checked with the facts are not to be taken seriously, why pay any attention to the parts that cannot be checked (notably concerning Heaven and Hell or God himself )? The whole of liberal Christianity is the result of a double standard: follow the Scriptures whenever they are "metaphysical" or ethical and cannot be checked independently, and discard them when they can. Since God is not good enough to tell us what he really meant in his "revelations," and which parts have to be taken seriously and which parts not, we are left with total arbitrariness.

People who call themselves agnostics are often confused about these two notions of God. What they claim to be agnostic about is the philosopher's god not, say, the Gods of Homer. With respect to the latter, they are atheist, just as all religious people are atheist with respect to all gods except their own.

It is also a pity that some secular leftists, like Stephen Jay Gould, support liberal Christianity with the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA): science deals with facts, religion deals with values. But if you really remove all statements of facts from religion, including those about the existence of God or of Heaven and Hell, then why should one care about what religion says about values? (That is why the NOMA argument adds to the confusion on the secular side, but is rarely accepted by the religious one).

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York have to be commended for writing such a book while having a leftist perspective, because the left, specially in the United States, but also nowadays in Europe, has often shied away from any critique of religion, either because it would be too unpopular or because of the supposedly progressive aspects of religion. It is easy to complain that the critique of religion is mainly done nowadays by relatively apolitical liberals like Dawkins or Dennett or by neo-conservatives like Hitchens, but if the left abandons such a critique, why complain if others take it up ?

The left should not aim at some sort of official atheism, of course, but it should demand that religion be a private matter, namely that it be totally kept out of public life, in particular of political discourse. Indeed, even assuming that some god exists, we have no way to know what he thinks one should do about global warming or the financial crisis.

This form of secularism is far from being achieved in the United States. It existed in France before Sarkozy, the most « American » of French presidents, who speaks of God as much as he can. If the most secular of Western countries, France, became victim of the « Americanization », i.e. of « religization » of political discourse, then modern secularism is dead.

Concerning the progressive aspects of religion, it is true that there are nice priests, harmless believers, and a few liberation theologians. But, what about the global picture? Aren't those more or less progressive people far outnumbered by the Sarah Palins of this world (including of course the Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish versions of her)? For them, it is very difficult to keep religion out of politics, because religion is so important to them. After all, if you believe that God defines what is right and wrong and punishes you in the afterlife for what you did, why on earth would you want to keep Him out of the affairs of the city? It is true that liberal Christians are more prone to accepting a genuine secularism, i.e. keeping religion out of politics, but it should not be forgotten that liberal Christianity did not exist in, say, the 18th century. It is entirely the result of the way segments of the Church reacted to the advances of science and materialism in the 19th and 20th century. So, it is hard to see how, without any scientific critique of religion, we would have even the mild form of secularism that exists nowadays in the United States.

Sometimes people defend religion on the grounds that it helps us to act in a moral or even a progressive way. What progressive Christians will tell you is that Jesus helps them to take a "preferential option for the poor." But the logic of that argument is very odd. Suppose somebody advocates land reform, in order to help the poor. If he is a Christian, he has to show that God exists, that Jesus is His son, that the Gospel adequately reflects His words, and, finally, that a suitable interpretation of those words lead to support for a land reform. Nothing in the Gospel tells you how to distribute the land, whether to compensate the owners or not, which acreage should be affected, etc. These issues all have to be settled without the help of God. And, after all, not even neoliberal economists claim to be against the poor -- in fact, they usually claim that their policies will help the poor more than anyone else. So, all the substantive issues have to be solved without the help of religion and the latter only provides "motivation." But it seems to me that the detour through God and Jesus is so long and unprovable that, if people who claim to find their motivations there didn't have them anyway, they wouldn't acquire them because of that detour.

It is often remarked that the attacks on Sarah Palin have an unpleasant class character. That is true, but the deeper question is: why should the "masses" be so religious? In Europe, they are not (apart from recent immigrants). And the reason is probably that, in Europe, especially in France, but unlike the United States, there has been, within the Republican, Socialist, and Communist movements, a centuries-long battle against religion itself and against its intrusion into politics. The problem for the American left is that, if nobody ever does anything to combat religious ideas, then, a century from now, any conceivable left will still be stuck with tens of millions of "fundamentalist" Christians who will vote "with their faith" against any rational or progressive policy and even against their own economic interests. It is true that it is an unpopular struggle -- but so was it in France in the 18th century. It is also true that the effects will only be felt in the long run -- but if nobody ever starts doing anything, nothing will ever change. The catastrophic impact of the Christian fundamentalists (without them, the world would probably not have had to suffer Reagan or Bush) is largely the result of the past indifference of the American progressives towards religion.

The deep reason why progressives should oppose religion is that it is irrational and arbitrary. A better world is necessarily a more rational world, a world where people search for solutions to human problems based on the facts of the world and with the help of reason. Critique of Intelligent Design gives us an enjoyable and enlightening introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of such an attitude.

Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium and is a member of the Brussels Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, is published by Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at bricmont@fyma.ucl.ac.be. This review first appeared in the 14-16 November 2008 issue of CounterPunch.

The Catechism Versus the Data (Part 4): The Origin of the Tetrapods


This is the fourth in a blog series responding to John Timmer's online review of the supplementary biology textbook Explore Evolution. The first part is here, the second here, and the third here.

4. Well, the Tetrapods are Monophyletic: Only "Ph.D." Malcolm Gordon Disagrees, Right?

Timmer accuses EE of what he calls the "find a Ph.D." approach: "if you look hard enough, you can find someone with a PhD who will say anything." In this instance, Timmer disparages the minority viewpoint of UCLA biologist Malcolm Gordon (a tenured professor, actually), who has argued that the tetrapods may have evolved polyphyletically (i.e., more than once).

It's the textbook catechism again: why bother with citing some lone dissenter like Gordon? Timmer counts noses, and the sum determines what is worthy of attention. Claim that the scientists cited in EE pale in numbers to those who support the catechismal view, and voilá, case closed. There is no controversy and we can all go home.

This is science by census. But does Timmer really want us to believe that numbers of scientists, and not the evidence and how best to interpret it, is what matters?

As it happens — to play along with Timmer's counting-noses game — Gordon developed his view with the late UCLA paleontologist Everett Olson (a former president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology), in Invasions of the Land: The Transitions of Organisms from Aquatic to Terrestrial Life (1995), a book published by Columbia University Press. More recently, Gordon articulated his ideas with the Australian paleontologist John Long. But, as Timmer says, these are just another couple of Ph.Ds — you know: find a Ph.D, he'll say anything.

So let's look at the evidence. A review of the literature shows that there is much more to this story than Timmer lets on.

Surveying the problem of the overall picture of tetrapod evolution, Gordon (1999, 338) writes:

Despite the large volume of publication, however, the underlying reality remains unchanged: everything we know is circumstantial and indirect, and what actually occurred remains unknown.

This sentiment was later confirmed in part by Takezaki et al. (2004). They compared sequences of 44 nuclear genes encoding over 10,400 positions in their attempts to resolve the phylogenetic relationships between the coelacanth, lungfish and tetrapod lines. They write:

Apparently, the coelacanth, lungfish, and tetrapod lineages diverged within such a short time interval that at this level of analysis, their relationships appear to be an irresolvable trichotomy. (2004, 1512)

These findings amplify what Gordon (1999, 339) said five years earlier:

Thus there are significant variations regarding conclusions derived from molecular biological data sets, and differences between various parts of the morphological and molecular data sets.

Gordon goes on:

The living lungfishes and the coelacanth represent tiny, randomly selected remnants of ancient groups that were numerous, varied, and widely distributed in the Devonian. One can only wonder at how accurate, or even relevant, the relationships that we estimate to exist between these organisms today may be with respect to the actual phylogenetic relationships of their basal groups. (1999, 340)

Gordon's main point is that the biogeographic distribution of the tetrapods in the Late Devonian, coupled with the incongruence of molecular data, coupled with a knowledge of the range of environments occupied by early tetrapods, support the contention that the tetrapods may have arisen polyphyletically. The assumed sarcopterygian progenitors in the Late Devonian had low offspring dispersal ranges and limited geographic ranges, yet the early tetrapods they supposedly evolved into also occupied separate and limited geographic ranges, and had limited dispersal. Many of the earliest tetrapods inhabited environments from shallow marine tidal areas to brackish environments to fresh (Blieck et al., 2007).

However, these groups were also widely separated without any apparent environmental continuity between them at the time of their evolution. Late Devonian tetrapod species are "highly endemic" (Clack 2006, 184), meaning that they are "restricted to the locality or region where they have been collected" (Blieck et al. 2007, 229). The fossils come from sites many thousands of miles apart.

