NTS LogoSkeptical News for 15 January 2009

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings


Thursday, January 15, 2009

SCIENCE POLICY SHIFTS: State decision rekindles creationism vs. evolution debate

http://www.theadvertiser.com/article/20090114/NEWS01/901140332/1002

Some say board's ruling has religious overtones

Mike Hasten • mhasten@gannett.com • January 14, 2009

BATON ROUGE - The state's top school board has approved rules implementing a new law that's intended to give teachers more freedom in discussing controversial issues in science classes.

After failing on a 5-5 vote to delay adoption of the rules, BESE members unanimously approved them, minus a section that specifically excludes materials promoting "creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind." Such language in the rules was determined to be outside the realm of the legislation and could evoke a lawsuit.

Proponents and opponents of the language expressed their views during a morning committee hearing. The board was most swayed, however, by Superinten-dent of Education Paul Pastorek's argument that the language was unnecessary.

"I'm satisfied that you cannot teach creationism or intelligent design" with other language in the rules, Pastorek said.

A provision stating, "The materials shall not promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion" is directly from the law and covers the issue, he said.

Barbara Forrest, co-founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, was among those who objected to the board's removal of the clause.

"Essentially, what we've got is a policy that's going to be very difficult to ensure that creationist materials do not get into the classroom," said Forrest, who wrote a letter to the board Monday asking them to restore the original language.

Local BESE representative Dale Bayard, chairman of the committee that approved the rules, said the decision should assure teachers that they can teach new scientific discovery related to Darwin's theory of evolution.

He said the ruling will also allow the Department of Education more freedom when it comes to textbook adoption.

"Everyone wants to construe this as a religious vote, but it wasn't," Bayard said. "The whole purpose is to allow teachers to teach more science."

The legislation, authored by state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, with the support of the Louisiana Family Forum, began as a way to teach scientific design. But it was amended during the 2008 legislative process to encourage "critical thinking" in science classes and although teaching the textbook, allow supplemental materials that discuss alternatives.

Educators, including Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and Sallye Peebles, a retired Baton Rouge teacher who is on the board of the National Society of Biology Teachers, say the legislation was unnecessary because teachers already discuss controversial issues and encourage critical thinking in science classes.

"I don't know any teachers who expect students to accept something just because they said it was so," Peebles said. "Science is based on critical thinking."

Gene Mills, executive director of the Family Forum, said his group does not plan to present any materials for teachers to utilize but it will continue to review textbooks to see if they include materials that he considers unfit.

The law and new BESE rules "give instructors some sense that they can present alternative ideas when it comes to controversial issues," Mills said.

Monaghan describes the discussion as "a solution for a problem that doesn't exist" because science teachers are allowed to use alternative materials and discuss controversial issues.

"If those things (intelligent design, cloning, global warming) come up, they discuss them in terms of science," he said.

Northside High School students in Frances Shaw's chemistry class on Tuesday took a break from their conversions problems and experiments to talk about the possibility of teaching creationism in the classroom.

All the students have taken biology, the class where students learn about evolution. Seventeen-year-old Kiera Sam said she wouldn't have a problem with learning about both creationism and evolution.

"I think it's better for students to know about it," she said.

Junior Precious Ben agreed with Sam and said she doesn't see the harm in introducing both theories of life. It would allow students to decide which origin of life is the one they believe in, she said.

"We can make up our own mind," Ben said.

Ben and Sam's teacher Shaw, however, had a different opinion than her students. In her 39 years of teaching, Shaw said she's seen the creation debate brought up time and again.

"Because it's not science-based, I'm a little wary of it," she said. "Now if it were taught in psychology or philosophy, that would be different."

Even if teachers were able to teach "controversial science," Shaw said she isn't sure when they would have time. With the implementation of the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum and high stakes testing, teachers are often limited to what they can cover.

"With No Child Left Behind, I don't even know where they would fit it in," she said.

Staff writers Tina Marie Macias and Jeff Moore contributed to this report.

Oldest Shark Braincase Shakes Up Vertebrate Evolution

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/01/090114-oldest-shark-braincase.html

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News

January 14, 2009

The earliest known braincase of a shark-like fish has shown some assumptions about the early evolution of vertebrates are "completely wrong," experts say.

The 415-million-year-old specimen of a Ptomacanthus is only the second known example of a braincase from an Acanthodian, a long-extinct group of fossil fish that existed near the time that bony fish and cartilaginous fish—animals with skeletons made up of a type of connective tissue—split off into separate branches.

The other braincase, from a species called Acanthodes, dates to a hundred million years after the Acanthodian group came into existence, casting most of this period of the group's evolution into shadow.

"We've known about [Acanthodians] for 150 years or more, but the braincase has always been missing," said study lead author Martin Brazeau, a Ph.D. student at Uppsala University in Sweden. "To fit it in now is kind of exceptional."

Before this discovery, most scientists believed that the braincases of Acanthodians resembled those of bony fish, and were thus related to this type of animal.

But data from the new fossil support an emerging idea that the ancient group of fish included a diverse tableau of shapes and characteristics that defy clear-cut categories.

The primitive fish's softer skeletons did not fossilize well, leaving scientists few braincases or other parts to study.

But Brazeau suspected that in the right circumstances, some bones could withstand time.

So he took a closer look at the well-preserved Ptomacanthus specimen that had been in the literature for 30 years. "Sure enough," he said, "the specimen had its braincase preserved."

The ancient creature has distinct features of a shark—swirling rows of teeth and a short snout, for instance—and looked little like the early bony fish suggested by the Acanthodes braincase.

Such differences within the same group rock earlier assumptions that a certain set of species with similar characteristics fit in clearly defined categories.

Grouping fish in this way "gives us a coarse picture of evolution," said Brazeau, whose work will appear tomorrow in the journal Nature.

"We need to find intermediaries between groups, find more fossils, and go and see if we've missed some."

Happy Warriors for Vaccines

http://scienceblogs.com/purepedantry/2009/01/happy_warriors_for_vaccines.php

Category: Autism • Public Health

Posted on: January 14, 2009 10:23 AM, by Jake Young

The NYTimes profiles Paul Offit, author of Autism's False Prophets. Offit has been taking the anti-vaccine lobby to task over pseudoscience, and he hasn't been winning many friends in the process:

Those backing Dr. Offit say he was forced into the role. Opponents of vaccines have held rallies, appeared on talk shows like "Oprah" and "Imus in the Morning," been the heroes of made-for-TV movies and found a celebrity spokeswoman in Jenny McCarthy, the actress and former Playboy model who has an autistic son. Meanwhile, the response from public health officials has been muted and couched in dull scientific jargon.

"If the surgeon general or the secretary of health or the head of the C.D.C. would come out and make a really strong statement on this, I think the whole thing would go away," said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, who has a severely autistic daughter whose disease, he argues, is genetic.

Asked why public health officials have been reticent, the acting surgeon general, Dr. Steven K. Galson, issued a statement saying that "childhood immunizations are one of the greatest achievements of all time" and that "scientific evidence clearly shows that vaccines do not contribute to autism." He has spoken on issues like obesity, tobacco, air travel and exercise, but his office said he had not been questioned by journalists about vaccines and autism.

Dr. Offit's book, published in September by Columbia University Press, has been widely endorsed by pediatricians, autism researchers, vaccine companies and medical journalists who say it sums up, in layman's language, the scientific evidence for vaccines and forcefully argues that vulnerable parents are being manipulated by doctors promoting false cures and lawyers filing class-action suits.

"Opponents of vaccines have taken the autism story hostage," Dr. Offit said. "They don't speak for all parents of autistic kids, they use fringe scientists and celebrities, they've set up cottage industries of false hope, and they're hurting kids. Parents pay out of their pockets for dangerous treatments, they take out second mortgages to buy hyperbaric oxygen chambers. It's just unconscionable."

Offit's book is on my too-read list.

I too would appreciate strongs statements for policy-makers and regulators clearly stating that vaccines do not cause autism. Particularly I would appreciate it from Sanjay Gupta if he becomes surgeon general.

The debate over vaccines and autism -- not really a debate on facts because the facts are clear, mostly just shouting -- is becoming in my mind a test case of how we convey scientific information to the public. If we step back and allow cranks to control the discourse, well, that is exactly what they are going to do.

On the other hand, simply making explicit what the science says may not be enough. The authors of the NYTimes article mention actress Amanda Peet's activism promoting vaccines. Anti-vaccine groups -- and anti-psychiatry groups associated with Scientology -- have been using celebrity spokespeople for years. But this can cut both ways: there is no reason that the proponents of science can't use them as well. Another example is the We campaign which utilizes politicians from both sides of the political spectrum to help fix global warming.

I think Offit's book is an important first step -- making the case clear. But now we need to go out and sell that case to a massive audience.

The consequences of failing to do so in terms of recurrent childhood infectious diseases are too fearful to contemplate.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Evolution Vs. God Debate Is Being Renewed In Texas

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/2009/01/texas_evolution_textbooks.php

By Richard Connelly in Edumacation

Tuesday, Jan. 13 2009 @ 2:00PM

Just in case you were worried that Texas hadn't made an embarrassing spectacle of itself lately, you need fret no more.

