Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings
Darwin's life and his contribution to science
By Tom Siegfried January 31st, 2009; Vol.175 #3
When baby Darwin arrived on February 12, 1809, modern science was also in its infancy. Dalton had just recently articulated the modern theory of the chemical atom, but nobody had any idea what atoms were really like. Physicists had not yet heard of the conservation of energy or any other laws of thermodynamics. Faraday hadn't yet shown how to make electricity from magnetism, and no one had a clue about light's electromagnetic identity. Geology was trapped in an ante-diluvian paradigm, psychology hadn't been invented yet and biology still seemed, in several key ways, to be infused with religion, resistant to the probes of experiment and reason.
Then came Darwin. By the time he died in 1882, thermodynamics possessed two unbreakable laws, chemistry had been codified in Mendeleyev's periodic table, Maxwell had discovered the math merging electricity and magnetism to explain light. Lyell had established uniformitarianism as the basis for geology, Wundt had created the first experimental psychology laboratory, and science had something substantial to say about how life itself got to be the way it was — thanks to Darwin's perspicacious curiosity, intellectual rigor, personal perseverance and power of persuasion.
Superlatives are commonplace in accounts of Darwin's life. "An intellect which had no superior, and with a character which was even nobler than the intellect," wrote Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's champion in the original evolution debates. More recently Stephen Jay Gould called Darwin "the Muhammad Ali of biology." But all Ali did was fight. Darwin was more like Willie Mays — he could hit, hit with power, run, field and throw. Translated to science, Darwin could read, reason, experiment, theorize and write — all as well or better than any of his contemporaries. Several scientists before Darwin had expressed the idea of evolution, some even hinting about the role of selection. But none had the wherewithal to perceive the abundance of evidence for evolution, deduce its many nuances, explain its mechanism, foresee and counter the many objections, and articulate it so convincingly to the world.
Woe unto the beetles
In his youth, Darwin was an average student but an avid reader. He had an early interest in observing and collecting, mainly beetles and butterflies. ("Woe unto the beetles of South America, woe unto all tropical butterflies," a friend wrote in advance of Darwin's famous sea voyage.) When it came time for higher education, Darwin headed to Edinburgh, a few hundred kilometers north of his birthplace in Shrewsbury, England, to study medicine. Soon discovering that he couldn't stand the sight of blood, Darwin headed back south to Cambridge, to prepare for the clergy, a profession in which blood wouldn't be such a problem.
His heart was not in religion, though, and his Cambridge years exposed him to other intellectual pursuits — lectures on botany, for instance, fieldwork with geologist Adam Sedgwick and friendships cultivated with biologists like John Stevens Henslow. Darwin's interest in science was most significantly stirred while reading books by the German savant Alexander von Humboldt and the English astronomer John Herschel, which imbued in him "a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science," Darwin wrote decades later.
EnlargeHenslow was perhaps the first to see in Darwin the makings of an uncommon scientist, and recommended him to serve as naturalist on the exploration voyage of the Beagle. During that ship's leisurely circumnavigation of the globe, Darwin spent five years observing the diversity of the planet's life, its sundry geological formations and rich fossil record of life long gone. Darwin's eye saw more than what met it. He remarked on the variations between fossils and living forms, on the similarities of animals separated by vast distances and on the subtle differences and relationships among organisms on the South American mainland and the nearby Galápagos Islands.
By the time the voyage ended in October 1836, Darwin had amassed a mental catalog of life's diversities and subtleties never before held in one head. It gave him a lot to think about.
Sick at Down
Darwin's dispatches to England during the Beagle trip made him a scientific celebrity by the time he returned, and he hobnobbed with the leading lights of London's elite. But soon ill health drove him southeast of London to a rural home (known as Down House) near the town of Downe.
For the rest of his life, Darwin suffered, almost daily, from a mystery illness something akin to repetitive food poisoning. Doctors of his day couldn't help him; modern diagnosticians have speculated on a variety of disorders, ranging from lactose intolerance to Crohn's disease.
Whatever it was, Darwin's illness, a curse to him, perhaps established the circumstances subserving his scientific success. Forced to live in the country, he had no job and few distractions. He could devote his time to investigating nature in his own way. He spent eight years studying every aspect of every species of barnacle, for instance. All that time he also read with a vengeance, compiling and indexing detailed notes from book after book. He read virtually all of every issue of the journal Nature, taking special delight in the physics and math articles that he admitted he could not understand. He read science and philosophy and history and even trashy novels (there should be a law, he said, against unhappy endings). When Darwin opined, he knew what he was talking about, and he knew what everybody else knew, too.
He knew so much that he could often see what others couldn't, and he could also reason about things without wondering whether his suspicions would be supported by observations — he knew what observations had already been made. If they were insufficient, he made his own, growing orchids, breeding pigeons, spying on earthworms.
Of all his reading, the most signal was the 1798 essay on population by Thomas Malthus, which Darwin perused "for amusement" in 1838. About 15 months earlier, Darwin had begun a systematic investigation of "the species question," an issue at biology's foundation. Conventional wisdom held that species had been created individually and were immutable (in much the way that astronomers assumed the universe to be everlastingly static). Some thinkers, though (including Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus), believed otherwise. While on the Beagle, Darwin began to suspect that immutability could not be correct (though he had been unimpressed by grandpa's book, finding it to contain an excessively high ratio of speculation to fact). But the idea of natural selection had not yet entered the grandson's mind.
By 1842 he had prepared a rough 35-page outline (in pencil) of his evolutionary ideas, expanded by 1844 to a 230-page manuscript. In a letter to his wife, he allowed that his theory would be "a considerable step in science," if it ever were to be accepted "even by one competent judge." He asked in that letter that she be sure to publish the manuscript if he died before getting around to it himself. He did show it to a couple of colleagues, but otherwise the most earthshaking ideas in the history of biological science remained unpublicized. Darwin was busy classifying barnacles.
By 1854 he had begun spending most of his time on the species question, and in 1856 the geologist Lyell warned him to publish soon, before another naturalist anticipated him. Sure enough, two years later Alfred Russel Wallace, working in Indonesia, arrived at nearly the same notion — that species developed over time as small variations accumulated, with favorable ones enhancing survival. For counsel and comment, Wallace sent his paper to — Darwin.
Dismayed, Darwin sought advice from Lyell. Wallace's idea was sound, and deserved to be published. Could Darwin now dare publish himself, without appearing to be stealing Wallace's discovery?
Lyell and Henslow brokered a compromise. Wallace's paper would be read to the Linnean Society, and so would an extract of Darwin's 1844 manuscript, at one session, with Lyell and Henslow vouching that they had indeed seen Darwin's work years earlier. Wallace was acknowledged, but Darwin's claim to priority was preserved.
That hardly mattered, though. It was Darwin's artful reasoning and marshaling of the evidence that established evolution by natural selection, as propagated in his masterwork, On the Origin of Species. Published in 1859, it electrified the scientific and intellectual world, evoking the prejudicial condemnation that afflicts most great new insights, but also filling the open-minded with food for centuries' worth of future biological thought.
A simple solution
For so momentous a problem, Darwin's solution seems elegantly simple, although also so subtle that its exposition is often badly mangled. Offspring differ slightly from their parents and each other (descent with modification), making some "fitter" than others in the struggle for existence (survival of the fittest). Over periods of time unimaginably long, the small changes from generation to generation accumulate, mutating one species into others. On smaller scales, over shorter times, such accumulated changes can be seen in various breeds of dogs or pigeons or plants, often induced by the artificial selection of particular traits by human breeders. On evolutionary scales of millions of years, the selection driving the appearance of new species is natural.
Some scientists (such as Huxley) saw the truth in Darwin's views immediately; others came to agree gradually. Many, of course, disagreed bitterly and attacked both Darwin and his book. But most of the "rebuttals" of evolution, even today, merely raise points that Darwin anticipated and countered. Gaps in the fossil record? To be expected, Darwin explained, because the geological record was so imperfect, as if only a few pages remained from only the most recent volume in the entire encyclopedia of the Earth's history. Complexity of the eye? The slightest sensitivity to light would aid in survival, and more versatile, focused organs should develop over a long enough time.