Thus, the phylogenetic series reconstructed in familiar evolutionary cladograms include taxa rarely found together as fossils. Cambridge University paleontologist Jennifer Clack, an expert on this evidence, notes that "taking the tetrapods sites worldwide, one thing is obvious: they lie scattered over the globe in places that were remote from each, on separate continents, even in the Devonian" (2002, 99). "These forms," note other paleontologists working on the puzzle (Zhu et al. 2002, 720), "seem to have achieved worldwide distribution and great taxonomic diversity within a relatively short time." This paleo-biogeographical puzzle raises significant evidential difficulties for monophyletic (single origin) scenarios.

Weighing these paleo-biogeographic challenges, Clack (2002, 99) considers the possibility of polyphyletic tetrapod origins, but then dismisses that hypothesis as less likely than the monophyletic scenario:

The alternative, that tetrapods radiated independently from lobe-fins that had originally been euryhaline [salt-tolerating] and subsequently lost their salt tolerance, seems even more unlikely and countered by the detailed similarities that are found in the tetrapods now known from over the world.

Here Gordon disagrees — and we have a case study in the fragility of the "consilience" of data lauded by Timmer.

Timmer argues that a "consilience" of different lines of evidence strongly favors the catechismal (monophyletic) tale, and faults EE for neglecting this consilience (e.g., the putatively mutually reinforcing molecular and anatomical data). He complains, for instance, that EE says nothing about the methods of cladistics, the approach within biological systematics that organizes taxa by shared characters: "A description of cladistic methods," he writes, "doesn't appear at all in EE."

But it is an open question whether molecules do reinforce morphology. Furthermore, as Gordon wryly observes (1999, 339) — and as is generally known among systematists — cladistic methods presuppose common ancestry:

First, since the analyses [of tetrapod relationships] were all done cladistically, the underlying phylogenetic model in all cases was monophyletic. A single "main line" of tetrapod evolution is assumed to have existed in all cases. Possible polyphyletic scenarios were methodologically and philosophically excluded as implausible.

The widely-used software packages that implement cladistic methods will try to arrange molecular and anatomical data (characters) into a monophyletic tree, come what may. Some of the characters will end up as homologies — i.e., as similarities caused by common ancestry — and others as homoplasies — i.e., as similarities not caused by common ancestry — but the assumption that a monophyletic tree exists somewhere in the data is not up for grabs. Cladistic methods generate monophyletic trees, because they can't help but make such trees: that's what the methods were designed to do.

As Gordon's skepticism about cladistics indicates, behind the public proclamations that molecules confirm morphology, which Timmer recites, is an extensive scientific debate about the dangers of circularity in systematic methods. These questions are well-known to working systematists.

Could students hear about these questions? Why not? Is the catechism really more important?

EE concerns itself, therefore, with the logically prior question of "How do biologists infer (know) that all organisms, or some group of organisms, share a common ancestor?" That's a question students need to be able to answer, weighing the evidence pro and con, before they take up the merits of cladistics (which assumes the truth of monophyly as a first principle).

Up next: When Did "Neo-Darwinism" Become a Dirty Word?


Blieck, A., G. Clement, H. Blom, H. Lelievre, E. Luksevics, M. Streel, J. Thorez and G. C. Young. 2007. The biostratigraphical and palaeogeographical framework of the earliest diversification of tetrapods (Late Devonian). Geological Society, London, Special Publications volume 278. pp. 219-235.

Clack, Jennifer. 2002. Gaining Ground: The Orign and Evolution of Tetrapods. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Clack, Jennifer A. 2006. The emergence of early tetrapods. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 232:167–189.

Gordon, Malcolm S. 1999. The Concept of Monophyly: A Speculative Essay. Biology and Philosophy 14:331–348.

Long, John A. and Malcolm S Gordon. 2004. The greatest step in vertebrate history: a paleobiological review of the fish-tetrapod transition. Physiol. Biochem. Zool. 77:700-19.

Takezaki, Naoko, Felipe Figueroa, Zofia Zaleska-Rutczynska, Naoyuki Takahata and Jan Klein. 2004. The Phylogenetic Relationship of Tetrapod, Coelacanth, and Lungfish Revealed by the Sequences of Forty-Four Nuclear Genes. Molecular Biology and Evolution 21:1512-1524.

Zhu, Min, Per E. Ahlberg, Wenjin Zhao, and Liantao Jia 2002. First Devonian tetrapod from Asia. Nature 420:760-1.

Posted by Paul Nelson on October 31, 2008 3:37 PM | Permalink

The Catechism Versus the Data (Part 5): When Did Neo-Darwinism Become a Dirty Word?

This is the fifth installment of a blog series responding to John Timmer's online review of the supplementary biology textbook Explore Evolution (EE). The first part is here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

5. When Did Neo-Darwinism Become a Dirty Word?

Timmer objects to Explore Evolution's subtitle, "The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism," claiming that "[d]uring the roughly 20 years I was directly involved in biology research, I'd never come across the term 'Darwinism.'" EE's subtitle actually uses the word "neo-Darwinism," not "Darwinism," but regardless, Timmer's complaint reveals more about his own ignorance than it does about any inaccuracy on the part of EE. Terms like "Darwinism" and "neo-Darwinism" (or similar cognates like "Darwinian," "neo-Darwinian," or "Darwinist") regularly appear in both the technical scientific literature and textbooks about evolution, and they are repeatedly employed by contemporary scientists and philosophers of science.

In a book published just last year, for example, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne repeatedly labeled the modern theory of evolution as "neo-Darwinism":

The modern theory of evolution, called neo-Darwinism in light of 150 years of post-Darwin research, has four parts… [p. 6]

Neo-Darwinism, like the theory of chemical bonds, has graduated from theory to fact. [p. 6]

Neo-Darwinism is thus a robust scientific theory, explaining a vast body of evidence, generating predictions that have been amply confirmed, and vulnerable to falsification, but showing itself more than capable of withstanding all scrutiny so far. [p.12]

(Jerry Coyne, "Intelligent Design: The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name," in John Brockman, ed., Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (New York: Random House, 2007), pp. 3-23.)

Coyne is far from an isolated example. The technical scientific literature is rife with terms such as "Darwinism" and "neo-Darwinism." Perhaps Timmer is unfamiliar with this literature, but even a brief search of leading scientific journals would have revealed hundreds of references to "Darwinism," "neo-Darwinism," and their cognates. Since 1980, there have been more than a thousand references to "Darwinism" and cognate terms in the journal Science alone. Another 1,549 references have appeared in the journal Nature.

The usage of these terms is also commonplace in textbooks on evolution. Douglas Futuyma's 2005 textbook Evolution defines "neo-Darwinism" as "[t]he modern belief that natural selection, acting on randomly generated genetic variation, is a major, but not the sole, cause of evolution." (Futuyma, 2005, p. 550) Donald Prothero's recent text, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, similarly references "Neo-Darwinism," observing that it "extrapolates all larger evolutionary changes (macroevolution) as just microevolution writ large." (Prothero, 2007, p. 94) Strickberger's textbook Evolution equates "neo-Darwinism" with the "modern synthesis," defining it as "a change in the frequencies of genes introduced by mutation, with natural selection considered as the most important, although not the only, cause for such changes." (Strickberger, 2000 p. 649)

If terms like "Darwinism" or "neo-Darwinism" are unsavory to Timmer, then his beef is with his fellow evolutionists, not the writers of EE.

References Cited.

Jerry Coyne, "Intelligent Design: The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name," in John Brockman, ed., Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (New York: Random House, 2007).

Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolution (Sinaeur, 2005).

Donald R. Prothero, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Monroe, W. Strickberger, Evolution (Jones & Bartlett, 3d ed., 2000).

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 7, 2008 12:03 AM | Permalink

The Catechism Versus the Data (Part 6): Timmer's Double Standard on Textbook Treatments of Evolution


This is the sixth installment of a blog series responding to John Timmer's online review of the supplementary biology textbook Explore Evolution (EE). The first part is here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here.

6. Timmer's Double Standard on Textbook Treatments of Evolution

Timmer repeatedly attacks EE for allegedly trying to "divide and conquer" evolution because it discusses the different lines of scientific evidence (i.e. fossil, anatomical, molecular) regarding common descent in separate sections. Timmer's criticism reveals either his gross ignorance of how contemporary biology texts cover evolution, or that he's using a blatant double standard. EE was written to complement the coverage of evolution in standard biology textbooks, and so it follows the approach used by most biology textbooks, which divide the evidence for common descent into separate sections dealing with fossils, comparative anatomy, molecular biology, embryology, and biogeography. (See for example, Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell, 2003, pp. 260-263; Mader, 2007, pp. 224-227; Raven & Johnson, 2005, pp. 460-466.)