Once again the State Board of Education is coming to your rescue.

The SBOE is holding a public hearing January 21 on science standards, and the people at the Discovery Institute, who think Intelligent Design blows away that whole stoopid "evolution" theory, are happy as unevolved clams.

"We're very pleased that in this Darwin bicentennial year Texas has invited scientists on both sides of the evolution debate to testify about the scientific status of Darwin's theory," said Dr. John West, associate director of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture, in a statement released today.

It's NOT about God, in case you're curious. Questioning evolution is all about teaching kids to be better students.

"Previously, these scientists have advised the SBOE that good science education should encourage students to learn the scientific facts and engage in more critical thinking than they would under the currently proposed [standards]," the Discovery Institute's release says.

We assume these people will also call for standard that demand critical thinking in the theory of the boiling temperature of water and whether gravity makes things go up or down.

January 21, folks. In Austin. Bring popcorn and enjoy the show.

-- Richard Connelly

Letter: Creationism is a mirage

http://www.dglobe.com/articles/index.cfm?id=18014§ion=Opinion

Michael Marcotte, Rushmore, Worthington Daily Globe
Published Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Like some blurry image spotted on a far horizon, appearing as if an oasis promising quenching a deep thirst, the reality of creationism shrinks away further and further into the distance unobtainable as any mirage.

Perhaps it was an error which allowed the most recent anti-evolutionist screed to appear anon. No matter, their resistance is useless.

Side-by-side dinosaur tracks and human footprints, Fred Flintstone, no doubt; these ideologues are without a single shred of credulity. In truth, it is they who are the "so-called scientists." Many of the leaders of this cult of disbelief possess only doctorates of divinity, thusly making it a belief. As such, these teachings should never be allowed in any public classroom.

There is a purposeful attempt, done with contempt, to unravel scientific theories because it is the only way for their world to exist. Their claim of religious truth is but a lure. Their obsession with a fantastical belief that our world and, in deed, our universe, is ten thousand years old is a grand illusion — a true mirage.

In the real here and now, scientists live and work all over the globe. They come from many cultures and countries. There is nothing sinister about science or scientists. Yet, they are implicated like being involved in a vast conspiracy. By dismissing science and those pesky "so-called scientists," the misinformed are without any way to correct for error, separating truth from propaganda.

Refusing to believe in sophisticated dating techniques like carbon-14 and others, they seek to remove any attempt to place artifacts and fossils along any timeline but their own. There is nothing alarming about dinosaur tracks next to human prints. To boldly pronounce they are of simultaneous events is only a slick sideshow trick performed with smoke and mirrors.

Creationism ban stripped from rules

http://www.2theadvocate.com/news/37554394.html

By WILL SENTELL
Advocate Capitol News Bureau
Published: Jan 14, 2009 - Page: 1A - UPDATED: 12:05 a.m.

Despite a heated dispute over wording, a committee of the state's top school board approved a policy Tuesday to help teachers comply with a new state law aimed at changing the way evolution is taught in public schools.

The plan is expected to win approval from the full state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Thursday.

The issue stems from a state law approved in June that backers said is needed to promote critical thinking by science students, including arguments that challenge Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

"I feel like we have a pretty good compromise," said Dale Bayard of Sulphur, chairman of the board's Student/School Performance and Support Committee.

Bayard made his comment moments before his committee voted to remove controversial language from the policy backers said was needed to prevent religious themes from being injected in science classrooms of middle and high schools.

The section removed said: "Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes."

Christian creationism is the view that life began 6,000 years ago in a process described in the Bible's Book of Genesis. Intelligent design advocates contend the universe stems from an intelligent designer rather than chance.

Patsy Peebles, of Baton Rouge, a veteran biology teacher, pleaded with the committee to leave in the wording, which was recommended by the state Department of Education.

Peebles was a member of the advisory panel that made policy recommendations earlier.

Peebles said specific bans on creationism and intelligent design materials were needed so that teachers are "very clear on what they can and cannot do."

But state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa and sponsor of the bill, said the wording should come out.

Nevers noted the law did not single out creationism or intelligent design and that state regulations should not either.

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek said other parts of the policy approved Tuesday made the section on creationism expendable.

The policy approved says materials used in science classrooms "shall not promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion."

Pastorek said that, while he does not want the state to run afoul of U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the issue, the policy has enough safeguards to avoid that.

The law, which won overwhelming legislative approval, is called the Louisiana Science Education Act. It allows science teachers to use supplemental materials, in addition to state-issued textbooks, to teach evolution and other topics.

Kevin Carman, a professor of biological science at LSU, said specific bans were needed on creationism and intelligent design materials in the classroom to separate facts from beliefs.

"And beliefs fall under the realm of religion," Carman said.

The law requires the state board to come up with guidelines so that local school districts can get advice on how to comply with the measure.

A bid to delay action on the issue failed on a 5-5 vote amid renewed debates about the wisdom of the law.

"It is not for us to debate the law," Bayard said.

Book Is Rallying Resistance to the Antivaccine Crusade

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/health/13auti.html

By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
Published: January 12, 2009

A new book defending vaccines, written by a doctor infuriated at the claim that they cause autism, is galvanizing a backlash against the antivaccine movement in the United States.

But there will be no book tour for the doctor, Paul A. Offit, author of "Autism's False Prophets." He has had too many death threats.

"I'll speak at a conference, say, to nurses," he said. "But I wouldn't go into a bookstore and sign books. It can get nasty. There are parents who really believe that vaccines hurt their children, and to them, I'm incredibly evil. They hate me."

Dr. Offit, a pediatrician, is a mild, funny and somewhat rumpled 57-year-old. The chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, he is also the co-inventor of a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal disease that kills 60,000 children a year in poor countries.

"When Jonas Salk invented polio vaccine, he was a hero — and I'm a terrorist?" he jokes, referring to a placard denouncing him at a recent demonstration by antivaccine activists outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In recent years, the debate over vaccines and autism, which began in fear and confusion, has hardened into anger. As Dr. Offit's book details, numerous studies of thimerosal, measles virus and other alleged autism triggers in vaccines have been conducted, and hundreds of children with diagnoses of autism have undergone what he considers sham treatments and been "cured." Both sides insist that the medical evidence backs them.

As a result, "a few years ago this ceased to be a civil scientific discourse and became about crucifying individuals," said Dr. Gregory A. Poland, chief of vaccine research at the Mayo Clinic, who says he has had threats against his children. "Paul is a lightning rod, a figure who goes charging into the fray."

Those backing Dr. Offit say he was forced into the role. Opponents of vaccines have held rallies, appeared on talk shows like "Oprah" and "Imus in the Morning," been the heroes of made-for-TV movies and found a celebrity spokeswoman in Jenny McCarthy, the actress and former Playboy model who has an autistic son. Meanwhile, the response from public health officials has been muted and couched in dull scientific jargon.

"If the surgeon general or the secretary of health or the head of the C.D.C. would come out and make a really strong statement on this, I think the whole thing would go away," said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, who has a severely autistic daughter whose disease, he argues, is genetic.

Asked why public health officials have been reticent, the acting surgeon general, Dr. Steven K. Galson, issued a statement saying that "childhood immunizations are one of the greatest achievements of all time" and that "scientific evidence clearly shows that vaccines do not contribute to autism." He has spoken on issues like obesity, tobacco, air travel and exercise, but his office said he had not been questioned by journalists about vaccines and autism.

Dr. Offit's book, published in September by Columbia University Press, has been widely endorsed by pediatricians, autism researchers, vaccine companies and medical journalists who say it sums up, in layman's language, the scientific evidence for vaccines and forcefully argues that vulnerable parents are being manipulated by doctors promoting false cures and lawyers filing class-action suits.

"Opponents of vaccines have taken the autism story hostage," Dr. Offit said. "They don't speak for all parents of autistic kids, they use fringe scientists and celebrities, they've set up cottage industries of false hope, and they're hurting kids. Parents pay out of their pockets for dangerous treatments, they take out second mortgages to buy hyperbaric oxygen chambers. It's just unconscionable."

His opponents dismiss him as "Dr. Proffit" because he received millions in royalties for his RotaTeq vaccine. One group he criticizes harshly in the book is Generation Rescue, which advocates treating autistic children with wheat- and dairy-free diets, vitamins and chelation to remove mercury from the body. Ms. McCarthy, her companion, the actor Jim Carrey, and Deirdre Imus, wife of the radio host, are all on its board.

J. B. Handley, who founded Generation Rescue in 2005, rejected Dr. Offit's attacks, saying: "We have hundreds of fully recovered children. I'm very frustrated that Dr. Offit, who's never treated an autistic child, is spending his time trying to refute the reality of biomedical recovery."

He scoffed at the idea that Dr. Offit had had numerous death threats but condemned threats generally, saying he had received some himself. "No one should ever do that to another human being," he said.

Dr. Offit now has his own celebrity ally, the actress Amanda Peet, who was introduced to him through a brother-in-law, a doctor at his Philadelphia hospital.

"Where I live in L.A.," she said in a telephone interview, "there's this child-rearing trend — only feed your kids organic food, detoxify your house. And there's a lot of anticorporate fervor, anti-pharmaceutical company fervor."