Besides explaining the vagaries of life-forms that nature presented, Darwin's work, in a sense, also made spectacularly successful predictions. One was the requirement for a mutable mechanism of heredity. Subsequent genetic research, from Mendel to Watson and Crick, produced just what Darwin ordered. The other was the need for a very old Earth, providing the eons of time necessary for natural selection's choices to accumulate. Prominent physicists of the day contended the planet was much too young for that, but Darwin's original intuition eventually proved accurate.
Darwin attributed his success to "love of science" and "unbounded patience" and "industry in observing and collecting facts." He understood fully the importance of his work, but his humility permitted only understatement. "With such moderate abilities as I possess," he wrote, "it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points."
As a scientist, Darwin was both chronicler and synthesizer, experimentalist as well as theorist. His power to unearth biology's secrets so successfully stemmed from his devotion to acquiring all the evidence and assessing it honestly. He compiled facts from all possible sources, arranging them to reveal the most logical general conclusions. He could explain all the subtle points of natural selection and its power by citing observations from the Beagle voyage, the writings of experts from around the world, or his own experiments in breeding pigeons, dissecting barnacles, tormenting ants. He could demonstrate how natural selection reconciles observations otherwise irreconcilable if species had been created separately and remained immutable.
Today Darwin's original idea survives, although it has spawned many mutated forms, with nuances and complexities that make evolutionary science a constantly advancing field of research. And Darwin's logic has been borrowed by other investigators in diverse disciplines. Psychologists try to explain behavior based on what mental habits would have enhanced survival as human ancestors were evolving. Biomedical researchers grapple with evolutionary principles in fighting microbial resistance to antibiotics. Computer scientists mix and select segments of binary code to generate optimal computer programs. Even in physics, the word "Darwinian" appears in papers on thermodynamics, quantum physics and black holes. Darwin would have been fascinated by such research and would no doubt have understood a lot of it, as so much of the underlying reasoning was his.
Darwin would also have been happy with the many modifications and adaptations to his ideas found in modern reformulations of evolutionary theory. Speciation isn't always gradual, change isn't always the result of selection, organisms are not the only units of selection, evolutionists now believe. Darwin foresaw some of these views, and he would have embraced them all — as a man of science willing "to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved … as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it," in his words. "If I know myself, I work from a sort of instinct to try to make out truth."
And in the battle to wrest truth from nature, none fought better than Darwin. "He found a great truth," Huxley wrote in Darwin's obituary, "trodden under foot, reviled by bigots, and ridiculed by all the world; he lived long enough to see it, chiefly by his own efforts, irrefragably established in science, inseparably incorporated with the common thoughts of men."
By Eric Dahlen • January 18, 2009
House Bill 25, introduced by Rep. Gary Chism (R-District 37) on Jan. 6, is now before the Education and Judiciary A committees of our state legislature. If passed, the bill would require the state board of education to affix a disclaimer to every textbook that discusses evolution. The disclaimer describes evolution as "a controversial theory" and reflects serious misunderstanding of evolutionary theory.
Within the scientific community, evolution is not at all controversial. It is accepted as the foundation of the modern biological sciences. This is why 17 organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and National Science Teachers Association, called on the scientific community last year to become more active in promoting science education, including evolution.
Mississippi's children deserve a quality education, including science education based on the best available scientific data. Affixing misleading disclaimers to textbooks does our children a great disservice. In these dire economic times, we must prepare students to compete in a global economy. This includes teaching evolution as an essential part of sound science education.
According to the National Center for Science Education, Alabama is the only other state to require a textbook disclaimer about evolution. Their disclaimer has been thoroughly criticized by leading scientists and was characterized in the Journal of the Alabama Academy of Science as "a study in ignorance and dishonesty."
A similar disclaimer was attempted in Georgia and went to court in Selman vs. Cobb County. After incurring considerable expense to taxpayers in that state, the Cobb County School District agreed not to make any disclaimers about evolution.
With tightening state budgets and an education system already in trouble, we need to do better for the children of Mississippi. Please join me in urging our state representatives to oppose House Bill 25.
by Susan Harrison Wolffis | The Muskegon Chronicle
Sunday January 18, 2009, 11:11 AM
In 2000, Dr. Greg Ling -- a traditionally trained chiropractor practicing in Norton Shores -- was issued a death sentence by the medical world. He was diagnosed with terminal melanoma and told there was "no hope" of recovery and "no need" for treatment.
"Basically, I was told to go home and prepare," he said. "Go home, and prepare to die."
But Ling knew a few things about the healing power of alternative medicine and one's own heart. He immersed himself in the benefits of yoga, massage, Bowenwork and other "energy therapies" that he already had begun to incorporate into his own practice.
"I knew there were other means of healing," he said.
Now 45, Ling is cancer-free. His experience, navigating the space where traditional and alternative medical worlds converge, prompted him to leave his one-man office earlier this year at the corner of McCracken Street and Norton Avenue to open a new practice at 953 Seminole called Healing Harmony.
The two-story center, filled with the gentle sound of a waterfall flowing and the peaceful sight of artwork and oversized houseplants, is big enough for yoga class rooms, massage rooms and space for acupressure therapy and Bowenwork. He has three certified massage therapists, two of whom are also yoga instructors, on staff -- all working for "the greater good," he said.
Although he continues to use the chiropractic medicine he learned while getting his degree at Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, Ling said it is now a "small portion of what I do."
He has trained in Bowenwork which he describes as "a gentle hands-on healing system that promotes the overall balance of the body's physical and energetic systems." He also has studied extensively with Native American healers.
"The mind, body and spirit need to be harmonious," Ling said. "The body is like a finely tuned instrument. The 'frequency' has to be congruent throughout."
It is not unusual for a conversation with Ling to leap from quantum physics to genetics to the deeply spiritual -- all as a continuous path toward healing.
"Everything we think or feel goes into our body," he said. "Sometimes we have to understand where our pain is and where it is coming from."
Again, his story is personal. As a child, Ling often was ill with breathing problems, home sick from school for days on end. As a young adult, he developed debilitating migraine headaches. He decided his career path needed to be in genetics research to find a cure for a whole litany of life's ailments from cancer to AIDs to headaches. But once in college, he decided research wasn't the answer -- he needed to be a doctor. He dropped out of medical school, he said, because the belief systems were too narrow.
"Sometimes your belief systems have to expand," he said. "I began to believe in the philosophy that the body can heal itself."
He decided to become a chiropractor, but one who is not limited to stereotypes or tradition. He can just as easily be found stretching in a yoga class or practicing meditation with a client as he can practicing chiropractic medicine.
"We don't rush people in and out ... crack, crunch and get 'em out," he said.
In 1997, Ling moved to Muskegon, drawn from his home state of Indiana to Michigan because his grandparents lived in Battle Creek, and started his practice. Maybe it's because of his own experiences, he said, but his patient load includes many cancer patients, as well as those with chronic pain and chronic illnesses, such as fibromyalgia.
"People are multidimensional human beings. We have to look at their emotional, mental and energetic bodies and treat them that way. When people are healthy, they resonate with energy," he said. "We're so much more than what we've been led to believe. We've forgotten we are here on Earth to be joyful and be loved."
Ling said he is seeing "a definite shift" in his patients' sense of self-awareness and eagerness to learn about the body-mind-spirit approach to healing.
"Never have I had this amount of people asking such marvelous questions about life," he said.
However, in today's turbulent economy, he also is seeing a new group of patients --Â people he said have been "thrown off" and need "balance and grounding."
"Sometimes, you just have to hit the 'reset' button to get back your balance. The mind, body and spirit need to be harmonious," he said. "They need to be in harmony."