If Timmer wants to argue for a different way of presenting the evidence for evolution, fine. But he should acknowledge up front that most biology textbooks—not just Explore Evolution—fail to follow his preferences. Attacking EE simply because it follows the approach adopted by most biology textbooks is unreasonable.

The same can be said for Timmer's criticism of EE for only discussing the fossil bird Archaeopteryx when covering the origin of flight. Timmer complains that "[n]one of the other fossils on either side of the transition to flight are deemed worthy of mention." Disregarding the fact that Timmer himself fails to name any of these allegedly "worthy" transitional fossils in his critique, it must be noted that most high school textbooks (which EE is supposed to complement) also do not mention bird fossils beyond Archaeopteryx when discussing the evolution of flight. Miller & Levine's 2008 edition of Biology has an entire section titled "Evolution of Birds," but the only fossil species named is Archaeopteryx. Miller & Levine's Biology asserts that "new fossils of ancient birds are being found all the time," but much like Timmer, the textbook gives no names or specific examples of what those fossil species are.

So once again, Timmer holds Explore Evolution to a standard that he's not willing to apply to other biology textbooks.

References Cited:

Neil A. Campbell, Jane B. Reece, Lawrence G. Mitchell, and Martha R. Taylor, Biology: Concepts and Connections, Benjamin Cummings, 4th Ed., 2003.

Holt Science & Technology, Life Science: California Edition, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 2001.

Sylvia S. Mader, Essentials of Biology, McGraw Hill, 2007.

Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph Levine¸ Biology, Prentice Hall, 2008.

Peter H. Raven, George B. Johnson, Jonathan B. Losos, Susan R. Singer, Biology, McGraw Hill, 7th Ed., 2005.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 11, 2008 12:01 AM | Permalink

The Catechism Versus the Data (Part 7): Timmer's Mis-Aimed Critique of Inquiry Based Learning


This is the sixth installment of a blog series responding to John Timmer's online review of the supplementary biology textbook Explore Evolution (EE). The first part is here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here, the sixth here.

7. Timmer's Mis-Aimed Critique of Inquiry Based Learning

Timmer calls Explore Evolution's use of Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) a "sham" because he asserts the textbook "abdicates the responsibility for reasoning entirely." But his criticism is bogus. EE contains multiple sections that encourage students to weigh the evidence and consider open-ended questions about the evidence like, "Which picture best illustrates the history of life?," "Do all living things, past and present, share a common ancestor?," "Can natural selection produce fundamentally new organisms from pre-existing ones?," and "Are there other similarities that point to common ancestry?"

A comparison to other textbooks quickly shows EE's use of IBL is vastly superior to most mainstream biology textbook treatments of evolution, which tend to force rote memorization of Darwinism, and offer little meaningful IBL on evolution.

For example, in Miller & Levine's treatment of avian evolution, students are asked "Why do you think that birds evolved from dinosaurs?," and "What are the two alternative explanations for the evolution of modern birds?" (Miller and Levine, 2008, p. 807) Students are never encouraged to think outside of the evolutionary box created by the text, and in all questions, an evolutionary reptile-to-bird transition is taken as a given. Likewise, Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell's textbook Biology: Concepts and Connections, forces students to think only within the Darwinian box: "Write a paragraph briefly describing the evidence for evolution," it asks. (Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell, 2003, p. 279)

Other textbooks like Raven & Johnson's Biology don't even ask questions allowing students to evaluate the evidence, and instead just make dogmatic claims like, "the evidence for Darwin's theory has become overwhelming" because "information from many different areas of biology—fields as different as anatomy, molecular biology, and biogeography—is only interpretable scientifically as the outcome of evolution." (Raven, Johnson, Losos, and Singer, 2005, p. 453)

Holt's Life Science asks students to only consider how "organisms can be compared to support the theory of evolution" or "how fossils provide evidence that organisms have evolved." (Holt, 2001, p. 176, emphasis added) Likewise Sylvia S. Mader's 2007 edition of Essentials of Biology carefully steers students away from any meaningful critical thought over evolution, asking students to "Explain why evolution is no longer considered a hypothesis." For students who cannot regurgitate from the text, the proper "answer" is given directly below the question -- up-side-down, so students don't have to hunt too hard for the "correct" answer: "Evolution is supported by many diverse and independent lines of evidence." (Mader, 2007, p. 225)

Many more examples could be given, but sadly, these textbooks are only following the proscription of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences which recently charged that schools should teach no evidence against evolution because "[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution," which is "so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter" it.

If anything is a "sham," it is this kind of IBL which stifles creative and critical scientific thinking, and forces rote memorization of the "overwhelming evidence" showing only "support" for the "fact" of evolution, never encouraging students actually engage their minds to consider that some scientific evidence might challenge neo-Darwinism. A comparison between EE and other textbooks shows the great need for textbooks like EE that actually do encourage students to engage in real critical thinking over evolutionary biology.

References Cited:

Neil A. Campbell, Jane B. Reece, Lawrence G. Mitchell, and Martha R. Taylor, Biology: Concepts and Connections, Benjamin Cummings, 4th Ed., 2003.

Holt Science & Technology, Life Science: California Edition, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 2001.

Sylvia S. Mader, Essentials of Biology, McGraw Hill, 2007.

Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph Levine¸ Biology, Prentice Hall, 2008.

Peter H. Raven, George B. Johnson, Jonathan B. Losos, Susan R. Singer, Biology, McGraw Hill, 7th Ed., 2005.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 13, 2008 6:27 AM | Permalink

Entropy and evolution


Category: Evolution • Science

Posted on: November 10, 2008 12:09 PM, by PZ Myers

One of the oldest canards in the creationists' book is the claim that evolution must be false because it violates the second law of thermodynamics, or the principle that, as they put it, everything must go from order to disorder. One of the more persistent perpetrators of this kind of sloppy thinking is Henry Morris, and few creationists today seem able to get beyond this error.

Remember this tendency from order to disorder applies to all real processes. Real processes include, of course, biological and geological processes, as well as chemical and physical processes. The interesting question is: "How does a real biological process, which goes from order to disorder, result in evolution. which goes from disorder to order?" Perhaps the evolutionist can ultimately find an answer to this question, but he at least should not ignore it, as most evolutionists do.

Especially is such a question vital, when we are thinking of evolution as a growth process on the grand scale from atom to Adam and from particle to people. This represents in absolutely gigantic increase in order and complexity, and is clearly out of place altogether in the context of the Second Law.

As most biologists get a fair amount of training in chemistry, I'm afraid he's wrong on one bit of slander there: we do not ignore entropy, and are in fact better informed on it than most creationists, as is clearly shown by their continued use of this bad argument. I usually rebut this claim about the second law in a qualitative way, and by example — it's obvious that the second law does not state that nothing can ever increase in order, but only that an decrease in one part must be accompanied by a greater increase in entropy in another. Two gametes, for instance, can fuse and begin a complicated process in development that represents a long-term local decrease in entropy, but at the same time that embryo is pumping heat out into its environment and increasing the entropy of the surrounding bit of the world.

It's a very bad argument they are making, but let's consider just the last sentence of the quote above.

This represents in absolutely gigantic increase in order and complexity, and is clearly out of place altogether in the context of the Second Law.

A "gigantic increase in order and complexity" … how interesting. How much of an increase? Can we get some numbers for that?

Daniel Styer has published an eminently useful article on "Entropy and Evolution" that does exactly that — he makes some quantitative estimates of how much entropy might be decreased by the process of evolution. I knew we kept physicists around for something; they are so useful for filling in the tricky details.

The article nicely summarizes the general problems with the creationist claim. They confuse the metaphor of 'disorder' for the actual phenomenon of entropy; they seem to have an absolutist notion that the second law prohibits all decreases in entropy; and they generally lack any quantitative notion of how entropy actually works. The cool part of this particular article, though, is that he makes an estimate of exactly how much entropy is decreased by the process of evolution.

First he estimates, very generously, how much entropy is decreased per individual. If we assume each individual is 1000 times "more improbable" than its ancestor one century ago, that is, that we are specified a thousand times more precisely than our great-grandparents (obviously a ludicrously high over-estimate, but he's trying to give every advantage to the creationists here), then we can describe the reduction in the number of microstates in the modern organism as:


Now I'm strolling into dangerous ground for us poor biologists, since this is a mathematical argument, but really, this is simple enough for me to understand. We know the statistical definition of entropy:


In the formula above, kB is the Boltzmann constant. We can just plug in our estimated (grossly overestimated!) value for O, have fun with a little algebra, and presto, a measure of the change in entropy per individual per century emerges.