When she was pregnant, she said, "I'd have lunch with my friends who were moms, and they'd say they wouldn't vaccinate, or would space out their vaccinations and hadn't I heard?"

After quizzing several doctors in her family and Dr. Offit, she eventually agreed to become a spokeswoman for Every Child by Two, a vaccine-advocacy group founded by Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady.

In an interview with Cookie, a magazine for parents, Ms. Peet called antivaccine parents "parasites" because they relied on other children's immunity to protect their own. She later apologized for the word but emphasized that parents should get their medical advice from doctors, "not from me or any other celebrity."

Dr. Nancy J. Minshew, a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a leading autism expert, said she had begun telling any parent asking about vaccines to read the Offit book. A brain-imaging specialist who gets no money from vaccine companies, she said she had never met or spoken with Dr. Offit.

Autism, she said, is one of many diseases, like dyslexia, Elephant Man's disease, tuberous sclerosis and schizophrenia, that are caused by genetic flaws but show no symptoms for years.

She blamed journalists for "creating a conspiracy where there was none." By acting as if there were two legitimate sides to the autism debate, she said, "the media has fed on this — it's great for ratings."

Many doctors now argue that reporters should treat the antivaccine lobby with the same indifference they do Holocaust deniers, AIDS deniers and those claiming to have proof that NASA faked the Moon landings.

Dr. Offit's book traces the history of autism theories, starting with the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's blaming "refrigerator mothers." It describes early false cures, including "facilitated communication," in which assistants helped mute children type their thoughts; head-squeezing by osteopaths; cod liver oil; diets; and a 1998 fad for secretin, a pig hormone. It sums up 16 epidemiological studies showing no link between autism and either measles or thimerosal, a vaccine preservative.

To the newer argument that vaccines overwhelm babies' immune systems, Dr. Offit notes that current shots against 14 diseases contain 153 proteins, while babies cope with thousands of new foreign proteins daily in food, dirt and animal hair, and that the smallpox vaccine that nearly every American over age 30 got as a child contained 200 proteins.

Arthur Allen, the author of "Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver" (W. W. Norton, 2007), has publicly debated other journalists who argue that vaccines cause autism. Six years ago, he wrote a seminal article in The New York Times Magazine titled "The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory." He later changed his mind and now "feels bad" about the article, he said, "because it helped get these people into the field who did a lot of damage."

Dr. Offit's book "needed to be written," he said. But he is skeptical that it will end the struggle.

"There are still people who believe fluoride is dangerous, who think jet contrails cause cancer," he said. "I'm waiting for the debate to get beyond that, but you're not going to convert some people."


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lifelike growths could be evolutionary find

http://www.philly.com/inquirer/health_science/daily/20090109_Lifelike_growths_could_be_evolutionary_find.html

By Faye Flam

Inquirer Staff Writer

In an attempt to create life from inanimate matter, scientists in California have made DNA-like structures that can do some very lifelike things - store information, reproduce multiple generations, and evolve through natural selection.

"This is the first one that's gone immortal," said biologist Gerald Joyce, referring to the way these molecules will keep multiplying on their own like colonies of bacteria. The results were published in today's issue of the journal Science.

Joyce, who led the research at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, said he was reluctant to call his creation alive. It's a bit of a judgment call, since no one has settled on a universal definition of life.

But even those who see it as an intermediate step between the living and nonliving worlds hail the achievement for addressing the most nagging gap in the evolutionary picture of the world.

Darwin's idea explains how simple bacteria could have evolved into human beings but not how the first organisms got here.

"The basic significance is that Gerry Joyce has made molecules that can replicate in a test tube and they can evolve," said Andrew Ellington, a biologist from the University of Texas.

This self-replicating system is made from RNA, a code-carrying molecule very similar to DNA. All living things on Earth use a code written in DNA to store the information and pass down their traits to offspring.

Joyce constructed two different RNA molecules, each able to build the other from component parts, something he compares to the famous M.C. Escher drawing of two hands curling around to draw each other.

His RNA molecules build each other by picking up smaller stretches of RNA, components that Joyce must continue to supply.

A system like this may have existed as an intermediate step in the origin of life. It looks unlikely life was always here, since Earth was born in sterilizing heat. Theories of an extraterrestrial origin serve only to move the location of life's beginning but do not explain it.

While we can't go back in a time machine to the early Earth, scientists have long thought they might coax the origin of life to happen again in a laboratory.

The first famous attempt was done by a 23-year-old graduate student named Stanley Miller, who, back in 1953, set out to re-create creation with a simple apparatus composed of two connected glass chambers. One he filled with water, and the other with his approximation of the early atmosphere - hydrogen, ammonia and methane.

"People thought it was crazy," Miller told The Inquirer in a 1997 interview.

He shot an electric current through the apparatus - imitating lightning - and after a week the water turned to a tea-colored primordial broth. Nothing came to life, but it was full of amino acids, chemicals thought to belong to the realm of living things.

In the 1960s, similar organic matter was found in meteorites. Scientists realized that dead, rocky asteroids are brimming with organic compounds - hydrocarbons, alcohol and amino acids - so much so that some meteorites stink when broken apart.

But compared with their chemical building blocks, even humble bacteria look fantastically complex. One scientist compared the idea of life emerging spontaneously to a 747 assembling itself from junkyard parts swept up in a tornado.

Since then, however, scientist have considered the possibility that Darwinian evolution began working before there was life as we know it. Chemicals, in essence, might have evolved into life.

With his latest work, Joyce has demonstrated that indeed RNA can evolve. He and other biologists speculate that our DNA-based life was in fact preceded by something called the RNA world, a population of organisms that used this relative of DNA to store genetic information.

In our cells, RNA is essential for transcribing DNA's messages into the working parts of our bodies - the proteins. And while DNA can't reproduce itself without the help of outside catalysts, scientists have found a type of RNA, called a ribozyme, which can act as its own catalyst as it copies itself.

Double-stranded DNA is more durable, which may explain why it has taken over, but single-stranded RNA is more versatile.

But until now, no one had succeeded in making a self-contained system of RNA structures that grew and evolved as exuberantly as Joyce's mutually assembling pair. As he puts it, they have "gone immortal," or "gone critical," filling test tube after test tube with progeny. In five hours he had 100 times what he started with, and in another five hours it had multiplied by a factor of 100 again.

There wasn't much to see, since RNA molecules are invisible, but to count them he tags them with radioactive tracers, measuring their fecundity as blobs on an X-ray film.

Despite their exponential growth, they won't pose a danger, he said, because they can't live off humans or old bread or shower curtains or anything else in the natural environment. To propagate, they need to swim amid large chunks of RNA that Joyce provides.

What Joyce says he finds most exciting is that each generation brought new variations in the RNA code, allowing some designs to outcompete others. That's evolution in action.

When will such a system be declared life? Biologist Ellington says he doubts we will ever find a definition of life that isn't arbitrary.

"It's a debate that goes back to Plato and Aristotle," he said.

Ellington has been able to mix and match parts of biological molecules and harness the power of natural selection to "evolve" new compounds that might have medical or industrial applications.

But he said there's a tantalizing question to be solved about the origin of the DNA-bearing stuff that we call life. "Clearly we transitioned from something that wasn't DNA or even RNA," he said.

Some coherent lineage traces back from us to bacteria and the molecular soups in which they arose.

"When we look back, I believe everything has a mother," Ellington said. And it would be exciting to find who, or what, was the mother of it all.

Contact staff writer Faye Flam
at 215-854-4977 or fflam@phillynews.com.

Texas Board of Education Schedules Special Expert Hearing on Strengths and Weaknesses of Evolution

http://news.prnewswire.com/DisplayReleaseContent.aspx?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/01-13-2009/0004953572&EDATE=

AUSTIN, Texas, Jan. 13 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) has scheduled a hearing of scientific experts, including three scientists who are recommending that students should learn about scientific evidence that challenges Darwin's theory of evolution.

On Wednesday, January 21st, six experts selected by the SBOE to review a proposed update of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for science will give testimony to the board. Three of the scientists will recommend that the board retain long-standing language in the TEKS calling on students to examine the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories in order to strengthen students' critical thinking skills. The other experts are on record supporting repeal of the language.

"We're very pleased that in this Darwin bicentennial year Texas has invited scientists on both sides of the evolution debate to testify about the scientific status of Darwin's theory," said Dr. John West, associate director of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture.

According to one of the experts, Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, examining the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories is a core part of the scientific process, and abandoning such critical analysis merely to satisfy ideological demands of Darwinists harms students by giving them a false view of scientific inquiry.

"Science education that does not encourage students to evaluate competing scientific arguments is not teaching students about the way science actually operates," emphasized Dr. Meyer in his written report. Meyer, a Cambridge-trained philosopher of science, directs the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute.

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

Previously, these scientists have advised the SBOE that good science education should encourage students to learn the scientific facts and engage in more critical thinking than they would under the currently proposed TEKS.