A new study by geneticists has shown that adaptation, the process by which organisms change to better fit their environment, plays a significant role in human evolution.
For years, researchers have puzzled over whether adaptation plays a major role in human evolution or whether most changes are due to neutral, random selection of genes and traits.
Now, the study by geneticists at Stanford University, US, show that adaptation is indeed a large part of human genomic evolution.
"Others have looked for the signal of widespread adaptation and couldn''t find it. Now we''ve used a lot more data and did a lot of work cleaning it up," said Dmitri Petrov, associate professor of biology at Stanford University and one of two senior authors of the paper.
"We were able to detect the adaptation signatures quite clearly, and they have the characteristic shape we anticipated," he added.
All genetic mutations start out random, but those that are beneficial to an organism's success in their environment are directly selected for and quickly perpetuate throughout the population, providing a uniform, traceable signature.
With the help of post-doctoral researcher James Cai and recent graduate student Michael Macpherson, Petrov and co-senior author Guy Sella, a biologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, used different methodology from what's been used before to look for signatures of adaptation left in the human genome.
"We detected a number of signatures that suggest adaptation is quite pervasive and common," Petrov said.
Humans have a very complex history from traveling around the globe, and the human genome is also highly structured, making it complicated and difficult to work with, he said.
To find the adaptation signal, Petrov and his colleagues looked for regions of the genome that "hitchhiked" along with an adaptation.
When a genetic adaptation occurs and is passed on to offspring, other genes on both sides of the adaptation typically accompany it.
The result is a whole region of the genome where all humans are unusually similar to each other, referred to as a "selective sweep," that researchers can identify and trace through human genetic history.
"Adaptation becomes widespread in the population very quickly," Petrov said. "Whereas neutral random mutation doesn't and would not have the selective sweep signature," he added.
"We tried to see if these regions of unusual similarity among all humans tended to be in particular places in the genome as the theory predicts they should be, and indeed we find them there," Petrov said.
"The work suggests human beings have undergone rampant adaptation to their environment in the last 200,000 years of history," he added.
By Ansley Roan
Published: January 17, 2009
After the death of Jett Travolta, the 16-year-old son of John Travolta and Kelly Preston, a Church of Scientology spokesman, Tommy Davis, talked about Scientology's beliefs on autism, medical care, and death.
Davis spoke only for the church, not for the family. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. There have been rumors that Jett Travolta was autistic. There are also reports that the Church of Scientology doesn't believe that autism exists or allow for treatment of that condition. Could you clarify?
A. We've never stated that (we don't) recognize autism. It's medicine. The church deals with the spirit. If people have a medical problem or a physical ailment, they go to a doctor. It's church policy that they do so.
Q. Just to clarify: the church doesn't have any prohibition against prescription drugs or medical treatment?
A. None whatsoever. Scientologists avail themselves of conventional medical treatment for medical conditions. They see doctors. They use prescription drugs prescribed by doctors.
Q. But that would not apply to a psychiatric condition, if a person is found to have some sort of mental illness?
A. That's right. That's a psychiatric condition, not a medical condition. They're two different things. Medical conditions are scientific; they're based on biological tests and so forth. Psychiatric conditions are subjective. Psychiatrists say that.
Q. So, the church would not approve of a member seeing a doctor or taking medication for a psychiatric condition?
A. Scientologists are opposed to mind-altering psychiatric drugs. They're dangerous. They're labeled as such by the Food and Drug Administration. Their side effects are known.
Q. What does Scientology believe happens when a person dies?
A. We believe that you yourself are an immortal spiritual being that has lived before and will live again. As such, you've lived many lifetimes and, potentially, you have many lifetimes ahead of you. So the spirit, which is you, is immortal. You are not your body. When somebody dies, he or she departs the body. But, the person, the personality, the life force, and everything that makes the person what he is, that's intact. That is not lost.
Q. Would the person be reborn eventually into a different body?
A. The person would inhabit another body. There are other connotations to the concept of being reborn. It can get mixed up -- rebirth, reincarnation, these kinds of things. These are different. You're an immortal spiritual being; you're not your body, and you live lifetime after lifetime. You've lived before, and you'll live again.
Q. Is there a goal as you go through these different lives? Are you trying to correct past situations?
A. Not in a karmic sense. Look at it pragmatically. If you're an immortal spiritual being, and you know that the world is a world that you're coming back to again in the next lifetime, that would be reason alone to do everything you can to make a better world.
Q. Because Jett Travolta was so young, is there any distinction with what happens to young people after death?
A. No, because the being is ageless, immortal, and not bound by time.
Q. Jett Travolta was cremated. Is that preferable in Scientology?
A. There's no dogma on that subject.Cremation is quite common in Scientology, but I know Scientologists who have been buried.
A mixed result as Louisiana adopts guidelines to implement the antievolution law enacted there in 2008. A bill requiring evolution textbook disclaimers is introduced in the Mississippi legislature. And Kenneth R. Miller debunks a recent attack by the Discovery Institute on his testimony in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case.
A MIXED RESULT IN LOUISIANA
On January 15, 2009, Louisiana's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted a set of guidelines about what types of supplementary classroom materials will, and will not, be allowable under the Louisiana Science Education Act. While the guidelines echo the LSEA's requirement that such materials "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," a provision 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 class" was deleted, according to a report from the Associated Press (January 15, 2008).
Enacted in June 2008 over the protests of scientists and educators across the state and around the country, the LSEA (enacted as Louisiana Revised Statutes 17:285.1) provides, "A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education." The guidelines just adopted govern the way in which BESE will consider such supplementary material.
It was clear from the outset that evolution was in the LSEA's sights. As originally drafted, the law specifically identified "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as controversial subjects, and called on state and local education administrators to "endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies." In its final version, these topics are no longer described as controversial, but they are still specifically mentioned. And the Baton Rouge Advocate (April 19, 2008) editorially recognized, "it seems clear that the supporters of this legislation are seeking a way to get creationism ... into science classrooms."
The guidelines to implement the LSEA began to be drafted in December 2008 with the guidance of a committee of veteran educators and scientists assembled by the state department of education. The Associated Press (January 8, 2009) reported, "Proposed for discussion at the December meeting [of the BESE's Student/School Performance and Support committee] were requirements that any information in the supplemental material be 'supported by empirical evidence.' The proposed language also said religious beliefs 'shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking' and that materials 'that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited in science classes.'"
Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University, coauthor with Paul R. Gross of Creationism's Trojan Horse (revised edition, Oxford University Press, 2007), and a member of NCSE's board of directors, praised the proposed language for ensuring that religion would not be taught in the public schools. But Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum, a religious right organization that vociferously supported the LSEA, was unhappy with the proposed language for the guidelines, telling the Associated Press, "I would think that it left religious neutrality and took a tone of religious hostility. Or at least it could be interpreted by some to have done that."
Subsequently, on January 8, 2009, a revised draft was posted in advance of the BESE committee's January 13, 2009, meeting. The provision that "religious beliefs shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking" was removed, and a provision forbidding consideration of the "religious or non-religious beliefs and affiliations" of the authors of supplementary material was added. Also, the procedure for challenging supplementary material became more complicated, now requiring that complaints must cite the problems with the material, that school districts must be notified of the challenge, and that a hearing must be held at which the district, the complainant, and "any interested parties" would have "adequate time to present their arguments and information and to offer rebuttals."
Forrest decried these revisions in a January 12, 2009, letter to the BESE, objecting that the guidelines "have been altered in ways that are detrimental to the education of Louisiana students." She called for the provision regarding religious beliefs under the guise of critical thinking to be restored, explained that "[t]o determine quality, acceptability, and bias, scientists and teachers customarily and quite appropriately examine the source of instructional material," and described the new procedures for challenging supplementary material as "unclear, ill-conceived, and onerous," adding, "The instructions are vague and confusing, and they unnecessarily complicate what should be a straightforward decision based on the professional expertise of [Louisiana Department of Education] staff."