Centuries are awkward units, so Styer converts that to something more conventional: the entropy change per second is -3.02 x 10-30 J/K. There are, of course, a lot of individual organisms on the planet, so that number needs to be multiplied by the total number of evolving organism, which, again, we charitably overestimate at 1032, most of which are prokaryotes, of course. The final result is a number that tells us the total change in entropy of the planet caused by evolution each second:

-302 J/K

What does that number mean? We need a context. Styer also estimates the Earth's total entropy throughput per second, that is, the total flux involved from absorption of the sun's energy and re-radiation of heat out into space. It's a slightly bigger number:

420 x 1012 J/K

To spell it out, there's about a trillion times more entropy flux available than is required for evolution. The degree by which earth's entropy is reduced by the action of evolutionary processes is miniscule relative to the amount that the entropy of the cosmic microwave background is increased.

This is very cool and very clear. I'm folding up my copy of Styer's paper and tucking it into my copy of The Counter-Creationism Handbook, where it will come in handy.

Styer DF (2008) Entropy and evolution. Am J Phys 76(11):1031-1033.

Forced evolution: Can we mutate viruses to death?


Public release date: 10-Nov-2008

Contact: Jade Boyd
Rice University

Analysis reveals role of gene swaps in evolution of disease

HOUSTON -- Nov. 10, 2008 -- It sounds like a science fiction movie: A killer contagion threatens the Earth, but scientists save the day with a designer drug that forces the virus to mutate itself out of existence. The killer disease? Still a fiction. The drug? It could become a reality thanks to a new study by Rice University bioengineers.

The study, which is available online and slated for publication in the journal Physical Review E, offers the most comprehensive mathematical analysis to date of the mechanisms that drive evolution in viruses and bacteria. Rather than focusing solely on random genetic mutations, as past analyses have, the study predicts exactly how evolution is affected by the exchange of entire genes and sets of genes.

"We wanted to focus more attention on the roles that recombination and horizontal gene transfer play in the evolution of viruses and bacteria," said bioengineer Michael Deem, the study's lead researcher. "So, we incorporated both into the leading models that are used to describe bacterial and viral evolution, and we derived exact solutions to the models."

The upshot is a newer, composite formula that more accurately captures what happens in real world evolution. Deem's co-authors on the study include Rice graduate student Enrique Muñoz and longtime collaborator Jeong-Man Park, a physicist at the Catholic University of Korea in Bucheon.

In describing the new model, Deem drew an analogy to thermodynamics and discussed how a geneticist or drug designer could use the new formula in much the same way that an engineer might use thermodynamics formulas.

"Some of the properties that describe water are density, pressure and temperature," said Deem. "If you know any two of them, then you can predict any other one using thermodynamics.

"That's what we're doing here," he said. "If you know the recombination rate, mutation rate and fitness function, our formula can analytically predict the properties of the system. So, if you have recombination at a certain frequency, I can say exactly how much that helps or hurts the fitness of the population."

Deem, Rice's John W. Cox Professor in Biochemical and Genetic Engineering and professor of physics and astronomy, said the new model helps to better describe the evolutionary processes that occur in the real world, and it could be useful for doctors, drug designers and others who study how diseases evolve and how our immune systems react to that evolution.

One idea that was proposed about five years ago is "lethal mutagenesis." In a nutshell, the idea is to design drugs that speed up the mutation rates of viruses and push them beyond a threshold called a "phase transition." The thermodynamic analogy for this transition is the freezing or melting of water -- which amounts to a physical transition between water's liquid and solid phases.

"Water goes from a liquid to a solid at zero degrees Celsius under standard pressure, and you can represent that mathematically using thermodynamics," Deem said. "In our model, there's also a phase transition. If the mutation, recombination or horizontal gene transfer rates are too high, the system delocalizes and gets spread all over sequence space."

Deem said the new results predict which parameter values will lead to this delocalization.

A competing theory is that a mutagenesis drug may eradicate a virus or bacterial population by reducing the fitness to negative values. The new mathematical results allow calculation of this mechanism when the fitness function and the mutation, recombination and horizontal gene transfer rates are known.

Without theoretical tools like the new model, drug designers looking to create pills to induce lethal mutagenesis couldn't say for certain under what parameter ranges the drugs really worked. Deem said the new formula should provide experimental drug testers with a clear picture of whether the drugs -- or something else -- causes mutagenesis.


The research is supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Korea Research Foundation.

Evolution and the Eye


The Darwin Bicentennial and the Sesquicentennial of the Origin of Species

Ronald S. Fishman, MD

Arch Ophthalmol. 2008;126(11):1586-1592.

Evolution is an essential concept for anyone who considers science to be the best way to understand the natural world. It is as fully established as any scientific principle can be and is the great unifying theme in all of biology, as integral to understanding life-forms as gravity is to understanding the cosmos. On the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809, and 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, we should remember the main features of eye evolution and the prominent place the eye holds in the development and refinement of evolutionary theory. A few highlights include the antiquity of rhodopsin, the ready capacity of an eye to evolve, the effect of eyes on the diversification of life-forms, and the promising influence of genetics on developmental and evolutionary biology.

Author Affiliation: Dr Fishman is retired.

Limb loss in lizards -- evidence for rapid evolution


Public release date: 10-Nov-2008

Contact: Graeme Baldwin
BioMed Central

Small skink lizards, Lerista, demonstrate extensive changes in body shape over geologically brief periods. Research published in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology shows that several species of these skinks have rapidly evolved an elongate, limbless body form.

Skinks are a common sight in Australia and many species have limbs that are either reduced or missing entirely. According to the lead author of this study, Adam Skinner of The University of Adelaide, "It is believed that skinks are loosing their limbs because they spend most of their lives swimming through sand or soil; limbs are not only unnecessary for this, but may actually be a hindrance".

Skinner and his colleagues performed a genetic analysis of the lizards to investigate the pattern and rate of limb reduction, finding that evolution of a snake-like body form has occurred not only repeatedly but also very rapidly and without any evidence of reversals. Skinner said, "At the highest rate, complete loss of limbs is estimated to have occurred within 3.6 million years". Compared to similarly dramatic evolutionary changes in other animals, this is blisteringly fast.


Notes to Editors

1. Rapid and repeated limb loss in a clade of scincid lizards
Adam Skinner, Michael S Y Lee and Mark N Hutchinson
BMC Evolutionary Biology (in press)

During embargo, article available here: http://www.biomedcentral.com/imedia/1769311212186689_article.pdf?random=479584
After the embargo, article available at journal website: http://www.biomedcentral.com/bmcevolbiol/

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

Article citation and URL available on request at press@biomedcentral.com on the day of publication

2. Pictures are available here:

3. BMC Evolutionary Biology is an open access journal publishing original peer-reviewed research articles in all aspects of molecular and non-molecular evolution of all organisms, as well as phylogenetics and palaeontology. BMC Evolutionary Biology (ISSN 1471-2148) is indexed/tracked/covered by PubMed, MEDLINE, BIOSIS, CAS, Zoological Record, Thomson Reuters (ISI) and Google Scholar. It has an impact factor of 4.09.

4. BioMed Central (http://www.biomedcentral.com/) is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector.

Alternative health treatments get a boost from WHO


Published: Monday, 10-Nov-2008

A declaration by the World Health Organization (WHO) could raise the profile of traditional or alternative health treatments such as acupuncture and herbal medicine.

The WHO has called on member countries to integrate traditional medicine (TM) into their national health systems and for countries to share experience and information related to national policy, regulation, research, education and practice.

The WHO has recognized traditional medicine as one of the resources of primary healthcare services due to increased availability and affordability and its contributions in improving the health of many in developing countries.

The organization has summarized the role of traditional medicine in healthcare systems and highlighted the progress, challenges and future direction of its development and says governments should establish systems for the qualification, accreditation or licensing of TM practitioners and TM practitioners should upgrade their knowledge and skills based on national requirements.

The declaration was delivered this week at a WHO congress on traditional medicine in Beijing and says the use of TM has changed dramatically over the past thirty years and now traditional medicine plays an important role in meeting the demands of primary health care in many developing countries, particularly in African and Asian countries.

It's use has also been expanded widely in many developed countries where it functions under the title of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) - according to the WHO 70% of the population in Canada and 80% in Germany have used traditional medicine as complementary and alternative medical treatment.

WHO's director-general Margaret Chan says for millions of people, often living in rural areas of developing countries, herbal medicines, traditional treatments, and traditional practitioners are the main and sometimes the only source of healthcare.