SOURCE Discovery Institute

BESE expected to take up controversial science instruction act today

http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/01/debate_over_science_lesson_con.html

by Bill Barrow, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday January 13, 2009, 7:48 AM

Wrangling continues today at the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education over the rules and regulations that will govern how public schools implement a 2008 measure intended to allow teachers to use materials to supplement textbooks on subjects such as evolutionary biology.

Some of the original opponents of the Louisiana Science Education Act are reprising their arguments that the rules may fail to prevent science teachers from including the Judeo-Christian creation story or discussion of "intelligent design," the idea that life and other features of the universe are best explained as having an intelligent cause.

Supporters of the law are not happy either, saying that the latest draft rules gut the act and ignore the Legislature's intent. A leading policy fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle group that publishes educational materials and has advocated for the Louisiana law, called the proposed science instruction guidelines unconstitutional.

The two sides, which met last year in passionate legislative hearings, are expected to present their cases this morning at a meeting of BESE's Student/School Performance and Support Committee. That panel deferred action on the matter in December. Its agenda for today includes a revised draft. The end product could be forwarded to the full board for its consideration Thursday in Baton Rouge.

The law allows local school boards to approve supplemental materials -- without BESE's prior approval -- that foster "critical thinking" in the teaching of science. But the state board retains the power to ban specific materials, either by pre-emptive declaration or after a citizen challenges locally approved material. The law includes a clause stating that the intent is neither to promote nor discriminate against any religious doctrine.

The proposed BESE rules essentially repeat that language, including the statement that "materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes."

Intelligent design

That goes further than the Legislature intended, according to John West of the Discovery Institute, which publishes materials that discuss "strengths and weaknesses" of Darwinian theory. "The bill was silent on intelligent design," West said.

West also disputes a passage in separate teaching guidelines that reads, in part: "Faith refers to the beliefs that are accepted without empirical evidence," whereas science challenges ideas in ways "quite different from most religious beliefs."

West, who repeated his 2008 statements that the law is not about injecting religion into public science curriculum, said the passage violates constitutional protections of religious freedom and expression.

Barbara Forrest of the Louisiana Science Coalition, meanwhile, is displeased that the latest draft does not include a line it featured in an earlier version: "Religious beliefs shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking."

That line is taken almost verbatim from an Aug. 27, 2008, memo from state Superintendent Paul Pastorek to local school boards and local system superintendents. The memo is Pastorek's most extensive public comment on the matter.

Hearing requirement

Forrest also argued that the board should not approve new additions that require BESE to conduct a public hearing for a local school board and "interested parties" to defend material that is challenged.

West, however, says such an addition would give local boards the chance to back up their decisions.

A Discovery Institute representative is trying to travel to Baton Rouge for today's hearing, West said. He also confirmed that his group has continued advising the Louisiana Family Forum on the law. The Baton Rouge-based organization often pushes for more religious expressions in the public sphere. The Forum's executive director, the Rev. Gene Mills, did not return a request for comment.

. . . . . . .

Bill Barrow can be reached at bbarrow@timespicayune.com or 225.826.3452.

Research Ties Human Acts to Harmful Rates of Species Evolution

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/science/13fish.html?ref=science

By CORNELIA DEAN Published: January 12, 2009

Human actions are increasing the rate of evolutionary change in plants and animals in ways that may hurt their long-term prospects for survival, scientists are reporting.

Hunting, commercial fishing and some conservation regulations, like minimum size limits on fish, may all work against species health.

The idea that target species evolve in response to predation is not new. For example, researchers reported several years ago that after decades of heavy fishing, Atlantic cod had evolved to reproduce at younger ages and smaller sizes.

The new findings are more sweeping. Based on an analysis of earlier studies of 29 species — mostly fish, but also a few animals and plants like bighorn sheep and ginseng — researchers from several Canadian and American universities found that rates of evolutionary change were three times higher in species subject to "harvest selection" than in other species. Writing in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers say the data they analyzed suggested that size at reproductive maturity in the species under pressure had shrunk in 30 years or so by 20 percent, and that organisms were reaching reproductive age about 25 percent sooner.

In Alberta, Canada, for example, where regulations limit hunters of bighorn sheep to large animals, average horn length and body mass have dropped, said Paul Paquet, a biologist at the University of Calgary who participated in the research. And as people collect ginseng in the wild, "the robustness and size of the plant is declining," he said.

The researchers said that reproducing at a younger age and smaller size allowed organisms to leave offspring before they were caught or killed. But some evidence suggests that they may not reproduce as well, said Chris Darimont, a postdoctoral fellow in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the work. The fish they studied that are reproducing earlier "on average have far, far, far fewer eggs than those who wait an additional year and grow a few more centimeters," he said in an interview.

Dr. Darimont said it was unknown whether traits would change back if harvesting were reduced, or how long that might take.

The researchers also noted that the pattern of loss to human predation like hunting or harvesting is opposite to what occurs in nature or even in agriculture.

Predators typically take "the newly born or the nearly dead," Dr. Darimont said. For predators, targeting healthy adults can be dangerous, and some predator fish cannot even open their mouths wide enough to eat adult prey. Animals raised as livestock are typically slaughtered relatively young, he said, and farmers and breeders retain the most robust and fertile adults to grow their herds or flocks.

But commercial fishing nets and other gear that comply with conservation regulations typically trap large fish while letting smaller ones escape. Trophy hunters typically seek out the largest animals. And for some fish in some areas, as much as 50, 60 or even 80 percent of the stock may be caught every year.

"Targeting large, reproducing adults and taking so many of them in a population in a given year — that creates this ideal recipe for rapid trait change," Dr. Darimont said.

Some fisheries scientists have said their studies of fish stock had not shown a correlation between fishing intensity and growth rates. And some wildlife conservationists question the idea that hunting can have harmful effects on species.

Dr. Paquet said that although he had confidence in the new findings, he knew there would be questions about the analytical methods he and his fellow researchers used. "That's expected," he said. "That's how science proceeds."

He said he had anticipated that the work would be "contentious" among trophy hunters. "Essentially, we are saying, 'You should not do this because it is having effects even you might not like,' " he said.

Daniel Pauly, who directs the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia, said the new findings "make sense."

Though Dr. Pauly said he had not seen the new work, he recalled similar changes in black chin tilapia, fish that live in brackish water. He said in an interview that he had studied the fish more than 30 years ago, when he was a young graduate student doing field work in Ghana.

After decades of heavy fishing, the size of the typical adult fish had shrunk to about 10 centimeters from about 15 centimeters. But at the time, he said, "I did not realize what was happening."

Some fisheries managers are already suggesting that conservation regulations should be changed to safeguard larger fish in protected species. "Lots of people argue for that because the big ones are so fecund," Dr. Pauly said. But he said customers in fish markets typically prefer larger fish. And if fishers are not permitted to keep the big ones, they "must catch enormous quantities of fish to have a good tonnage."

La.'s Creationism 'junk science' law nearing implementation

http://www.google.com/url?sa=X&q=http://www.theind.com/content/view/3693/54/&ct=ga&cd=XKzzO9pI8E4&usg=AFQjCNE3U-B6MPaixtJiEBmZw5EcCBDm3A

By Steve May Monday, January 12, 2009

The state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will take up further debate over how and to what extent Louisiana's science curriculum in public middle schools and high schools will be invaded by the "junk science" of creationism. The Advocate reported last week that these new guidelines to be set by the board could be finalized by this Thursday.

For many of us interested and active in economic development and hopeful in a newly resurgent Louisiana — fresh from a (more or less) successful effort to reform its image as the corruption capital of the U.S. — this is not good news. It can't be good news either for Secretary of Economic Development Stephen Moret who already has a difficult enough burden to attract the nation's new technology-based entrepreneurs and their companies populated with some of the best and brightest talent. But his task will clearly be made much harder by this educationally regressive new law. Highly educated young professionals coming out of America's top schools are not likely to cotton to the idea that their kids will be placed in public schools teaching this thoroughly discredited pseudo-science.

Why do we insist on Louisiana remaining the butt of Jay Leno's monologue jokes? Aside from our reputation as one of the most corrupt in the nation (Illinois notwithstanding), we hold another dubious, perennial distinction: one of the nation's most illiterate states. This attempt to pollute the teaching of science in our public schools with religious dogma does more long-term damage to ourselves than all the painful headlines about Edwin Edwards, David Duke or "Dollar" Bill Jefferson combined, because the damage is far more lasting. Is this the message of educational ignorance that we want to send prospective employers considering locating or relocating to Louisiana?

Ironically, as Gov. Bobby Jindal (who signed this dog of a bill into law) said, "We have to compete based on a skilled work force. We have to compete with states all over the country. We have to compete with countries all over the world." Indeed we do. And corrupting our science curricula with 19th century "science" does not do the least bit of good for Louisiana's economic development future or our children's ability to compete in a very competitive world. Gov. Jindal and our legislators lacked the will or the wisdom to kill this bill before it became law; now the only barricade standing between our kids and this discredited religious dogma masquerading as science is the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. BESE needs to hear from you that this is a very bad idea.

Critics: Science classes need change

http://www.thenewsstar.com/article/20090113/NEWS01/901130306

Proposal reform allows room for religious beliefs in education
By Barbara Leader • bleader@thenewsstar.com • January 13, 2009

Science will not be taught accurately in state classrooms, critics say, if the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passes a policy that it will consider Tuesday.