At the committee's meeting on January 13, 2009, the LSEA's chief sponsor, Ben Nevers (D-District 12), and Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum were in attendance, successfully lobbying for the removal of the section of the guidelines that provided, "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." The provision forbidding consideration of the beliefs and affiliations of the authors of supplementary material was also removed, according to a report from the Associated Press (January 13, 2009).
With the adoption of the guidelines by the BESE on January 15, 2009, it is still unclear what will happen. Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, told WAFB television (January 13, 2009) in Baton Rouge, "The time spent on this issue may be in total excess of what the problem was because we don't believe there was a problem in the science classroom anyway": teachers in his organization have not complained about the science education materials at their disposals and presumably would not seek to add supplementary materials. Civil liberties organizations have already expressed their readiness to challenge attempts to teach religion in the guise of science in Louisiana's public schools.
In the meantime, the Lafayette Independent Weekly (January 12, 2009) worried about the effect of the LSEA and the guidelines on Louisiana's reputation. "For many of us interested and active in economic development and hopeful in a newly resurgent Louisiana ... this is not good news," Steve May wrote. "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?"
For the January 15, 2009, article from the AP, visit:
For the text of the LSEA as adopted, visit:
For the Baton Rouge Advocate's editorial, visit:
For the January 9, 2009, article from the AP, visit:
For information about Creationism's Trojan Horse, visit:
For Forrest's letter to the BESE (PDF), visit:
For the January 13, 2009, article from the AP, visit:
For the WAFB story, visit:
For May's column in the Lafayette Independent Weekly, visit:
For the Louisiana Coalition for Science's website, visit:
And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Louisiana, visit:
ANTIEVOLUTION LEGISLATION IN MISSISSIPPI
House Bill 25, introduced in the Mississippi House of Representatives by Representative Gary Chism (R-District 37) on January 6, 2009, and referred to two committees, Education and Judiciary A, would, if enacted, mandate the state board of education to require every textbook that discusses evolution to include a disclaimer describing evolution as "a controversial theory." In full, the proposed disclaimer reads:
The word "theory" has many meanings, including: systematically organized knowledge; abstract reasoning; a speculative idea or plan; or a systematic statement of principles. Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.
This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things. No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered a theory.
Evolution refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced living things. There are many topics with unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: the sudden appearance of the major groups of animals in the fossil record (known as the Cambrian Explosion); the lack of new major groups of other living things appearing in the fossil record; the lack of transitional forms of major groups of plants and animals in the fossil record; and the complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body possessed by all living things.
Study hard and keep an open mind.
At present, the only state to require a textbook disclaimer about evolution is Alabama, which is currently using a disclaimer adopted in 2005. The proposed Mississippi disclaimer is evidently a hybrid of two previous versions of the Alabama disclaimer: its first paragraph is modeled on the first paragraph of the second version (adopted in 2001), while much of the remainder is modeled on the first version (adopted in 1995).
In a 1996 lecture at Auburn University, later published in the Journal of the Alabama Academy of Science, Richard Dawkins offered a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of the first version of the Alabama disclaimer, criticizing it as "a study in ignorance and dishonesty." In 2000, when the state of Oklahoma was considering adopting the first version of the Alabama disclaimer, Kenneth R. Miller agreed, concluding, "By any standard, this disclaimer fails even an undemanding test of scientific literacy."
A textbook disclaimer was at the center of the Selman v. Cobb County case. Less prolix and less committal than the Alabama disclaimers, the Cobb County disclaimer still insisted that evolution is "a theory, not a fact." In 2005, the disclaimer was ruled to be unconstitutional and the disclaimers were removed from the textbooks; on appeal, the verdict was vacated and the case was remanded to the trial court. A settlement was reached, in which the Cobb County School District agreed not to make any disclaimers about evolution either orally or in writing.
For the text of Mississippi's HB 25, visit:
For information about Alabama's disclaimers, visit:
For Dawkins's critique of the Alabama disclaimer, visit:
For Miller's critique of the Alabama disclaimer, visit:
For information about Selman v. Cobb County, visit:
And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Mississippi, visit:
MILLER DEBUNKS THE DISCOVERY INSTITUTE AGAIN
In a three-part guest essay posted at Carl Zimmer's blog The Loom, Kenneth R. Miller responded to a recent attack by the Discovery Institute on his testimony in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. At issue in the first part is the claim, found in both Of Pandas and People and Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, that the blood clotting system in vertebrates is irreducibly complex and therefore unevolvable. After rebutting the claim that he misrepresented Behe's claims in his testimony, Miller proceeds to explain the latest scientific research that undermines Behe's claims: "The lamprey, as luck would have it, has a perfectly functional clotting system, and it lacks not only the three factors missing in jawed fish, but also Factors IX and V."
Miller turns his attention in the second part of his essay to the Discovery Institute's attempt to rehabilitate the concept of irreducible complexity. Explaining Behe's argument, he comments, "That would be a powerful argument against evolution -- if it were true. Unfortunately, it's not, and the Dover trial demonstrated that for at least three of ID's favorite systems, blood-clotting, the bacterial flagellum, and the immune system." The Discovery Institute's attack fails, he contends, even to represent Behe's argument correctly, and "once you've demonstrated that the parts of the system do indeed work just fine in other contexts, you're answered the ID challenge fully and completely. Case closed. Three years ago, in fact. Case closed, and ID lost."
In the third part of his essay, Miller wonders why the Discovery Institute is bothering to assail the Kitzmiller decision three years after the fact. "The only conclusion I can draw," he writes, "is that they must be maneuvering for the next round of state board hearings or legislative sessions -- and I'm concerned. These folks are a whole lot better at politics and public relations than they are at science, and that means that everyone who cares about science education should be on guard." Miller was prescient: the first two antievolution bills of the 2009 legislative session -- Oklahoma's Senate Bill 320 and Mississippi's House Bill 25 -- have already appeared.
Over at the Panda's Thumb blog, Nick Matzke adds a host of details to Miller's rebuttal, noting that Behe in fact wrote the portion of Of Pandas and People that discusses the blood clotting system. Further, in Kitzmiller he testified that the treatment of blood clotting in Darwin's Black Box is "essentially the same," vitiating the Discovery Institute's attempt to insulate Behe from the failures of Of Pandas and People's treatment. In fact, the treatments differ somewhat, which, as Matzke notes, was a problem for Behe on cross-examination: "Behe could have just said 'I was wrong in Pandas, my newer definition is right.' But of course, the whole point of Behe being there was to defend the ID book on trial, which was Pandas, so he couldn't do that."
Miller is Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University and the author of Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul (Viking, 2008); he was the lead expert witness for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover. A Supporter of NCSE, he received its Friend of Darwin award in 2003. Matzke, who is now a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, worked for NCSE from 2004 to 2007. He was the lead NCSE staffer working on the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, providing a wealth of scientific expertise and practical advice to the legal team representing the ultimately victorious plaintiffs.
For the three parts of Miller's essay, visit:
For information about Of Pandas and People, visit:
For Miller's review of Darwin's Black Box, visit:
For Nick Matzke's blog post on The Panda's Thumb, visit:
For a transcript of Behe's cross-examination about blood clotting in the
Kitzmiller case, visit:
And for NCSE's collection of information about the Kitzmiller case, visit:
Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site: http://www.ncseweb.org where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.
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Wallace I. Sampson, M.D.
It is time for Congress to defund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). After ten years of existence and over $200 million in expenditures, it has not proved effectiveness for any "alternative" method. It has added evidence of ineffectiveness of some methods that we knew did not work before NCCAM was formed. NCCAM proposals for 2002 and 2003 promise no more. Its major accomplishment has been to ensure the positions of medical school faculty who might become otherwise employed—in more productive pursuits.