Dr. Chan says the two systems of traditional and Western medicine need not clash but can blend together in harmony within the context of primary healthcare and use the best features of both systems, but such harmony can not happen unless governments make genuine policy decisions.

Dr. Chan says many countries have brought the two systems together and says China is a good example where herbal therapy of proven utility in many disorders is provided in State hospitals throughout the country, alongside conventional medicine.

The WHO Summit Congress on Traditional Medicine was co-sponsored by the Ministry of Health and the State Administration of Traditional Medicine of China.

Christian museum sparks creation, evolution debate


Justin Hawthorne
Issue date: 11/14/08 Section: News

A museum near Cincinnati aims to inform the public about the Bible and creationism. It has inadvertently caused a rift among evolutionists and creationists.

The Creation Museum, which uses exhibits such as a walk through Biblical history, a petting zoo and botanical gardens to emphasize the Bible and creationism, is a product of Christian speaker Ken Ham and the group Answers in Genesis.

Creationism, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is "a belief in a god who is absolute creator of heaven and earth, out of nothing, by an act of free will," whereas evolutionists believe that there was a gradual process of development in which humans changed into a more complex form.

Dave Greear, campus pastor of Campus Light Ministries, said the controversy over the Creation Museum could be based in their religious views more than creation alone.

"Answers in Genesis, the owners of the Creation Museum, makes no apologies for standing for the absolute authority for the word of God," Greear said. "This is probably even more offensive to many than creation itself."

The museum is a 70,000-square-foot building with 160 state-of-the-art exhibits that allow personal interaction, including a walk through the Garden of Eden and the Stargazer's Planetarium, which simulates a space flight.

Greear said he thinks the museum is important because it is a way to educate people about creationism.

"If you only give a person one side of the debate, they have been merely indoctrinated," Greear said. "If you give them both sides they have been educated.

"The purpose of education is supposed to be to teach students how to think, not what to think. If evolution is really an established scientific fact then evolutionists should not fear an honest examination of the evidence."

While some believe the museum will open people's eyes to creationism, others think the Creation Museum could turn people away from researching and discovering both explanations of how humans came to be.

Ashley Corley, senior criminal justice major from Scott Depot, W.Va., said the museum is just another way to close the minds of people without explaining all sides.

"I could only hope that most of those who visit the museum can take from it, and learn from it, but also explore other viewpoints before making up their minds as to what they believe," Corley said.

Daniel Hager, Herd4Christ campus ministry intern, said questions concerning the origin of life are something that should be addressed at home.

Not everyone agrees with what the Creation Museum stands for. A Google search on the museum shows Web sites with evolutionists speaking out against the museum and showing their general dislike of it.

One of these Web sites in disapproval of the museum has an extensive article titled "Exploring The Creation Museum - America's New Mecca of Fanatical Ignorance."

In this article Rob Sheridan, a Pratt Institute graduate who is a writer and graphic designer that rose to fame by doing work for the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, wrote that creationists are a crazy sect of religious fanatics that believe the Bible is the "history book of the universe."

"They believe every word of The Bible is not only the word of God, but is absolute literal truth, and the only truth in the Universe against which all other truths must be compared," wrote Sheridan on his Web site, demonbaby.com.

While some have a problem with creationism, others think it is time for creationists to get their turn to educate people.

Greear said since the creation-evolution debate battle is fought on the philosophical level rather than on the scientific level, public school students, secular college students and the general public that consumes only the main-stream media are never exposed to the scientific evidence that logically seems to point toward a creator or presents problems for evolution.

"They control the public educational establishment, most colleges and universities, the secular media, scores of natural history museums, and yet they vehemently attack the Creation Museum as if it will destroy our nation," Greear said. "Why should they care if some crazy creationists want to open a private museum? They clearly are not tolerant of opposing viewpoints."

Even though there has been debate over the origin of life, that doesn't mean one can not adopt pieces of both viewpoints.

"My view on this topic is somewhat unconventional. I do not believe that the earth was created simply one way or another," Corley said. "I really think there is a higher power, whether it's the Christian God or not makes no difference. However, I don't understand why some people believe that a god could create the entire earth but not prepare those he made to change, adapt and evolve over time in order to make life better."

The Creation Museum's hours of operation and ticket prices can be found at www.creationmuseum.org.

Justin Hawthorne can be contacted at hawthorne2@marshall.edu.

Healing Faith


Forty percent of Texas Latinos lack health coverage. Where do they turn?

Kevin Sieff | November 14, 2008

Two years after being diagnosed with a kidney infection, Maria de los Angeles Martinez is rolling on the streets of a dusty, northern Mexican town 400 miles from her home in Edinburg, Texas. Her white pants and shirt are brown with dirt. For almost an hour, she's been dragging herself along Espinazo's Avenida de Dolor, the Avenue of Pain. Weakened by her illness, the 56-year-old is finding the pain difficult to bear. When she grimaces, a guide clad in a white robe and red cape sprays holy water from a plastic bottle into her mouth and onto her head. "Andale mija," she tells de los Angeles Martinez. "Let's go."

De los Angeles Martinez is in the middle of a procession that has taken over Espinazo's narrow streets, winding slowly through market stalls and makeshift taquerias. She's one of more than 20,000 pilgrims who have come to be healed by El Niño Fidencio, a folk saint whose body is buried in the center of town, on the 70th anniversary of his October death.

When Fidencio's tomb, the procession's destination, finally comes into view, de los Angeles Martinez's eyes well with tears. "Niñito Santo," she sings, "can you hear me suffering?" Her voice is swallowed by the clamor of the procession, a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life—writhing bodies, high-pitched incantations, and frenetic displays of faith. Like de los Angeles Martinez, the sickest and most dedicated of Fidencio's followers scrape flesh against asphalt over the entire quarter-mile journey, making penance in exchange for healing.

When she arrives, de los Angeles Martinez drapes herself over Fidencio's tomb, which is covered in flowers and devotional candles. "I've come because I need you more than ever," she says. Lacking health insurance, she couldn't afford treatment in Texas. In Espinazo, she believes there is hope. She saved for months to pull together $500 for the trip through the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains.

In the 1920s, it's said that Fidencio healed lepers in a muddy Espinazo pool, performed surgery with shards of glass, and danced with patients, shaking diseases from their bodies. Now his spirit is called upon by thousands of Texans, many gravely ill, some of whom make pilgrimages to the town every March (his saint day) and October (to mark his birth and death). Many have been spurned by the American health care system—they're among the 40 percent of Latinos in Texas, nearly 3.4 million, without health insurance. Like de los Angeles Martinez, they have turned to curanderos, or folk healers–none more popular than the materias who claim to channel Fidencio's spirit.

For three nights in Espinazo, de los Angeles Martinez will sleep on the floor of a stranger's home instead of a hospital bed. In place of conventional Western medical treatment, she will receive herbs and ointments made of cactus and aloe. With Fidencio long deceased, those cures now come from the white-robed materias, who lead people like de los Angeles Martinez along Avenida de Dolor to Fidencio's tomb. Their followers pay for the healings only if they so desire. They cling to the faith's fundamental axiom, words from Fidencio: "The poor are not poor. The wealthy are not wealthy. The only poor are those who suffer from pain."

"It's a faith of desperation," says Antonio Zavaleta, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Brownsville who has studied Fidencismo for 25 years. "It provides hope for the hopeless. And that hopelessness is closely tied to insufficient access to medical care."

Before Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino—nicknamed El Niño for his boyish physique and high-pitched voice—moved from Guanajuato to Espinazo in the early 1920s, the town was little more than a few homes surrounded by farmland, unknown outside the immediate area. The Sierra Madre Oriental kept the sprawl of northern Mexico's biggest cities well out of sight.

When the rail-thin, 28-year-old cooking apprentice announced that he could heal ailing villagers, a local landowner gave him a chance. Within months, residents were lining up to be prescribed medicinal plants and herbal cures from El Niño, who also claimed he could channel Jesus and was the son of Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. "They called him a thaumaturge," Zavaleta says. "A miracle worker."

Fidencio's boasts and the histrionics of his healing sessions attracted thousands to Espinazo over the next decade, an influx captured in surviving photos of Fidencio reaching toward masses of clamoring followers. Word spread widely that he cured the mentally ill by placing them in a rope swing attached to a tree, and cured physical ailments with raw eggs and native plants. In 1928, The New York Times wrote that interest in both a nascent Mexican rebel movement and a presidential campaign had "waned recently, as the public has devoted itself to extraordinary reports from Espinazo."