The BESE policy, to coincide with the Louisiana Science Education Act, was to have been considered in December, but was delayed. Since then, changes have been made to the proposal.

Barbara Forrest of the Louisiana Coalition for Science believes the change is an end run by those who want creationism taught in the classroom.

She cites the amended proposal no longer states "... religious beliefs shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking."

Forrest said the proposal would give BESE authority to determine which supplemental materials are prohibited in science classrooms, but only if challenged by a citizen. Forrest said the procedure for challenge is unclear and puts the burden on the complainant to challenge lessons after they have been taught.

Forrest attributes the changes in the policy to a Louisiana group that has been active in establishing local school district policy on science education.

"I think it was delayed to allow the Louisiana Family Forum time to make changes," Forrest said.

The Louisiana Family Forum, a statewide advocacy group, assisted in developing Ouachita Parish Schools' "academic freedom" policy.

On its Web site, the Louisiana Family Forum states its mission is "to persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family."

Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, a former Ouachita Parish assistant superintendent, introduced the "academic freedom" bill, modeled after the Ouachita Parish policy, in the House of Representatives in April.

"There's just one part that I'm still unhappy with," Hoffmann said.

He wants removed a statement that says "materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science class,' is unnecessary in the BESE policy because that is already stipulated in the law on which the policy is based.

"Dr. Frank Hoffmann has expressed his own happiness with this policy," Forrest said. "My thoughts are that if Dr. Hoffmann is happy, we should not be happy."

BESE president Keith Guice was unavailable for comment Monday.

BESE's Student/School Performance and Support Committee will consider the policy at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the Claiborne building in Baton Rouge. The full board will hear recommendations from the committee on Thursday.

Website urges teachers to undermine creationism

http://www.onenewsnow.com/Legal/Default.aspx?id=381686

Charlie Butts - OneNewsNow - 1/13/2009 7:00:00 AM

A government-funded website in California is promoting harmony between religion and evolution. Christians have filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court against the website.

According to a Pacific Justice Institute press release, the website is urging public school teachers to "challenge [their] students' religious beliefs that evolution contradicts their faith." Lower courts have sided with the schools so far, according to PJI attorney Brad Dacus, who is taking the case to the nation's high court.

"[This lawsuit comes] after unsuccessfully stopping the University of California-Berkeley from continuing a program that is all about training teachers to undermine children with traditional religious beliefs about creation, and instead actually persuading them theologically why evolution is correct," he explains.

Dacus believes the state of California is funding a campaign against religion. "This lawsuit is all about funding a program that is outright anti-religious -- and that is a clear violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause as well as the free exercise of religion," he points out.

The Christian attorney suggests if the university was funding a program encouraging teachers to teach the validity of creationism, there would have been an immediate order to cease. Dacus adds that the government should not decree that some religious views are better than others.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Former Archbishop of Canterbury: atheists use 9/11 as excuse to attack all religions

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/4218676/Former-Archbishop-of-Canterbury-says-atheists-use-911-as-an-excuse-to-attack-all-religions.html

Atheists have used the terrorist outrages of September 11 as an excuse to attack all religions, according to the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

By Martin Beckford, Religious Affairs Correspondent
Last Updated: 3:02PM GMT 12 Jan 2009

Lord Carey said the destruction of the World Trade Center by Muslim fanatics marked the start of a new war waged by "aggressive and strident" writers such as Professor Richard Dawkins.

He claimed the "unpleasant and reactionary" tone of those who dismiss all faiths has widened the divide between religion and science, creating a "dialogue of the deaf".

However Lord Carey, who was the most senior cleric in the Church of England between 1991 and 2002, conceded that atheists are right to criticise the "pseudo-science" of creationism.

He claimed Christians are playing into the hands of anti-religion campaigners by defending Biblical accounts of the earth's history, and praised Charles Darwin, the pioneer of evolutionary theory, as "one of the greatest human beings of all time".

His comments come as Britain's first atheist advertising campaign launches, with 800 buses taking to the streets emblazoned with posters declaring: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

In a speech to the University of Gloucestershire, Lord Carey said: "We now live in such a divided and dangerous world, that the most urgent challenge facing us all is to build bridges of understanding and hope. The contribution [of religions] is being hindered, not only by deep misunderstanding between the faiths but, more worryingly, by a troubling polarisation between two intellectual worlds – faith and secularism, or faith and science.

"September 11th 2001, is a key date in modern history. It is usually taken to represent a watershed between West and Islam, and this is true. But it is also the date that symbolises a growing split between faith and reason, illustrated in the hostility to all religions by Richard Dawkins and others."

He went on: "The attacks on the World Trade Centre, Pentagon and the White House woke us all up to a resurgent and militant Islam which remains an active presence seven years on. For some writers, such events are illustrations of the evils of religion – all religions.

"I have no doubt that one can trace a direct link from 9/11 to the aggressive and strident tones of such writers as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and others. The result is a widening gap between religion and science; an unwillingness to engage, concluding in a dialogue of the deaf."

However the former Archbishop admitted that he could "sympathise to a degree" with the atheists' attacks on creationism – which teaches that the world was made by God in days just a few thousand years ago – and intelligent design, which holds that the universe is so complex it must have been made by someone.

He said: "Creationism is the fruit of a fundamentalist approach to scripture, ignoring scholarship and critical learning, and confusing different understandings of truth.

"The argument for intelligent design may have some appeal for many Christians but is ultimately a negation of what science is about, which is to make a hypotheses from what is observable and then conduct experiments in a constant process of testing."

Lord Carey said it was not true that Darwin's theories about how life on earth evolved had created a permanent divide between science and religion.

"Many of us accept it, and speaking personally, I have always believed it as a well established explanation of the world we live in," he said.

He concluded that the devout should engage in a more "positive, respectful and critical" way towards science, but also that atheists must concede that religion can benefit believers and society in general.

Referring to the atheist bus campaign, Lord Carey said: "The inference is that all religions are bad for human flourishing; they are diseased and atrophied vestiges of human life.

"A reasonable and careful conversation is needed for us to overcome the infantile and trivial way matters of ethical behaviour are being discussed."

The bus campaign raised £140,000 to place adverts on 800 buses around Britain and 1,000 posters on Tube trains.

Following its success, the BBC agreed to broadcast a non-religious version of Thought for the Day for the first time.

Heads of the corporation had previously refused to allow unbelievers to speak in the prestigious "God slot" on Radio 4's Today programme, restricting contributors to figures from established faiths.

But its founder was given the opportunity to talk on a special version of Thought for the Day, on another show on the radio channel.

Brunswick school board to consider creationism teaching

http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20080916/ARTICLES/809160338

By Ana Ribeiro Staff Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana Ribeiro: 343-2327

ana.ribeiro@starnewsonline.com

Brunswick, North Carolina: Ground zero for stupidity

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/01/brunswick_north_carolina_groun.php

Category: Creationism
Posted on: January 11, 2009 10:26 AM, by PZ Myers

The Brunswick school district is still arguing about teaching creationism. As is typical, the usual clueless ideologues from the community are getting up there in front of the board and babbling. Look at this argument:

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

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

That statement makes no sense. The slower evolution is, the more difficult it is to see the slow changes within the brief period of recent time. He has answered his own question! The second clause is simply raw ignorance, though, since we do see organisms evolving now. Bacteria, insects, lizards, birds…we've got lots of examples in organisms with shorter generation times than ours, and we even have molecular evidence of genetic changes in humans in the last 10,000 years. Is Fanti Italian for "Fool"?

Worse, though, is the fact that members of the school board are buying into this nonsense. They want to stuff creationism into the curriculum, somehow.

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

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

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

WHY? This is idiotic.

I think the square root of 9 is 27. I think that idea ought to be shared with the students in arithmetic class. As long as it doesn't replace the teaching of the dogmatic opinion that the square root of 9 is 3, I think we ought to do it.

I think Moby Dick was written by Herman Shakespeare. I'm pretty sure we can find lots of Ph.D. experts in literature who will tell you that Shakespeare was the most important writer in our language, so I see no harm in promoting his importance further. If discussing Shakespeare's extensive temporal contributions to American literature doesn't replace a few a few American authors, it ought to be possible for the board to add my theory to the curriculum.

Creationism does not belong in the curriculum because it is wrong. Teaching is not a process of pouring random noise into the brains of young people and allowing them to pick and choose what they want to believe — it's about giving kids a solid rational foundation for learning. Teach them lies and you've poisoned their minds for a lifetime, and here is a school board actively promoting harm to their charges.

For another take on teaching both sides, read some advocacy for teaching the controversy from a biblical point of view. Detailed dissection of the different claims of the book of Genesis will sow doubt in the minds of the students.

However, I disagree in one way — that doesn't belong in science class. Spending more time teaching the garbage of chapter 1 of Genesis, and more, adding instruction in the garbage of chapter 2 of Genesis, is still teaching garbage, and giving too much time to nonsense. It's useful for teaching that the Bible is an untrustworthy source, but that should not be part of the agenda of a science curriculum.

I'd like to see the kiddies learning that the Bible is incoherent trash in Sunday School.