Such situations are not often tolerated in scientific fields—at least attempts are made to minimize them. NCCAM seems to be tolerated for three reasons. First, economically strapped medical schools welcome the funds. Second, although most medical scientists recognize the scientific absurdity of most "alternative" claims, most grant recipients and a few deans harbor the same absurd beliefs as do the advocates about the methods' efficacy. Third, and most important, major congressional powers are "CAM" advocates. They have a tight hold on the NIH budgets that fund investigations of real medical science as well. The deal seems to be that if the schools will play ball with and not oppose the senators, the senators will be generous in kind.
While the public is distracted by terror attacks, wars, and personal and business scandals, modern medicine's integrity is being eroded by New Age mysticism, cult-like schemes, ideologies, and classical quackery, all misrepresented as "alternative medicine." Using obscure language and misleading claims, their advocates promote changes that would propel medicine back five centuries or more. They would supplant objectivity and reason with myths, feelings, hunches, and sophistry. NCCAM is presented as a scientific vehicle to study alternative medicine's anomalous methods. But it actually promotes the movement by assuming that false and implausible claims are legitimate things to study.
In 1992, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) assigned $2 million of his discretionary funds to establish NCCAM's first incarnation: the Office of Unconventional Medicine, which was renamed the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM). The new NIH office was assigned to investigate "alternative" methods that medical science considered false or implausible. Soon afterward, at a Congressional hearing, Harkin revealed that he was convinced bee pollen had cured that his allergies.
The first OAM director resigned under Sen. Harkin's pressure, having objected to Harkin's OAM Council nominees who represented cancer scams such as Laetrile and Tijuana cancer clinics . One influential Harkin collaborator and constituent was a travel agent for a Bahamas cancer clinic. And the Federal Trade Commission fined Harkin's bee pollen distributor, $200,000 for false claims.
In 1998, Dr. Edward Halperin, President of the North Carolina Medical Association called for disbanding OAM. Responding to objections from the scientific medical community, NIH Director Harold Varmus placed OAM under more scientific NIH control. But Sen. Harkin countered, elevating OAM to an independent Center. By 2001, the annual budget rocketed to nearly $90 million per year and by 2002, over $100 million per year. Congress, believing erroneously that public demand for unscientific services had increased, passed appropriations without a dissenting vote. The table to the right shows how the allocation has steadily grown.
Scientists look at facts. They see that no sectarian or aberrant method has cured a single person or extended a life for as much as a day. They see the "CAM" movement as responding to people's irrational reactions to illness and narcissistic, self-centered wishes. They see no chance for "alternative" or "complementary" methods to replace modern methods. Recent surveys show that the methods add to the cost medical care but do not improve its outcome.
We already know that these aberrant methods do not work, or are so unlikely to work that more clinical trials are not reasonable. Why should research be limited? Because we have found the best quality studies are uniformly negative. Most positive studies are poorly designed and poorly controlled.
Looking at the most popularly promoted methods we find that acupuncture, after thirty years, over 400 clinical trials, and 33 comprehensive literature reviews of those trials, only two specific conditions were found affected by acupuncture more than sham procedures. But even those effects are minimal; they are not superior to standard medical methods, and they remain implausible and unpredictable. They will probably not be confirmed because of their results are best explained by biased experimental errors.
After 100 years and many trials, chiropractic manipulation has not been proven to influence the course of any disease and has not even been proven effective for treating back pain . As for homeopathy, after 200 years and hundreds of studies, researchers cannot prove an effect for any homeopathic remedy for any condition. After a dozen studies, prolonged survival from psychological support for cancer patients has been essentially disproved. Herb product contents cannot be controlled, and many ingredients have been proved harmful. Some products have been adulterated with common pharmaceutical drugs that account for their apparent effects. If supplement marketers were held responsible for product effects, what more would there be to research?
Millions, Billions, Trillions?
NCCAM Director, Steven Straus, M.D., a career NIH physician without "CAM" experience, now oversees the $113 million annual budget. He wants more funding for more NCCAM trials. But what is the NCCAM record? After many years of projects and over $200 million spent, NCCAM and advocates have not proved any method to be effective . Perhaps more important, NCCAM has not declared any method to be ineffective, thus keeping open continuing congressional appropriations.
NCCAM is ridden with potential and actual conflicts of interest. Ten individuals account for 20% of NCCAM awards. None of them has produced a definitively positive or negative report. Most recipients have produced no report at all. Two individuals originally on the Advisory Council that approves NCCAM policy were awarded over $4 million and $5 million in repeated awards.
NCCAM recently announced research on "chelation therapy" for heart disease—a method already disproved and potentially dangerous. And $10 million is planned for research into herbs with their uncontrollable contents and unreliable results. Similarly troubling is NCCAM's awards of over $1 million into psychic healing, and $1.5 million for homeopathy. Both are highly implausible, being not only repeated failures, but promoted falsely as well.
NCCAM recently awarded $15 million to nine medical schools to develop teaching of these subjects—all by advocates of "CAM." It gave no funds to the five medical school courses with curricula already developed that teach about the subject rationally. In other words, NCCAM's research agenda fits its congressional supporters' ideological vision and finds unproductive ways to use up its ballooning appropriations.
NCCAM will never be able to fulfill Dr. Straus's goal to determine effectiveness. Rigorous trials cost $1-5 million each. Five to twenty trials are needed to prove or disprove effectiveness of each product or method. After staff expenses, $100 million per year can support only 10-20 reliable trials per year. Given hundreds of products and methods for hundreds of conditions, costs would be hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars over decades - all to prove what we already know. Then, as occurred after the negative Laetrile and vitamin C trials for cancer, advocates just think up new claims, or claim that the trials were rigged. Sales continue regardless of the disproof. By finding them worthy of study, NCCAM lends legitimacy to implausible methods, resulting in the public spending tens of billions of dollars annually on them.
We also know that ill-conceived research produces misleading results. The results then lead to repetitive cycles of unproductive work to explain what was found, usually just to disprove the erroneous results. As a result of all this, claims continue.
Tens of millions of U.S. citizens lack medical insurance. Millions of illegal residents produce economic burdens on local medical systems. While real medicine and technology can solve these problems and prolong productive life, "alternatives" appeal mostly to disaffected health dilettantes, and add nothing to public health. Worse, CAM's fuzzy thinking style and radical social ideology lead to wrong-headed policies such as the denial of HIV as the cause of AIDS and the recent fears of vaccinations and electromagnetic fields.
Special commercial interests and irrational, wishful thinking created NCCAM. It is the only entity in the NIH devoted to an ideological approach to health. To correct the situation, Congress must consider at least interrupting funding of NCCAM while results of work in progress mature. NCCAM could be dissolved, its functions returned to other NIH centers, with no loss of knowledge, and an economic gain. Funds could be invested into studies of how such misadventures into "alternative" medicine can be avoided, and on studying the warping of human perceptions and beliefs that led to the present situation. More public money for investigating methods with negligible promise is foolish economics and even more, is unwise public policy.
Wallace Sampson, MD is Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and Emeritus Clinical Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, where he teaches analysis of unfounded medical claims.
This article was posted on December 10, 2002.
Category: Science politics
Posted on: January 16, 2009 8:36 AM, by Jake Young
Orac and PZ are popularizing a post at Change.gov to defund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):
Biomedical research funding is falling because of the nation's budget problems, but biomedical research itself has never been more promising, with rapid progress being made on a host of diseases. Here's a way to increase the available funding to NIH without increasing the NIH budget: halt funding to NCCAM, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This Center was created not by scientists, who never thought it was a good idea, but by Congress, and specifically by just two Congressmen in the 1990's who believed in particular "alternative" (but scientifically dubious) treatments. Defunding NCCAM would save at least $225 million, possibly more.
Defunding NCCAM would also provide a direct societal benefit. Practitioners of so-called "alternative" medicines constantly refer to NIH's support as a way of validating their practices and beliefs, most of which are not supported by evidence. The fact is that after >10 years, NCCAM has not yet found a single piece of positive evidence for any of these methods, which include acupuncture, "qi", homoepathy, magnet therapy, and other treatments.