That same year, Mexican President Elias Calles visited Espinazo to meet Fidencio, possibly intending to arrest him for practicing medicine without a license. But the president left Espinazo a believer, claiming Fidencio had healed him. The story, reported throughout Mexico, solidified Fidencio's reputation as one of his country's most important curanderos.

Fidencistas believe that El Niño predicted his own death, telling his followers he would live on through materias. There are more than a thousand of them now—men and women who say the folk saint uses them as vehicles to converse with those in need. "I lose consciousness," says Lidia Velasquez, a 70-year-old materia from Edinburg. "I'm just flesh. It's Fidencio's spirit." During healing sessions, the materias close their eyes, sometimes convulsing as they call on Fidencio. For hours at a time, they speak in the squeaky falsetto said to resemble the saint's voice, doling out traditional remedies and advising prayer.

Fidencio isn't the only spirit channeled by Mexican or Mexican-American healers. Nor is Fidencismo the only brand of curanderismo, or folk healing, still used on both sides of the border. There are kueseros, or traditional bonesetters; yerberos, or herbalists; and sobadores, or traditional masseuses. Fidencio is believed to be the leading santo popular or folk saint, attracting a following of more than 100,000, according to anthropologists. The faithful call themselves a Catholic sect, and often invoke Jesus and El Niño in the same hymns. In Espinazo, key chains and candles emblazoned with his image are sold next to paintings of Catholic saints. The Roman Catholic Church has refused to accept Fidencismo, calling Espinazo's pilgrims heretical and misguided.

The church's derision hasn't stopped Fidencismo from spreading north of the Rio Grande, where missions and weekly healing sessions can be found in all of Texas' major cities. Thanks to northward migration and word of mouth, tens of thousands of Fidencistas call Texas home. Throughout the three-day festival, their conversation often returns to the shortcomings of the American health care system and the triumph of faith over science.

"When I could afford it, I went to a doctor," de los Angeles Martinez says. "It was always the same. More and more pills. More and more money."

When the income from her small bridal store no longer covered hospital visits, she decided to look for alternative treatments. De los Angeles Martinez went to a local healer known for channeling Fidencio. The healer first prescribed the juice of an aloe plant and a bottle of water with pieces of chaparral to treat her kidney infection. "It was incredible," she says. "I felt healed not only physically, but emotionally."

Now, like many pilgrims in Espinazo, de los Angeles Martinez turns first to a healer. If the healer—or the spirit being channeled—tells her to seek medical help from a doctor, she tries to do so. At times like now, when she can't pay medical bills, she says Fidencismo is her only option. "With El Niño," she says, "it's not a question of money. It's a question of faith."

Fidencismo continues to spread in Texas as health care among Latinos lags far behind that of other minorities, largely because of an uninsured rate more than two times the national average and more than 10 percent higher than among African Americans. And health care for Latinos appears to be deteriorating rather than improving. In 2006, the National Healthcare Disparities Report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that quality of care was rising for all racial and ethnic groups—except Latinos. Experts say the numbers are closely tied to immigration; Americans born outside of the country are about 2.5 times more likely to be uninsured than those born in the United States.

In Espinazo, those statistics are supported anecdotally. Jessie, a 30-year-old from Houston who asked that his last name be omitted to protect a relative's job in a hospital, remembers when his mother, uninsured at the time, was diagnosed with gall bladder problems. "We live in an age now where either you have health insurance, or you don't go to a doctor, and you tough it out," he says.

Or you find an alternative. Jessie and his ailing mother came to Espinazo in the late 1980s after the family learned of Fidencismo through an acquaintance. When Jessie's mother's health improved—thanks, they believe, to an herbal remedy and a materia's spiritual intervention—he made a commitment to Fidencismo. He has returned to Espinazo nearly every year since. Like many pilgrims, he comes not out of concern for specific ailments, but to give thanks to Fidencio.

"You could say, 'Why would you come here and be without running water and be without light?'" Garcia says. "But this is a place where you feel better than where you're at. Medicine is business; it's about money. This isn't. This is real help."

Fidencismo dictates prescriptions with authority. In Espinazo, those prescriptions are broadcast continually by a man's voice on a loudspeaker along la Avenida. He names more than 40 remedies. Volcanic oil for back pain. Ointments for irregular menstruation. A special tonic for children with growth problems. "There are so many cures available here," the man says with a salesman's enthusiasm. "Take advantage of the cures of Espinazo."

Jessie and many others say that it's not just the difficulty in obtaining medical care that leads them to curanderos, but the quality and nature of the services. Researchers along the U.S.-Mexico border say that thousands of Mexican Americans, many with insurance, are dissuaded from seeing physicians every year because of a cultural disconnect. American medical practitioners haven't considered the traditions and expectations of many Mexican Americans, who are used to the close physical contact and spiritualism of folk healers.

"Health care providers along the border are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole," says Iran Barrera, professor of social work at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. "We call these alternative healings, but for many people it's not an alternative. Going to a physician is the alternative." Barrera says that "cultural incompetency" is especially common in mental health care, where Mexican-American patients often feel their needs aren't met. "The distance and the lack of physical connection between doctor and patient feels alien to them," he says. "They'll go once, decide it's not for them, and return to the curandero."

The Texas Department of Health has long been aware of the problem. In the late 1950s, the department funded a study into the prevalence of curanderismo along the state's border with Mexico—an attempt to research the needs of its growing Mexican-American population. "It is useless for M.D.s to assail this quackery," Time magazine asserted after the report was published in 1961. "To the Mexican-American, the gringo doctor is the quack."

Fifty years later, the relationship between the country's medical establishment and believers in curanderismo remains tense. Jose Pagan, a professor of health economics at the University of Texas-Pan American, understands why people turn to faith healers. "Along the Texas border and in other areas with high uninsurance, people are going to look for other ways to take care of themselves," he says. "We've seen a clear growth in the use of alternative medicine as the price of insurance has risen." Pagan worries that if patients rely on curanderos without consulting their physicians, they risk misdiagnoses. And when the believers do seek conventional care, their doctors often struggle to uncover patient histories with folk healers and identify the remedies they have taken.

"We see it all the time: Patients take it upon themselves to treat themselves before they come in," says Paula Gomez, executive director of the Brownsville Community Health Center. "We have to ask what they've been taking, how long they've been seeing curanderos before coming to us." Many such patients, she says, have resorted to conventional medicine after unsuccessful healings. Others have been urged by a curandero to visit a physician. The healers' prescriptions are rarely inherently dangerous, Gomez says. But without knowing the extent of a patient's reliance on curanderismo, it's often difficult to discern how long the illness has persisted and decide how to treat it.

"El Niño isn't scared of doctors," says Alberto Salinas, an Edinburg-based materia and former sheriff's deputy. "He knows how important they are. He knows they're often necessary." But as long as so many Latinos lack health insurance and feel uncomfortable with the American medical system, physicians will inevitably take a backseat to materias for thousands of needy Texans. Every March and October, pickups bearing Texas plates will continue to line Espinazo's streets.

As the crowds thin and normality returns to drowsy Espinazo, portraits and statuettes of Niño Fidencio are placed carefully in northbound vehicles—soon-to-be additions to Texas living rooms and homemade altars.

After three days in Espinazo, de los Angeles Martinez says she feels like a different person, as if a tremendous weight has been lifted from her body. She has promised El Niño she'll return to thank him for the healing, though she's not yet sure how she'll afford the trip. "For El Niño, I know I'll have to make sacrifices," she says. "That's a part of the faith—giving of myself."

Leaving Espinazo does not mean leaving Fidencio. Back in Edinburg, she'll have several materias to choose from—men and women who host daylong healing sessions, usually in their living rooms. Salinas has transformed a cotton farm into an elaborate shrine to Fidencio that includes models of Espinazo's holiest sites: the pool where Fidencio healed the sick, the swing where he treated the mentally ill, a small room filled with rosary beads and statuettes where Salinas performs exorcisms.

A week after returning to Edinburg, de los Angeles Martinez comes to Salinas' shrine to think about Espinazo, about the effort it took to arrive at Fidencio's tomb. She sits on a small, wooden bench in the shadow of a giant crucifix, identical to the ones that pepper the mountains around Espinazo. "I was so cold and wet, covered in pieces of trash," she says. "But if that's what it takes to feel the way I do now—relieved, healthy—I'll do it over and over again."

Kevin Sieff is a reporter for the Brownsville Herald.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Evolution education update: November 14, 2008

The Texas board of education is scheduled to consider the new draft of the state science standards shortly. The president of NCSE's board of directors is featured in a video promoting the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. And the third edition of NCSE's Voices for Evolution is now available.