Creationism or the big bang theory

http://www.examiner.com/x-2359-Evangelical-Examiner~y2009m1d11-Creationism-or-the-big-bang-theory

by Jake Jones, Evangelical Examiner

As an Evangelical Christian I'm sure you already know that I have some very definite biblical beliefs about the origin of the Universe. I seriously don't believe that the Universe is something created out of the chaos of an unbelievably large explosion eons ago that the scientific community has named "the Big Bang". Some may say (I'm sure) that I am nuts. Well, I've been accused of worse by some folks in this great country, but that has never stopped me before.

Lets look at some logic if that's a possibility. The fact is that there is really no 'solid' scientific proof (there's that 'proof' word again) that the Universe was created by the Big Bang. It's simply science applying their brand of logic based on scant information that they have obtained through space robots, telescopes, etc, etc. The same kind of logic that Al Gore and his people apply to the "Global Warming" theory. Oh my....I'm shaking like a leaf....and it's because the Arctic ice is at the same level now as in 1979 the same year that the same scientists predicted a possible mini Ice Age (Google it). Al Gore's theory on Global Warming is just that, not much different than Darwin's "Theory" of Evolution, but that's another article.

I don't know about you, but when I look at the heavens, or go to the NASA website to look at the photos they have listed of other objects in our Universe it causes me to say "there ain't no way this was created by an explosion". That's where the problems begin for believers like myself.

The Bible tells us that it was God who created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). OK, so many scientists, Atheists, and even 'some' Christians would doubt that and that is understandable. However, I have never known anytime or any place where organization was derived from chaos. Nope, not once. Whether it's a building implosion with dynamite, a suicide bomber, a military bombing, a nuclear explosion or whatever. Simply put; out of that kind of chaos comes chaos, not organization. I have never watched a building implosion and hear someone holler out.........hey look across the street, there's a new office building on that lot that was vacant a minute ago. I know that sounds stupid, but that's just how stupid the Big Bang theory sounds to me.

It is obvious to me that God is the explanation for the Universe. When you look at the night sky, what do you see; order, or chaos?

Editor's note: When I look at the night sky I see a jumble of stars and galaxies. Is this what is meant by "chaos?"

Theory of evolution should be questioned

http://www.reporternews.com/news/2009/jan/11/theory-evolution-should-be-questioned/

By Clyde Berkley Guest Columnist
Sunday, January 11, 2009

The question before the State Board of Education for Jan. 21 to 23 is whether or not teachers should teach the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, including Darwinian evolution. First, what is a scientific theory? Before we can answer that, we must answer the question, what is scientific? Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says that it is using the methods of science to establish facts. Then what is science? It is the state of knowing about the physical world and its phenomena, as opposed to ignorance or misunderstanding. What is a theory? It is a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation. Then what is a scientific theory? It is a hypothesis about the physical world and its phenomena that is the basis for investigation. Because it is called a theory, it must be questioned. Scientifically, a theory must be questioned in every way possible and tested multiple times under different conditions in order to be accepted as a fact or a law. If a theory cannot be tested, then it may not even be worthy of being called a scientific theory. If the theory cannot be tested, it certainly must be questioned. Any policy which would not encourage questions about a theory would be political policy, not scientific policy. Science requires the questioning of everything in order to make progress.

If the theory of a flat Earth had not been questioned, we may not have ever established that the Earth is round. If the Big Bang theory had not been questioned, we might never have known that the large bodies of the universe are increasing in their velocity as the universe expands. This has brought about the theory of dark matter and dark energy. If the theory of "ether" had not been questioned, then Maxwell's equations might not have been developed. If the theory that the atom is the smallest particle in the universe had not been questioned, then we might never have had nuclear energy. Even scientific laws need to be questioned. If Newton's law had not been questioned in its relationship to subatomic particles, we might never have had quantum mechanics. There could be many more examples. Progress is made through questioning the present theories and even laws.

In regard to Darwin's theory of evolution of the species, there are many questions which must be pursued in order to establish it as a fact or law. The theory requires that the DNA of one species become the DNA of another species. When I asked a biochemist who was a DNA expert how this could happen, he admitted that he did not know. But he believed it did happen. This is faith and not science. We need to pursue every option as to how this could happen in order to prove the theory or discard it. It may be that the questions regarding the theory may actually result in proof of the theory. Any reluctance to question a theory is not science. Science pushes forward in any direction the questions and facts support.

There is a possibility that Darwin's theory of evolution could be tested. The DNA of a human being has billions of nucleotides in a particular order. The DNA of the nearest other mammal to a human being also has billions of nucleotides, but there are about 120 million of them in a different order or location. Today we have computers that are fast enough to test random changes of the nucleotides in the mammal to see if they could ever become the DNA of a human. If these tests were to show that this is possible, then the theory would have further credence. But this is not being done. Some statisticians have done a mathematical analysis of the possibilities and have determined that the probability for this to occur is approximately zero. If this is the case, we certainly need to question the theory in every way possible.

Science requires that any theory be questioned and tested. Without this inquiry, we are not teaching science in our classrooms, but something else.

Clyde Berkley


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Princehouse testifies in Freshwater hearing

http://www.mountvernonnews.com/local/09/01/10/Princehouse-testifies-in-Freshwater-hearing

By Pamela Schehl

January 10, 2009

MOUNT VERNON — Dr. Patricia Princehouse, lecturer in philosophy and evolutionary biology at Case Western Reserve University, was Friday's sole witness in the contract termination hearing for John Freshwater.

Princehouse gave a detailed analysis of handouts Freshwater has given his students over the years. Some of the topics involved include giraffes, woodpeckers, dragons and dinosaurs.

Princehouse, who received her Ph.D. from Harvard University, said she was asked to examine the material with regard to its content and relevance to a science classroom, and to form an opinion as to the material's potential effect on science students.

Using a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate her conclusions, Princehouse said these worksheets are not serious attempts to teach science and that the source of many of these sheets are from a creationist Web site.

Regarding the woodpecker assignment, one of her points dealt with the format of the work assigned. Since it was a follow-along-with-the-lecture-and-fill-in-the-blanks activity, Princehouse said it was not an analytic exercise that promotes independent thought, as science should be.

She also discussed what she said were inaccuracies in the worksheet information. She said it — and the other worksheets she examined — seemed to have disinformation, and did not appear to be a serious attempt to teach science. She attributed the material to a creationist Web site called allaboutgod, and one called answersingenesis, which she said is "beautifully done." She said the worksheet and others of its ilk would be damaging to science education. She said they also seem to "promote some Christian views and demote other Christian views."

Speaking to a question on the worksheet about I.D. (intelligent design), Princehouse said, "Science deals with the laws of nature. An intelligent designer is a theological concept, not a scientific one."

She believes the effect of the worksheet would be damage to students' understanding of how science is conducted. Referencing the other handouts as well, Princehouse said, "This is not how science is conducted. ... Material such as this are inappropriate in a science class and teaches students to disregard basic chemistry and standard physics. ... Scientific theory deals with natural causes, not spiritual ones."

Princehouse gave a detailed rebuttal of the handout "Survival of the Fakest" and the book from which it was taken, "Icons of Evolution." She said "Icons" was full of fraudulent representations of material in science textbooks. Talking about topics such as mutation, embryology, natural selection, Darwin's tree of life, genetics, homology, convergence, the law of thermodynamics and evolutionary biology, Princehouse opined that the "Fakest" was specifically designed to steer students away from science and into religion.

Princehouse also gave a presentation titled "The Evolution of Creationism," in which she traced the history of the movement, discussed the different types of creationism and how creationism relates to intelligent design.

Upon cross-examination by Freshwater lawyer Kelly Hamilton, Princehouse said it is necessary to recognize and admit a personal bias in order to have a rational discussion. As that relates to science class, though, she said one also needs to remember that students are not required to believe the material but learn it. She said the focus should always be on the scientific content.

Concerning the origins of the earth and man, Hamilton asked whether in America there is a conflict between religious factions and scientific factions. "Some religious factions think so," she replied. She said there is actually more debate between different religious views than between religious and scientific viewpoints.

Hamilton also questioned Princehouse as to her experiences with eighth-graders, her knowledge of concrete and abstract ways of thinking, and whether the context in which Freshwater was using the materials would affect her opinion of the appropriateness of their content. She said it would not.

"Do you believe the giraffe, woodpecker, dinosaur and dragon handouts are religious in nature?" asked Hamilton.

"Yes."

"To attack evolution?"

"To discourage people from taking evolution seriously."

There was no redirect by Millstone and the hearing was adjourned until 9 a.m., Wednesday, Jan. 14.

pschehl@mountvernonnews.com

© Copyright 2009 Progressive Communications

Like it or not, you pay for faith in evolution

http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=85537

'This is classic example of what Founding Fathers did not want'

Posted: January 09, 2009 11:05 pm Eastern

By Bob Unruh
© 2009 WorldNetDaily

Whether a public university can use taxpayer funds from the federal government for a website that overtly endorses the beliefs of some religious groups regarding evolution and creation – but not others – is the focus of a case that's being prepared for submission to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Science and Religion

A cartoon image from the University of California-Berkeley
website that promotes faith in evolution highlights the
agreement between some religious groups and its own perspective

"This is a classic example of what the Founding Fathers did not want," Brad Dacus, of the Pacific Justice Institute, told WND.