Any legitimate, promising medical treatment can be funded by one of the existing NIH Institutes. There's no need for a separate center for "alternative" therapies - but what has happened is that NCCAM has become a last refuge for poorly designed, unscientific studies that couldn't get funded through the normal peer-reviewed process.
A useful discussion of this issue and the history of NCCAM can be found at http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/nccam.html.
We can quickly save $225 million and move the funding into more promising research programs by eliminating NCCAM.
Orac points out that the $225 million number is wrong because about half of the money for CAM comes from part of National Cancer Institute known as the Office of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
I couldn't agree more. Let's defund the whole lot.
President-elect Obama has said that he will usher in a new era of accountability and transparency in federal spending. Well, it's time to put up or shut up. Axing useless bureaucracies such as NCCAM would be an excellent place to start. Not only has the Institute not produced a single useful treatment, but their presence in our government gives credibility and a haven to cranks.
Frankly, the only other government policy I can think of that has been as thoroughly discredited is abstinence-only sex education.
As I have argued before, there is only one legitimate type of medical research: evidence-based medicine. And CAM by its repeated recourse to supernatural causes and lax use of evidence to put it mildly stands in flagrant contradiction of this principle.
So indeed let's defund NCCAM. Head over to Change.gov's website and voice your support.
Posted by Anika Smith at 11:22 AM | Permalink Anika Smith The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted unanimously to adopt rules today implementing the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), the landmark academic freedom bill passed last summer.
The rules approved by the BESE effectuate the academic freedom bill's purpose to allow teachers to use supplementary materials to teach controversial scientific theories without threat of recrimination.
A subcommittee of the Board removed a provision prohibiting intelligent design before passing the rules unanimously. The legally redundant provision would have gone beyond the intent of the legislation and was dropped after the subcommittee heard testimony from supporters and opponents of the language.
In adopting these rules, the BESE reiterated its support for academic freedom for teachers to teach controversial scientific theories.
According to Discovery Institute education policy analyst Casey Luskin, "This is another victory for Louisiana students and teachers to have a climate of academic freedom to learn about scientific controversies over evolution and other topics in the curriculum."
Several Louisiana scientists testified in favor of academic freedom of evolution-education, including biologist Wade Warren, biochemist Brenda Peirson, and chemistry professor Joshua Williams.
Louisiana biology teacher Patsy Peebles testified in favor of the language prohibiting intelligent design. When she falsely claimed that ID had been banned by the U.S. Supreme Court, attorney John Wells corrected her, reminding the BESE that the Supreme Court has not ruled on intelligent design.
Stay tuned to Evolution News & Views for more as the story develops.
Posted by Anika Smith at 8:59 AM | Permalink
11:19 AM PST, January 12, 2009, updated at 2:30 PM PST, January 12, 2009
Brown University Professor Kenneth Miller has gotten into a little tiff with Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin over what I said/meant about the blood clotting cascade in Darwin's Black Box. This is the first of two posts commenting on that.
In Chapter 4 of Darwin's Black Box I first described the clotting cascade and then, in a section called "Similarities and Differences", analyzed it in terms of irreducible complexity. Near the beginning of that part I had written, "Leaving aside the system before the fork in the pathway, where details are less well known, the blood clotting system fits the definition of irreducible complexity... The components of the system (beyond the fork in the pathway) are fibrinogen, prothrombin, Stuart factor, and proaccelerin." Casey Luskin concludes that from that point on I was focusing my argument on the system beyond the fork in the pathway, containing those components I named. That is a reasonable conclusion because, well, because that's what I said I was doing, and Mr. Luskin can comprehend the English language.
Apparently Prof. Miller can't. He breathlessly reports that one page after I had qualified my argument I wrote "Since each step necessarily requires several parts, not only is the entire blood-clotting system irreducibly complex, but so is each step in the pathway" and Miller asserts that meant I had inexplicably switched back to considering the whole cascade, including the initial steps. It seems not to have occurred to Miller that that sentence should be read in the context of the previous page, so he focuses on the components before the fork, the better to construct a strawman to knock down. In fact, in that section containing the second quote ("Since each step...") I was arguing about the difficulty of inserting a new step into the middle of a generic, pre-existing cascade ("One could imagine a blood clotting system that was somewhat simpler than the real one—where, say, Stuart factor, after activation by the rest of the cascade, directly cuts fibrinogen to form fibrin, bypassing thrombin"), and likened it to inserting a lock in a ship canal. It could be done if an intelligent agent were directing it, but it would be really difficult to do by chance/selection. All that seems to have passed Miller by.
In philosophy there is something called the "principle of charitable reading." In a nutshell it means that one should construe an author's argument in the best way possible, so that the argument is engaged in its strongest form. Unfortunately, in my experience Miller does the opposite — call it the "principle of malicious reading." He ignores (or doesn't comprehend) context, ignores (or doesn't comprehend) the distinctions an author makes, and construes the argument in the worst way possible. (See my previous posts on July 11-12, 2007 about Miller's tendentious review of The Edge of Evolution.)
Good salesmanship. Bad scholarship.
12:19 PM PST, January 14, 2009
At the end of his first post squabbling with Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin, Brown University Professor Kenneth Miller refers to some great new work by UC San Diego Professor and member of the National Academy of Science Russell Doolittle. Doolittle, of course, has worked on the blood clotting cascade for about fifty years! (I discussed some of his work in Chapter 4 of Darwin's Black Box.) In a new paper Doolittle and co-workers analyze DNA sequence data from a primitive vertebrate, the lamprey, thinking that it might have a simpler clotting cascade than higher vertebrates. (1) It is difficult work, because the sequences of lamprey proteins — even ones that are indeed homologous to the proteins of other vertebrates — are significantly diverged from, say, mammalian proteins.
They argue that most of the core clotting cascade proteins are present, but two seem to be absent: lamprey has single proteins that act as Factor V/VIII (proaccelerin/anti-hemophilic factor) and Factor IX/X (Christmas factor/Stuart factor). The authors then infer that either gene or genome duplication led to separation of the factors. Although it's interesting work, Doolittle's conclusions are only suggestive (and the authors clearly say that the data are only suggestive). They found four copies of genes that are similar to Factors V/VIII, as well as to the non-clotting proteins ceruloplasmin and hephaestin (Figure 2 in their paper). They argue that only one is a real blood clotting factor and the other three aren't, but the arguments are pretty tentative. The same for Factors IX/X. The authors identify two "Factor X" genes. Might one of those be acting as a Factor IX gene? At the conclusion of the paper the authors say they may try to support their arguments with biochemical experiments. I'm looking forward to reading the results of those.
Whether or not their conclusion is correct, however, as far as the argument for intelligent design is concerned the only relevant part of Doolittle's paper is Figure 10, which purports to show the clotting pathway in lamprey vs. other vertebrates. (Intelligent design is wholly compatible with common descent — including descent by gene duplication/rearrangement. Rather, ID argues against the Darwinian claim that complex, functional molecular systems could be built by a random, unguided process.) Yet to get from one arrangement to the other one would take multiple steps, not just one: whole genome duplication, retargeting of Factor IX, retargeting of Factor VIII, and so on. (The problems are essentially the same, as I pointed out in an essay in 2000 entitled "In Defense of the Irreducibility of the Blood Clotting Cascade," posted on the Discovery Institute website.) So even if the suggested events occurred, they were extremely unlikely to have occurred by a Darwinian mechanism of random mutation/natural selection (the authors make no argument for a Darwinian mechanism). Guided, yes. Random, no.
It's pertinent to remember here the central point of The Edge of Evolution. We now have data in hand that show what Darwinian processes can accomplish, and it ain't much. We no longer have to rely on speculative scenarios that overlook barriers and problems that nature would encounter. Random mutation/natural selection works great in folks' imaginations, but it's a bust in the real world.