The Texas state board of education is scheduled to hear testimony on the state's science standards on November 19, 2008, and the treatment of evolution is likely to be a contentious issue. The Texas Education Agency released drafts of the standards on September 22, 2008, and as the Dallas Morning News (September 23, 2008) reported, "Proposed curriculum standards for science courses in Texas schools would boost the teaching of evolution by dropping the current requirement that students be exposed to 'weaknesses' in Charles Darwin's theory of how humans and other life forms evolved. Science standards drafted by review committees of teachers and academics also would put up roadblocks for teachers who want to discuss creationism or 'intelligent design' in biology classes when covering the subject of evolution."

Subsequently, members of the board appointed six outside reviewers to evaluate the standards -- including three creationists, two of whom hail from outside Texas -- and their comments are all now available (in PDF form) on the TEA website. The panels that wrote the standards for the various subjects were furnished with the outside reviews as well as feedback from the public, a comparison of the draft standards to the Texas College Readiness Standards, and a comparison of the draft standards with the highly regarded Massachusetts science standards, as Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman reports; the panels have revised the standards in light of the comments, and it is the latest revisions that are going to the board, although they are not yet publicly available.

According to the agenda posted at the TEA website, the board is now scheduled to consider the standards from November 19 to November 21, hearing testimony on November 19. NCSE encourages anyone who is ready, willing, and able to testify in defense of the proper treatment of evolution and the nature of science to register to testify. To register, visit the Texas Education Agency in person at 1701 North Congress Avenue in Austin; telephone (512) 463-9007; or download a form, complete it (checking the "Commitee of the Full Board" box) and fax it to (512) 936-4319. Act now: November 17 is the last day for registration, and no one will be allowed to testify who has not registered in advance. NCSE's Steven Newton is available (via e-mail to newton@ncseweb.org) to advise prospective testifiers.

After the board considers the standards, what next? Texas Citizens for Science's Schafersman explains, "the science panels will have one last attempt to revise the standards to final form during December 4-6. After that, only the [state board of education] can revise the science standards by majority vote during their January 2009 meeting. The standards receive final adoption in March 2009 and are to be used by teachers and textbook publishers for the next ten years." NCSE's deputy director Glenn Branch observed, in a Halloween post for the Beacon Broadside blog, that "the 'strengths and weaknesses' language [in the old standards] was selectively applied only to evolution in 2003 by members of the board attempting to dilute the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks then under consideration. After a concerted effort by scientists, teachers, parents, and others to defend evolution, all eleven books were eventually adopted -- but it was a long, hard, and unedifying ordeal." So it is clear that the standards matter.

For the first draft of the standards, visit:

For the story in the Dallas Morning News, visit:

For the comments from the outside reviewers, visit:

For Steven Schafersman's report, visit:

For the agenda for the board meeting, visit:

For the form for prospective testifiers, visit:

For Glenn Branch's blog post, visit:


A video project from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology devotes a segment to discussing paleontology, evolution, and creationism. The thirty-three-minute video, entitled "We Are SVP," debuted on the society's website on October 29, 2008. According to a press release, "This video celebrates the extraordinary world of vertebrate paleontology and provides a unique glimpse into the diversity of its scientists and pursuits." Blaire Van Valkenburgh, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and current president of SVP, commented, "This video gives the public the inside story on our membership -- why they became paleontologists, what inspires their research and what they do on a day-to-day basis."

Featured in the segment on evolution and creationism is Kevin Padian, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, curator of paleontology at the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and president of NCSE's board of directors. Padian commented, "Antievolutionists have no problem with change within a species; they just think it's noise in the system. They don't like it when they see new species, when we talk about a new species evolving. And they sure don't like it when we talk about natural processes making birds and dinosaurs and mammals and things like that. But the evidence is there. And we have terrific methods and approaches, all kinds of things that work together to give us really good complex information on these questions."

In the video, Padian also discussed his testimony in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, in which he "spent a whole day showing the judge what we know about evolution that's not at the population level." (His testimony, together with the slides he showed to the court, is available on the NCSE website.) "If we can put this [the paleontological evidence for evolution] in front of the public, we'll win. We'll have a much better public understanding of evolution and of science in general," Padian said. Also appearing are the paleontologists Richard K. Stucky (a Supporter of NCSE), Guillermo W. Rougier, Tyler R. Lyson, Claudia A. Marsicano, Anthony R. Fiorillo, Robert T. Bakker, and Donald R. Prothero -- as well as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a paleontology fan.

Founded in 1940, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is the leading North American scientific and educational organization concerned with vertebrate paleontology. According to its position statement on evolution education, "Evolution is fundamental to the teaching of good biology and geology ... Any attempt to compromise the patterns and processes of evolution in science education, to treat them as less than robust explanations, or to admit 'alternative' explanations not relying upon sound evolutionary observations and theory, misrepresents the state of our science and does a disservice to the public." The SVP also recently urged the state of Louisiana to repeal its recently enacted antievolution law.

For the SVP video, visit:

For the press release, visit:

For Padian's testimony in the Kitzmiller case, visit:

For the SVP's position statement on evolution education, visit:

For the SVP's opposition to Louisiana's antievolution law, visit:


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. 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.

For further information about Voices for Evolution, visit:

To purchase Voices for Evolution from Lulu.com, visit:

For the free version of Voices for Evolution as a PDF, visit:

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


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

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

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism

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Discovery Institute Announces Academic Freedom Day Student Video and Essay Contest


Last update: 5:25 p.m. EST Nov. 12, 2008

SEATTLE, Nov 12, 2008 /PRNewswire-USNewswire via COMTEX/ -- One Grand Prize Winner will take home $500

Discovery Institute is sponsoring a student video and essay contest to commemorate Academic Freedom Day, February 12, 2009, on Charles Darwin's bicentennial.

Darwin once wrote, "A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question." That famous quote will be the touchstone for students to communicate support for academic freedom to explore the evidence for and against Darwinian evolution.

"The next generation values open dialogue in a way that is aptly expressed in their creativity and imagination," Discovery Institute Director of Communications Robert Crowther said. "This is a fun way to honor that expression and encourage critical thinking on the issue."

The video and essay contest is open to high school and college students and will be judged based on creativity, accuracy, and persuasiveness. One grand-prize winner will be announced and have his or her entry officially unveiled at academicfreedomday.com on Academic Freedom Day, Feb. 12th 2008.

The grand-prize winner will be awarded $500 and selected by an illustrious panel of leaders in the ID movement. Entrants in the video category will be able to share their videos online and at social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

For more information on Academic Freedom Day, visit www.academicfreedomday.com.

SOURCE Discovery Institute

Copyright (C) 2008 PR Newswire

Rare fossil find sheds light on evolution of women


19:00 13 November 2008 by Ewen Callaway

For similar stories, visit the Human Evolution Topic Guide

Homo erectus - an early ancestor of modern humans - resembled a squat body builder more than a svelte distance runner, a newly unearthed fossil pelvis suggests.

The roughly 1.2 million-year-old female pelvic bone - nicknamed the Busidima pelvis after a river near the discovery site in Northern Ethiopia - points to a shorter, stockier species than thought. Its capacious birth canal shows signs of evolutionary accommodation for a bulging brain.

The most noticeable feature of the Busidima pelvis is its wide birth canal, says Scott Simpson, a palaeoanthropologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who was part of a team that uncovered the nearly complete bone.

The same location has yielded other fossil signposts in the meandering path to fully modern humans, including a 4.5 million-year-old jaw of a more ape-like species, Ardipithecus ramidus.

However, the history of the more modern Homo erectus, big-brained and fully upright, has been told mainly through skull fossils, says Sileshi Semaw, a palaeoanthroplogist at the Stone Age Institute in Gosport, Indiana, who led the team. The species lived in Africa, Asia and Europe between about 2 million and 100,000 years ago or less.

Bigger birth canals

Researchers have uncovered few below-the-belt fossils, and the most complete one belonged to a roughly 10-year-old male, the Turkana boy. "We know literally nothing about the female aspects of the evolution of our ancestors," Semaw says.

The wide birth canal of the Busidima pelvis is its most obviously human feature, Simpson says. Getting through the birth canal is "the most gymnastic thing we ever do," he says.

To accommodate big-brained babies, humans must have developed larger and wider birth canals over time, but with few pelvic fossils, researchers had little idea when these changes began. The Busidima pelvis shows that a wide birth canal was already in place 1.2 million years ago. It underscores the importance of developing large brains in early human evolution, Simpson says.

"The most successful individuals in these populations will have positive selection for brains and larger pelvises," he says. "Brain size is driving the whole system here."