His organization is working on the case that revolves around a University of California-Berkeley website that advocates for a single perspective in the arguments over evolution – and highlights a list of religious groups whose beliefs agree with that perspective.

The site, funded by a federal grant and aimed at influencing teachers to promote evolution, excludes and ridicules perspectives – and religious groups that hold those perspectives – that fail to align with its stated beliefs.

"Some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings," states the website.

"This [website] injures religious freedom in this country," Dacus said. "The government is playing a role that is overtly hostile to some religious groups and denominations while favoring and giving greater recognition towards others."

He continued, "This case involves the ability of the state to use taxpayer money to overtly endorse and encourage support of one set of religious denominations over others."

The case is being brought to the U.S. Supreme Court after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the plaintiff, a mother whose children could be subjected to website indoctrination, didn't have standing to complain about the promotions of the American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Humanist Association of Canada, the Lexington Alliance of Religious Leaders, the Lutheran World Federation and others.

"It's our conviction that the government has no place decreeing that some religious views are more correct than others," Dacus told WND. "The website points to some denominations while ignoring other groups that believe in a literal creation."

According to Pacific Justice Institute, the website is funded by a federal grant and targets public school teachers.

"The website urges teachers to challenge students' religious beliefs that evolution contradicts their faith. Moreover, the site points teachers to statements from religious groups and denominations that support evolution, while ignoring religious groups that believe in a literal creation," PJI said.

PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider argued the case at the appeals level, and said, "It's troubling when the courts decree that some government actions – in this case, taxpayer dollars funding one side of a theological debate about the origins of life – are immune from legal challenge. This decision raises the question to what extent government can get away with constitutional violations via the Internet."

"We are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize the implications of the Ninth Circuit's ruling and act to reverse it," Dacus said.

"Creationism is not scientific; it is a purely religious view held by some religious sects and persons and strongly opposed by other religious sects and persons," said a highlighted statement from one religious group. "Evolution is the only presently known strictly scientific and nonreligious explanation for the existence and diversity of living organisms. It is therefore the only view that should be expounded in public school courses on science, which are distinct from those on religion."

Said another, this one from a Unitarian Universalist organiziaton, "Be it resolved … [to] uphold religious neutrality in public education, oppose all government mandated or sponsored prayers, devotional observances, and religious indoctrination in public schools; and oppose efforts to compromise the integrity of public school teaching by the introduction of sectarian religious doctrines, such as 'scientific creationism,' …"

"Antievolutionists have tried to confuse science and religion, leading to … misconceptions in the minds of some members of the public," the Berkeley website said. "A debate pitting a scientific concept against a religious belief has no place in a science class and misleadingly suggests that a 'choice' between the two must be made."

The website indoctrination continues: "Evolution is science. The study of evolution relies on evidence and inference from the natural world. Thus it is not a religion.

"Scientists do not debate whether evolution took place (evidence supporting the theory of evolution is abundant); however, details of how evolution took place are hotly debated…"

The site, launched with more than $500,000 in federal taxpayer money, also denies that existence of any "flaws" in the theory of evolution.

"Scientists have examined the supposed 'flaws' that creationists claim exist in evolutionary theory and have found no support for these claims. These 'flaws' are based on misunderstandings of evolutionary theory or misrepresentations of evidence. Scientists continue to refine the theory of evolution, but that doesn't mean it is 'flawed,'" the site alleges.

WND reported earlier on the dispute over the University of California-Berkeley website that uses the views of certain religious denominations to promote evolution.

The protest focuses on the website section that arms teachers to counter student "misconceptions" about evolution. The site warns that questions aimed at exposing weaknesses in evolutionary theory "may be designed to disrupt the learning process" and are "a bit different from legitimate inquiry."

Roy Caldwell, a UC-Berkeley professor named in the suit, said earlier the website helps teachers answer questions.

"One of those questions is, 'Aren't religion and evolution incompatible?' and we say, 'no,' and point to a number of sites by clerics and others who make that point," he said.

Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters

http://www.google.com/url?sa=X&q=http://www.nyas.org/snc/calendarDetail.asp%3FeventID%3D13777%26date%3D1/10/2009%25201:00:00%2520PM&ct=ga&cd=eGatQNkgmsU&usg=AFQjCNHkx2FiMLdb3ydPVcqcyJ6zyY66wg

NYC Skeptics Public Lecture Series presents:
Dr. Donald R. Prothero - Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters

Evolution is under attack as never before, and creationists have been particularly strident in claiming that the fossil record does not support the fact of evolution. In fact, none of the creationists has appropriate training to even talk about fossils, and most of their claims are quoted out of context, or reflect a simplistic reading of kiddie books. In this lecture, the Skeptics will review what the fossil record REALLY shows about the evidence for evolution, and the incredible wealth of "transitional fossils" or "missing links" that have been discovered, especially in the past few decades. They will explore the implications of the creationist attack not only on evolution, but also on science literacy and the future of our technological society.

Donald R. Prothero is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University in 1982, and a B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 25 books and over 200 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and three trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for Geology, Paleobiology and Journal of Paleontology. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and the Linnaean Society of London, and has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation. He has served as the Vice President of the Pacific Section of SEPM (Society of Sedimentary Geology), and five years as the Program Chair for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1991, he received the Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society for the outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld (BBC), Prehistoric Monsters Revealed (History Channel), Entelodon and Hyaenodon (National Geographic Channel) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (BBC).

150 Years After 'Origin of the Species', Science and Religion Remain in Conflict Over Evolution

http://yubanet.com/life/150-Years-After-Origin-of-the-Species-Science-and-Religion-Remain-in-Conflict-Over-Evolution.php

Published on Jan 10, 2009 - 7:33:24 AM

By: Southwestern University

Jan. 9, 2009 - When Charles Darwin published his landmark book On the Evolution of Species in 1859, his theories on evolution were quickly accepted by the vast majority of scientists. The general public, however, was not as eager to accept Darwin's ideas, due largely to the fact that they challenged established religious beliefs.

Today, 150 years after the publication of Darwin's book, science and religion remain as conflicted as ever when it comes to the subject of evolution.

"There is a real disconnect between what science says and what the public believes, at least in the United States," says Ben Pierce, holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair in Biology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

Pierce is organizing one of the first events in 2009 that will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Darwin book. The symposium, titled "Science and Religion: Conflict or Convergence," will be held at Southwestern University Feb. 5-6 as part of the university's annual Brown Symposium series.

Pierce points to Gallop Polls conducted between 1982-2004, which consistently found that 44 to 47 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution. Instead, they believe that humans were "created by God pretty much in their present form less than 10,000 years ago."

Meanwhile, a recent survey of more than 400 university professors in Texas, a generally conservative state, found that nearly 90 percent believe modern evolutionary biology is largely correct.

Pierce says there are four approaches to the conflict between science and religion. The "Warfare Model" presumes that one side is right, the other side is wrong, and the two are permanently conflicted. The "Separate Realms" approach â€" which is taken by many scientists â€" says there is no conflict between the two because they address very different questions. In the "Accommodation Model," science and religion each adjust their world views to accommodate findings from the other field. For example, some Biblical scholars reinterpreted the Genesis account of creation when science showed that the world is much older than previously thought.

The model Pierce plans to focus on at the February symposium is the "Engagement Model," which says that both fields can profit by understanding what is happening in the other fields.

For example, one of the conference speakers will be Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. Newburg has developed brain imaging techniques to determine what happens when people have a religious experience, and is co-author of the best-selling 2001 book Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Pierce says students today are very interested in the subject of science vs. religion and are seeking ways find a middle ground between the two fields. In his evolution course at Southwestern University last fall, four students wrote papers for their Biology Capstone project on ways science could be used to better understand religion. For example, one student wrote a paper on the health effects of prayer and meditation and another student wrote a paper on the genetics of spirituality.

"These students put into practice the notion that science and religion can indeed have something useful to say to each other," Pierce says.

For more information on the 2009 Brown Symposium at Southwestern, visit http://www.southwestern.edu/academics/brownsymposium/index.php

For God's sake, have Charles Darwin's theories made any difference to our lives?

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article5488488.ece

From The Sunday Times January 11, 2009

It is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth but creationists and scientists alike may spoil the party

Bryan Appleyard

What has Charles Darwin done for you? Do you feel better or worse for the news that a gibbon is your close cousin? Do you even believe it, deep down? Some folk certainly don't.

At the Creation Museum in Kentucky you can view a nonDarwinian 6,000-year history of the world from the Garden of Eden until now. About 50% of Americans believe this is exactly how it happened.

To them, Darwin – with his mad ideas about millions of years of slow evolutionary change – was a prophet of contemporary, secular delusions, perhaps even a foreshadower of the end-time when God will return in judgment.

"Darwinism," says Dr David Menton of Answers in Genesis, which built the Creation Museum, "is what you have once you have denied the existence of God."