1. Doolittle, R.F., Jiang, Y., and Nand, J. 2008. Genomic evidence for a simpler clotting scheme in jawless vertebrates. J. Mol. Evol. 66:185-196.
13 January 2009
A recent multidisciplinary study on the two-phase increase in the size of life has concluded that there must exist a "preexisting evolutionary potential" to explain the sudden increase in size and complexity which occurred twice in the history of life, both times following increases in atmospheric oxygen.
From the earliest bacteria to the largest organisms, there has been a 16 orders of magnitude increase in size. Far from the gradual progression over much time which one would expect from a Darwinian explanation, however, this increase was not incremental, but occurred in two very large steps, involving about a million times increase in size over very brief periods of time.
And things didn't just get bigger, but much more complex as well:
Each size step required a major innovation in organismal complexity—first the eukaryotic cell and later eukaryotic multicellularity.
The investigators conclusion? There must have been a "preexisting evolutionary potential" to account for the rapid changes:
The size increases appear to have occurred when ambient oxygen concentrations reached sufficient concentrations for clades to realize preexisting evolutionary potential, highlighting the long-term dependence of macroevolutionary pattern on both biological potential and environmental opportunity.
They also coin the interesting phrase "latent evolutionary potential." From the abstract:
These dramatic and rapid changes correspond to an increase in atmospheric oxygen. This increase appears to have unleashed an otherwise unspecified and undefined "evolutionary potential" in many different organisms.
What exactly this "evolutionary potential" was is not speculated upon. The presence of latent genetic programs is certainly the most obvious explanation. Darwinists of course are unable to offer this obvious possibility. They would then have to explain where those programs might have come from. They would then be branded ID Creationists and lose their jobs.
While the article does not directly address the implications for Darwinism of the existence of "latent" or "preexisting" evolutionary potential, the impossibility of fitting this concept into the standard neo-Darwinian paradigm is obvious. The standard explanation of life's development, of course, requires incremental trial-and-error mutations, with nothing "preexistent" about them, selected gradually over generations to build up evolutionary change.
What these researchers have nicely documented in the fossil record, like so many other discoveries, flatly contradicts what would be expected in a Darwinian world. The findings fit quite nicely, however, with the concept of a preexistent design, with front-loaded genetic programs.
Posted on: January 14, 2009 12:41 PM, by PZ Myers
The intelligent design creationists are jubilant — a paper has been published that shows that organisms were front-loaded with genes for future function! It describes "'latent' or 'preexistent' evolutionary potential" in our history, they say.
One small problem. The paper says nothing of the kind. It does mention latent potential, but it means something entirely different from something that is 'front-loaded', which is a sneaky little elision on the part of the creationists. There isn't even the faintest whiff of a teleological proposal in the paper at all, which makes me wonder if they even read it, or if, as seems more likely, they're simply incapable of comprehending the scientific literature.
So let's take a look at what the paper is actually about, and you'll see that it in no way supports the self-serving cheering of the creationists.
First, though, a little background that will be familiar to many of you, especially if you've read Gould's Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). The process we're looking at is the increase in size and complexity of life over time, a subject near and dear to the heart of creationists who see it as a predestined pattern driven by intent, but also of great interest to legitimate biologists, who have found that no, it is not purposeful at all, but a natural consequence of chance variation.
Here's an analogy to get the right model into your head. Imagine a busy bar that closes at 2am, and sends all the drunks out the door to walk home. Since scienceblogs was so unfair to our Australian readership last night, let's imagine it is an Australian bar, and a million brain-blitzed Australian drunks spill out the door and start walking determinedly down the street. There are a few properties at play here. One is that this street happens to be paralleled on the right by a wall, so the drunks can't stagger too far in that direction. The other is that on the left is a wide-open sheep pasture which provides no obstacle to their progress that way. Another is that they are all initially aimed straight down the street, but because they are drunk, they stagger every once in a while and veer off a few degrees to the left or the right, entirely by chance.
You're hovering overhead in a helicopter. What do you think you will see?
The mob will proceed down the street, but as it goes, it will spread out gradually to the left. The majority will stagger right and left with equal frequency, and wobble roughly down the street. There will be a subset that will, by chance, stagger left a little more than to the right, and they'll drift off into the sheep pasture. Some may veer more to the right than the left, but they'll just bounce into the wall and get straightened out that way.
No drunk Australian has a preference to stroll into the sheep pasture. There is no intent to end up there. But some do, just by the odds. You, in your helicopter, can even look at the shape of the sprawling mob and make useful calculations about drunk Australian kinetics and make predictions about the aggregate trajectories of strolling drunkards, although you wouldn't be able to predict the pattern of an individual drunk.
This is the general model for how size and complexity vary over time. The direction of the street is time, and wandering out farther and farther into the sheep pasture is like getting larger or more complex. There are other details that the analogy does not cover, however. There may be advantages to wandering to the left — it gets you out of the crowded mob of stumbling drunks. There may be intrinsic factors that limit how far a lineage can drift to the left, as well. Insect respiratory systems, for instance, create a kind of internal wall that limits how large they can get. There may also be external barriers that can be discerned by looking at the shape of the expanding mob.
Hop back into the helicopter and look down. What if the left edge of the mob doesn't expand exactly as you mathematically expected? What if it stops at some other barrier not visible from your vantage point? Perhaps there is a population of venomous Australian crocoducks lurking out there, or roving herds of carnivorous wallabies, and although we can't see them from up here, we do see that the drunks don't expand beyond a certain point.
Now that is the point of this new paper by Payne and others. They have taken a big picture examination of the distribution of fossil sizes over Earth's history, and asked whether the range has varied smoothly over time, as you'd expect if the outer bound were simply diffusing to higher levels. And the answer is no, it is not, there are a couple of discrete jumps in the maximum size that imply limits to earlier expansion that were overcome at specific periods in history. There was a wall of some sort to the left of the staggering mass of life, and they speculate a bit about what it might have been.
Here's the summary diagram of the results. The log of the volume of the largest fossils identified for a period are plotted on the Y axis, against time on the X axis. It is not a smooth curve, obviously — there are two large upward lurches, one about 2 billion years ago and another over half a billion years ago.
(Click for larger image)
Sizes of the largest fossils through Earth history. Size maxima are illustrated separately for single-celled eukaryotes, animals, and vascular plants for the Ediacaran and Phanerozoic. The solid line denotes the trend in the overall maximum for all of life. Increases in the overall maximum occurred in discrete steps approximately corresponding to increases in atmospheric oxygen levels in the mid-Paleoproterozoic and Ediacaran-Cambrian- early Ordovician. Sizes of the largest fossil prokaryotes were not compiled past 1.9 Gya. Estimates of oxygen levels from Can?eld and Holland are expressed in percentage of PAL. Phan., Phanerozoic; Pz., Paleozoic; Mz., Mesozoic; C, Cenozoic. Red triangles, prokaryotes; yellow circles, protists; blue squares, animals; green diamonds, vascular plants; gray square, Vendobiont (probable multicellular eukaryote).
How do we explain these sudden upward surges in maximum size? Unsurprisingly, it isn't by postulating a being of unimaginable magical or technological power who visits Earth at that time and inoculates his chosen species with size boosting genes. There is absolutely no evidence for that, and no need to invent such a silly hypothesis. Instead, there are two very good explanations that are actually supported by measurements and observations (and strangely, scientists prefer those kinds of explanations). One is a change in the environment, and the other is an intrinsic change in a subset of life.
The environmental change is illustrated in the chart. The periods when the maximum organism size increased are correlated with periods when free oxygen levels in the atmosphere increased. Basically, the atmosphere was modified by the byproducts of organic metabolism in a way that allowed aerobic organisms to grow to a larger size — Earth accumulated enough rocket fuel in its atmosphere that some organisms could use to burn and grow. This is actually a fairly old story; we've been teaching about the oxygen increase in introductory biology for at least the last decade that I've been doing it.