Squat proportions

The Busidima pelvis might also shatter another belief: H. erectus's supposed prowess as a distance runner. Some researchers have argued that the species was adapted to marathon-like hunts that ended with worn-out prey. Yet Busidima shows few of the adaptations thought to contribute to a runner's body, such as a tall stature and a narrow pelvis.

"It's so totally different from anything else we've found," says Chris Ruff, an anatomist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In Busidima's squat proportions, he sees more traces of Homo's past than its future.

"It really looks Lucy-like," he says, referring to the nearly complete 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus fossil discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.

The fossil's membership in Homo erectus is even up to question, Ruff says. If anything, it points to greater body shape diversity in the species than previously thought.

"I would really like to think a little more about whether this thing is Homo erectus or what our definition of Homo erectus is," he says.

Journal reference: Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1163592)

Study answers Darwinian evolution question


Published: Nov. 13, 2008 at 9:40 AM

PRINCETON, N.J., Nov. 13 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists have discovered the chains of proteins found in most living organisms act as adaptive machines, able to control their own evolution.

Princeton University researchers said their finding appears to offer evidence of a hidden mechanism that guides the way biological organisms respond to the forces of natural selection. That, they said, provides a new perspective on evolution.

Researchers Raj Chakrabarti, Herschel Rabitz, Stacey Springs and George McLendon made the discovery while conducting experiments on proteins constituting the electron transport chain, a biochemical network essential for metabolism.

A mathematical analysis of the experiments showed the proteins themselves acted to correct any imbalance imposed on them through artificial mutations and restored the chain to working order.

"The discovery answers an age-old question that has puzzled biologists since the time of Darwin: How can organisms be so exquisitely complex, if evolution is completely random, operating like a 'blind watchmaker'?" said Chakrabarti, an associate research scholar. "Our new theory extends Darwin's model, demonstrating how organisms can subtly direct aspects of their own evolution to create order out of randomness."

The research was published in a recent edition of Physical Review Letters.

© 2008 United Press International, Inc.

What the social lives of brewer's yeast say about evolution


Public release date: 13-Nov-2008

Contact: Cathleen Genova
Cell Press

As any good beer brewer knows, the yeast used in fermentation stick together in large clumps consisting of thousands of cells that settle out where they are easily removed. Brewers had even traced this behavior to a gene that encodes a sticky protein that sits on the surface of yeast cells. But despite the fact that yeast are a major laboratory "workhorse," any further exploration of their social lives had remained almost entirely neglected. Indeed, the "domesticated" yeast commonly studied in genetics labs have had any social tendencies bred out of them.

But a new report in the November 14th issue of the journal Cell, a Cell Press publication, reveals that wild yeast strains are actually an excellent model for understanding another realm of science entirely: how evolution driven by "survival of the fittest" can yield apparently "unselfish" cooperative behavior.

The researchers led by Kevin Verstrepen of Harvard University now find that the yeasts' clumping behavior serves to protect those fortunate enough to find themselves in the inner part of the aggregations from stressful conditions, including antimicrobial agents and alcohol. Those on the outer layer in essence wind up sacrificing themselves for the good of the group.

Evolutionarily speaking, Verstrepen said, such a system should favor "cheaters" who might stand to gain protection from their sticky peers without investing in any sticky stuff themselves. In fact, such cheaters arise quite often, but they don't fare so well when trouble comes.

The FLO1 gene that encodes the adhesive protein also offers built-in protection against those lacking the protein. FLO1 positive cells preferentially stick to each other and, in so doing, they actively exclude yeast cells without.

" One gene does it all," Verstrepen said. It singlehandedly promotes cooperation and protects against cheaters.

Cooperation has been a challenge for evolution by natural selection because individuals are predicted to act in a way that maximizes the number of offspring they themselves produce, the researchers explained. Costly behaviors that invest in a common good, therefore, should be disrupted by cheaters that save on the cost of cooperation but reap the rewards of others' investments. Since cheaters would be better off than those who cooperate, they should eventually take over and cooperation would be lost.

That generally doesn't happen because many instances of cooperation, such as alarm calling in birds or charitable acts by people, ultimately benefit both helper and helped. In other cases, animals come to the aid of their relatives--still a good strategy when it comes to passing their genes on to the next generation, which is what it's all about.

But a scientist by the name of William Hamilton who launched a field known as sociobiology in the 1960s realized there could be another way. He proposed that cooperation is also possible if a single gene that drives the tendency to cooperate also preferentially directs cooperation to other carriers of the gene. Such genes were later dubbed "green beard genes," the green beard being the recognizable "tag" that enables organisms to direct their interactions to other gene carriers.

The new work reveals FLO1 to be one of only a very few green beard genes known in nature, Verstrepen said. In fact, they showed, yeast of different species will even stick together so long as both carry FLO1.

" This system epitomizes the notion of the selfish gene that can, at least temporarily, act to increase its own frequency irrespective of evolutionary interests of other genes in the genome, an idea popularized in [Richard] Dawkin's [book] "The Selfish Gene," which expounded a gene-centered rather than individual-centered view of evolution, the researchers wrote. "The example of FLO1 is particularly telling because it counters the common misconception that selfish genes always result in selfish organisms: FLO1 is a 'selfish' green beard gene that drives an act of remarkable cooperation."

While the work is most important for the insights it offers evolutionary theory, he added, it might have some practical implications as well.

The researchers found that the cooperative yeast don't produce the sticky protein all the time. Rather, they wait until they sense a chemical that tells them plenty of other yeast are around. Brewers might take advantage of this as a way of better controlling the behavior for optimal beer brewing.

More importantly, Vertrepen said, disease-causing yeast also clump into biofilms that are resistant to drug treatment. The wild Brewer's yeast may serve as a model for learning more about how to combat these infectious microbes.

" Common yeast infections are essentially harmless," he said. But other pathogenic yeast can be deadly in those with compromised immune systems as a result of AIDS, organ transplant or cancer treatment. "Thousands of people die every year not from AIDS or cancer, but from yeast infections. Once in the bloodstream, it's a very deadly disease."


The researchers include Scott Smukalla, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Marina Caldara, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Nathalie Pochet, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium; Anne Beauvais, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France; Stephanie Guadagnini, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France; Chen Yan, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA Marcelo D. Vinces, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; An Jansen, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research/M.I.T., Cambridge, MA, K.U.Leuven, Leuven, Belgium; Marie Christine Prevost, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France; Jean-Paul Latge, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France; Gerald R. Fink, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research/M.I.T., Cambridge, MA; Kevin R. Foster, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; and Kevin J. Verstrepen, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA , K.U.Leuven, Leuven, Belgium, Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), K.U.Leuven, Heverlee, Belgium.

Rare dinosaur nest offers look into bird evolution


Thu Nov 13, 2008 6:21pm EST By Scott Haggett

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canadian researchers say they've narrowed down the likely owner of a dinosaur nest, abandoned on a river's edge 77 million years ago, adding the discovery offers a unique look at dinosaur reproduction and the evolution of birds.

Scientists from the University of Calgary and Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum say the nest unearthed in northern Montana in the 1990s likely belonged to one of two types of small, carnivorous dinosaurs.

The two suspects are a ceanagnathid, which looks somewhat like an ostrich, or a small raptor called a dromaeosaurid. Both are small by dinosaur standards and related to modern birds.

The nest likely held up to a dozen eggs, of which only fossilized fragments remain.

"We think, based on characteristics of the eggs, that we are probably dealing with a nest from a small raptor but we can't (be) 100 percent sure and rule out the other one," said Francois Therrien, curator of dinosaur palaeoecology at the Royal Tyrrell and co-investigator.

Nests from meat-eating dinosaurs are extremely rare. Only one other example has been found in North America, a nest of 67-million-year-old Troodon eggs that was also unearthed in Montana.

Therrien said the latest nest was discovered by commercial fossil hunters and originally thought to be from a relatively common duck-billed hadrosaur.

Darla Zelenitsky, a University of Calgary paleontologist, realized that the nest, a raised mound 50 cm (20 inches) across and surrounded by eggs, was actually from a small meat-eater.

Zelenitsky is the lead author of a paper on the nest, published on Thursday in the journal Paleontology.

Therrien said the find gives scientists new information on the evolution of reproduction in small carnivorous dinosaurs, filling in key gap in their knowledge and offering insight into how birds' methods of laying eggs and brooding evolved.

"This nest reveals that modern birds are not unique in the way they reproduce," Therrien said. "They actually inherited a lot of their ways of laying eggs from their dinosaur ancestors."

The nest was acquired by the Royal Tyrrell in 2006 and will be put on display in the museum in Drumheller, Alberta.

(Editing by Rob Wilson)

© Thomson Reuters