We do things differently here. In Westminster Abbey, parties of schoolchildren walk over the marble slab on which is inscribed simply, "Charles Robert Darwin. Born 12 February 1809. Died 19 April 1882". There's also a black plaque depicting a mightily bearded Darwin in old age. The capacious tent of Anglicanism seems to be able to do what American fundamentalism cannot: embrace the man who, in Richard Dawkins's words, made it "intellectually respectable to be an atheist".

This is, as even the most hermetic among us must be aware, Darwin's year. It is the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the book that showed humans were nothing special. We were descended not just from monkeys but also, ultimately, from the same ancestor as bacteria, flowers and slugs.

It was and is, for many, a grim vision. But in his final paragraph Darwin tried to save us from despair.

He wrote: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few new forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Grandeur or omen of the end-times? Darwin divided and still divides the western world. It's not just a division between scientists and fundamentalists. Science itself is divided. To say nothing of the rest of us, who may accept Darwin in theory but find it hard to look in a mirror and see the descendant of a piece of slime.

The first point to make about On the Origin of Species is that it is perhaps the most accessible great work of science ever written. "How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!" exclaimed TH Hux-ley, the biologist and later prime booster of Darwinism, when he finished the book.

All Darwin said was that random mutations occurred in organisms. A small percentage would be beneficial and help an individual to breed more successfully. Over the unimaginable eons of deep time, this process would modify species and create new ones. Finally, human brains were formed, one of which defined and detected grandeur in the blind workings of a simple and, to the materialist imagination, inevitable mechanism.

Colin Blakemore, our most celebrated neurobiologist, believes Darwinism will ultimately lead us to a scientifically verified understanding of human nature and the final refutation of all previous mythologies. "It could, in principle, substitute for all other belief systems about human nature, about what's special about people," he says. "Obviously, what I'm getting at is religion. I really do believe if we can produce a full Darwin-based description of humanity, then belief in other explanations will disappear."

Here's some evidence in his favour. At the Natural History Museum's Darwin Big Idea exhibition I meet Michelle Wilkinson, a 21-year-old law student. Brought up a Catholic, she has begun to lapse, having abandoned church.

"Does this," I wave at the exhibits of Darwin's letters, dead birds, an enormous live frog and sundry memorabilia of that momentous life, "make you doubt even more?"

"Yes," she says wistfully and maybe a bit sadly. Yet, amid all this scientific triumphalism and religious doubt, what are we to make of the "big idea" that has become the dominant scientific orthodoxy of our time? What's so special about this idea as opposed to all the others with which we are daily bombarded? FOR all the triumphs of science and technology, from Copernicus through Galileo and Newton to the industrial revolution, life remained an unopenable black box until 1859. How could the awe-inspiring complexity of life emerge from the dumb dance of matter? The only answer appeared to be God. However, Darwin's mechanism showed how, through the operations of the deep time discovered by Victorian geologists, complexity could emerge.

There were gaping holes in his argument. He knew nothing of genes and he had not shown how perfection emerges. It's all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, "irreducibly complex", beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.

And, finally, although Darwin showed micro-evolution – most famously in the variations of the forms of the beaks of Galapagos finches – his leap to the conclusion that this proved macro-evolution (species transforming into other species) was a leap of faith. For some, nothing that has happened since has answered these objections – and now there are fresh ones.

In his new book, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, James Le Fanu, a medical doctor and journalist, insists that new biological discoveries have overthrown Darwin. The old man is "screwed", he says gruffly.

Perhaps most startling is the discovery from the deciphering of the human genome that we have only between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. We were previously thought to have 100,000. A mere 25,000 doesn't seem to be enough to sustain our vast complexity and yet genes are supposed to be the heavy lifters of the Darwinian enterprise.

"I wouldn't get out of bed for 25,000 genes," says Le Fanu, "and we don't find form in the genome. We share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but nowhere in the genome have we found what it is that makes us so different from chimps."

Darwinism's promise of an ultimate simplicity seemed to be reinforced by the identification in 1953 of DNA as the molecule that transmits genetic information. It was simply a double helix that passed on information as you might transfer files between computers. But the simplicity turned out to be an illusion. Genes are not neat atomic units; they are scattered fragments that behave and interact in wildly differing ways in different organisms.

Even among Darwinists, this unexpected complexity has produced confusion and rancour, not least in the deep disagreements between Dawkins and the late American evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. "Richard's view," explains Steven Rose, a biology and neurobiology professor, "is genes are the single unit of selection and the organism is the passive vehicle within which these replicators work. Stephen's was a more pluralist view that evolution happened at many different levels."

The division remains, deep and unresolved. And beyond that, there are even some scientists who think Darwinism is, in effect, a sideshow. In their book Form and Transformation, Brian Goodwin, a developmental biologist, and Gerry Webster, a philosopher, argue that it is in the mathematics of complex systems that we shall find the real solution to the problem of life. The theory of evolution provides "only limited insight"; what matters is the dance of possible forms within nature.

Nevertheless, Darwinism remains contemporary science's golden vision, the framework of biology and the emblem of the power of science to demonstrate the ultimate workings of the material world, ourselves included. So what does this mean outside the debates of scientists?

Darwin himself realised that it meant a great deal. The increasingly agnostic, if not outright atheist, conclusions that he began to draw from his work were a wedge driven between himself and his beloved but pious wife Emma.

On the Origin of Species was published 17 years after he had finalised his theory. Many reasons are given for this delay, but the big one was his awareness of its sensational content for scientists and nonscientists alike – Emma especially. When he told his friends of his findings, he said, "It was like confessing to a murder." This was not a morally, ethically or religiously neutral idea; it was a new vision of man's place in the world.

"Man, with all his noble qualities, still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origins," he wrote in The Descent of Man, 12 years after On the Origin.

Implicit in this is the statement: we are not the children of God, the noble stewards of creation; we are deeply embedded in the blind workings of nature, cousins to the virus and the vegetable. "If that is true, then there is no right or wrong – we can do what we like," says David Rosevear, chairman of the British Creation Science Movement.

As a result of beliefs such as Rosevear's, Darwin has been implicated in all sorts of crimes. William Jen-nings Bryan, an American presidential candidate – and the key protagonist in the 1925 Scopes trial in which a teacher in Tennessee was prosecuted for teaching Darwinism – thought the German mind had been rotted by evolutionary theory and this led to the first world war.

Le Fanu sees Darwin as directly implicated in a contemporary cultural malaise: "He changed the world fundamentally. Along with those now fallen idols Marx and Freud, he accounts for the secularisation of western society. Darwinism is the foundational theory of all atheistic, scientific and materialist doctrines and of the notion that everything is ultimately explicable and that there is nothing special about it – the self-denigration and self-hatred, the great 'nothing but' story."

For John Gray, the philosopher, this all points to a fundamental oddity of the conflicts and anxieties generated by Darwin. He says: "Darwinism appeared in the context of a monotheistic religion that assumed a categorical distinction between humans and other animals. In any religion that didn't assume that, it wouldn't have produced these unending conflicts."

If Darwin had been Japanese, Chinese or Indian, then his primary insight – our deep connection to nature – would have been seen as unremarkable, if not self-evident. But in the Judaeo-Christian or Muslim worlds, in which man is seen as the God-elected pinnacle of creation, it is dynamite. This is why, as Darwin so clearly saw, his idea represents a fundamental moral challenge to our western world-view.

At many levels we have failed this challenge. Almost from its first appearance, the Darwinian idea has been used to justify appalling behav-iour. Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher, seized on "survival of the fittest" as scientific evidence that there was a moral injunction for the fit to defeat the unfit. From this, many thinkers drew the idea that we could help evolution along by eliminating or allowing the death of "inferior" races or individuals.

This reached its deathly climax, via the work of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, in Hitler's statement of intent, Mein Kampf. From there it was but a short step to the Holocaust, which, among other things, was an attempt to aid evolution. Any hopes that we have escaped that dreadful phase are vain. How many times did the masters of turbo-capitalism of the past 20 years plead evolution and survival of the fittest as the justification for their cult of greed and cultural destruction? THE question nobody can really answer is: outside science, what difference did Darwin make? It is reasonable to answer: none whatsoever. Religion is as powerful a force in the world as it ever was, perhaps more powerful. Our rape of nature, our one true home, has accelerated. In the 20th century, technology extended our capacity for slaughter beyond imagination. Man still thinks he can be the master of nature, yet the one thing Darwinism shows more clearly than anything else is that we are its servants.

Darwinism remains only a small part of the popular imagination. "Evolution" and "survival of the fittest" are embedded in the language, but they pale into insignificance next to the legacy of Freud – now no longer regarded as a scientist at all – whose ideas persist in popular uses of words such as "anal", "ego" and "sublimation". Yet Freud is seen to be about sex and relationships; Darwin is all about bigger but remoter things. His place in teenspeak, the argot of all ages, is minimal.

Back at the Natural History Museum I meet Pablo Viejo, who is working on a PhD on the application of evolutionary theory to the growth of cities. He follows the neo-Darwin-ian orthodoxy that because it is all so simple and so true, it must be applicable to every aspect of life. And here is Adrian Pearson, a film-maker, with his 13-year-old son Luke. They came because "it is such an amazing story". And so it is. What, exactly, it means is another matter.