The other part of the explanation is the one that has made our poor confused creationists so giddy, I'm afraid. The authors say,
These size steps coincide with, or slightly postdate, increases in the concentration of atmospheric oxygen, suggesting latent evolutionary potential was realized soon after environmental limitations were removed.
Ah, the realization of latent evolutionary potential. Did you know that you have latent evolutionary potential? Sure. If we put you and your family and friends in a novel environment, and let the generations tick by, we'll discover that certain sets of traits will become more prominent as selection and drift take their toll. The phrase does not imply that there is a purposeful arrangement of genes in your body that are there with a preexisting intent to allow you to thrive in a particular situation. You are complex, you have many properties that may in your current situation be superfluous or useless, but could be utilized in different situations.
You see, we have a good idea of exactly what intrinsic capabilities contributed to the 'latent potential' that led to certain lineages growing larger at those two transitions, and they both have natural precursors. We don't need a designer to explain the shifts, because the changes are expressions of known properties!
The abrupt increase in the Paleopterozoic, for instance, is the product of growth in size of the relatively recently evolved eukaryotes. You've probably heard of the endosymbiote hypothesis: eukaryotes are the product of a merger of multiple prokaryotic organisms into a single whole. Single celled organisms combined, with different specializations — organelles in our cells called mitochondria, for instance, are thought to be descendants of an incorporated prokaryote. Our mitochondria have the primary function of burning carbon and oxygen to produce energy. This was "latent evolutionary potential" that could be exploited by eukaryotes as oxygen availability rose. And so, following the rise of increasing oxygen concentrations, the size of some eukaryotes staggered upwards to a new maximum.
The second surge in the beginning of the Phanerozoic was also a consequence of a property with precursors in the existing single-celled populations: multicellularity. This is another biological property rich in "latent evolutionary potential". Again and unsurprisingly, simply combining multiple cells into one organism is a fast-track to larger organismal size, and we see multiple lineages exploring this capability, many of which failed and died out, such as the Ediacaran fauna, and others in the Cambrian that expanded rapidly. Multicellularity itself is not an abrupt, binary choice. We have precursors: modern choanoflagellates show that protists can find selective advantage in transient assemblies, colonial organisms show the virtues of more permanent arrangements, and creatures like sponges exhibit cooperativity and specialization in internal function. Chance creates the potential, and selection can drive an agency-free promotion of greater expression of that potential.
I must emphasize that this is not a paper endorsing any form of intelligent design creationism, and the creationists' appropriation of its conclusion depends entirely on their distortion of its contents. Here is the authors' full conclusion.
Although increase in maximum size over time can often be accounted for by simple diffusive models, a single diffusive model does not appear capable of explaining the evolution of life's overall maximum size. Approximately 3/4 of the 16-orders-of-magnitude increase in maximum size occurred in 2 discrete episodes. The first size jump required the evolution of the eukaryotic cell, and the second required eukaryotic multicellularity. The size increases appear to have occurred when ambient oxygen concentrations reached sufficient concentrations for clades to realize preexisting evolutionary potential, highlighting the long-term dependence of macroevolutionary pattern on both biological potential and environmental opportunity.
The way the creationists have abused that is by pretending that this implies that the evolution of the eukaryotes and of multicellularity had to have been purposeful events. This is simply not true. All this is saying is that the limits of growth are properties of both organismal and environmental constraints, and that we can map those out by looking at the fossil record.
By Sid Perkins Web edition : Monday, January 12th, 2009
Paleontologists have discovered a fossil partially covered with broad, unbranched filaments — a type of structure previously theorized to exist on primitive feathered dinosaurs but not found until now.
Flight feathers on modern birds have a central shaft and stiff fibers, called barbs, that branch from that shaft. Barbules, smaller fibers that branch from the barbs, are tipped with small hooks that latch on to adjacent barbs or barbules, stiffening the feather into a single vane.
This arrangement is so complicated that many scientists theorize it could have evolved only once (SN: 8/18/01, p. 106). But paleontologists have proposed that a variety of simpler structures — including peculiar, branched structures colloquially called "dinofuzz" — evolved before feathers. Now, researchers have finally found an important yet long-missing piece of the feather lineage: single, unbranched filaments.
The unbranched structures appear on a newly discovered specimen of Beipiaosaurus, a feathered dinosaur that lived in what is now China about 120 million years ago, says Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. The filaments, which measure between 10 and 15 centimeters long, are broad — about 2 millimeters wide for most of their length, he and his colleagues report online January 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Apparently the structures were stiff, because none of those preserved in the fossil are bent into a curved position.
Finally, Xu notes, the structures don't cover the creature's body: They're found only on the creature's head, neck and tail. The filaments couldn't have generated lift, so they're not flight worthy, and they're too sparse to have retained the creature's body heat. Xu and his colleagues therefore speculate that the filaments served as display structures, just as many similarly placed feathers do on modern birds.
Initial analyses of the fossils of Beipiaosaurus, a creature first described about 10 years ago, found only modern-style feathers with barbs and barbules, Xu says. When he and his colleagues removed more rock from some of those specimens, however, the team discovered the same sort of stiff, unbranched filaments seen on the newer fossils.
The appearance of the newly described filaments "is not surprising," says Richard Prum, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University who has long speculated about the development and evolution of feathers. Xu's team "makes a good argument that [the filaments] were used for display," he notes. Despite the presumed stiffness of the filaments, the structures probably didn't serve a defensive function, like a porcupine's quills do, Prum adds.
Having different types of feathers on the same creature isn't surprising either, Prum continues. Today's birds often sport many types of feathers: feathers for flight, feathers on their bodies for thermoregulation and downy feathers as an undercoat. Some modern species, such as vultures and cassowaries, even sport bristly structures similar to those seen in Beipiaosaurus, Prum notes. "We know that feather follicles can do this."
Beipiaosaurus is just one of a host of feathered creatures that have been unearthed in China in recent years (SN: 1/25/03, p. 51; SN: 8/19/00, p. 119). While many paleontologists contend these fossils strengthen the idea that birds are, in fact, the modern descendants of dinosaurs, others aren't so sure. "Many of us believe that these 'feathered dinosaurs' are actually flightless birds," says Alan Feduccia, a paleontologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For one thing, the intricate arrangement of bones in those ancient creatures' arms and hands matches that seen in the wings of modern birds, he notes.
"Are we sweeping important questions under the rug by saying that these [creatures] are feathered dinosaurs?" Feduccia asks.
Posted by William Menta January 15, 2009 14:30PM
I'm writing in response to the letter the Gazette published about me, from Mr. David J Barnd. My original point was about why intelligent design should not be taught in science class, but Mr. David J. Barnd wrote all the way from San Antonio Texas to explain to me why he thought the theory of evolution was wrong. I'm flattered that he went to the trouble.
And you know what? He might be right. Evolution, like all theories, might be someday be disproven. Even gravity is just a theory. Gravity is just as unproven as evolution. A true scientist should be open to the possibility a theory could be wrong. And if new data on evolution becomes available, I'd re-examine my views. That's what we do in science, we come up with a theory, we run a test to check that theory, and then we adjust our views based on the outcome of the test.
But this is not a zero sum game. Attacking evolution does not somehow "help" intelligent design. Intelligent design is a philosophy. There is no test we can run to check intelligent, so it can never be considered a scientific theory. Therefore Intelligent Design should never be taught in a science classroom. It should be taught in philosophy class instead. That's still true.
It seems to me that, in a way Mr. Barnd was attempting to change the subject by attacking evolution. In his letter, Mr. Barnd barely mentioned intelligent design at all. Evolution is sometimes difficult to test but we have managed to run a few experiments and evolution held up. If those experiments had come out differently evolution would have been disproved. By contrast Intelligent design is can never be tested, it can never be disproven, people either accept intelligent design on faith or they don't. It is that difference that separates science from philosophy.
The original point of my letter is still true. Intelligent Design is a philosophy that should not be taught in a science class.
William Menta is a resident of Kalamazoo.