NTS LogoSkeptical News for 24 January 2009

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Evolution education update: January 23, 2009

The battle over teaching evolution in Texas is raging as the state board of education prepares to take a preliminary vote on a revised set of state science standards. Darwin Day is approaching! And a new website urges policymakers to do right by Texas schoolchildren: Teach Them Science.


"The latest round in a long-running battle over how evolution should be taught in Texas schools began in earnest Wednesday as the State Board of Education heard impassioned testimony from scientists and social conservatives on revising the science curriculum," as The New York Times (January 22, 2009) reports. The stakes are high: the standards will determine what is taught in Texas's public school science classrooms and the content of the biology textbooks approved for use in the state for the next ten years. And the threat is real: seven members of the fifteen-member board, including its chair, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, are regarded as in favor of attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution in Texas schools. Moreover, as the Times observes, "The debate here has far-reaching consequences; Texas is one of the nations biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material."

The old standards for high school biology include a requirement that reads, "The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information." In 2003, the "strengths and weaknesses" language was selectively applied by members of the board attempting to dilute the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks then under consideration, and so it was clear that the "strengths and weaknesses" language would be a matter of contention when the standards were next revised. The revised standards currently under consideration replace the "strengths and weaknesses" language with "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing" -- a revision that was widely praised by scientific, education, and religious freedom groups.

On January 21, 2009, the first day of the board's January meeting, the board heard testimony about the science standards from dozens of witnesses, including NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, who urged the board to heed the advice of the scientific and educational experts who revised the standards and omitted the "strengths and weaknesses" language. The Times quoted her as explaining, "The phrase 'strengths and weaknesses' has been spread nationally as a slogan to bring creationism in through the back door." And the Dallas Morning News (January 21, 2009) added, "Scott warned the board that if it adopts the requirement, it will lead to textbooks that contain pseudoscience and inaccuracies as publishers try to appease the state and get their books sold in Texas. 'If you require textbook publishers to include bad science, you're going to have problems,' she said, asserting that Texas students will suffer as a result."

Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, told the Times that the attempt to retain the "strengths and weaknesses" language is "an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the classroom in an attempt to get students to reject evolution." And David M. Hillis, a distinguished professor of biology at the University of Texas, Austin, concurred, adding, "Every single thing they are representing as a weakness is a misrepresentation of science ... These are science skeptics. These are people with religious and political agendas." Ryan Valentine of the Texas Freedom Network worried about the consequence for Texas's image: "A misguided crusade to include phony weaknesses in the theory of evolution in our science curriculum will send a message to the rest of the nation that science takes a back seat to politics in Texas," the Morning News reported him as saying.

Also testifying were people, including a representative of the Discovery Institute, who supported the "strengths and weaknesses" language, often betraying the connection between the language and creationism. A teacher quoted by the Morning News, for example, said, "As a creationist, I don't want creationism taught in science classes, but this proposal [to drop the strengths and weaknesses rule] smacks of censorship." A mechanical engineer quoted by the Times said, echoing a rhetorical theme prominent in creationist circles since the Scopes era, "Textbooks today treat it as more than a theory, even though its evidence has been found to be stained with half-truths, deception and hoaxes." (As NCSE's Glenn Branch and Louise S. Mead recently wrote, "[William Jennings Bryan's] position -- that it is okay to teach about evolution but only as something conjectural or speculative, as 'just a theory' and not as a fact -- continues to resonate.")

On the second day of the board's meeting, there is expected to be a first vote on whether to adopt the standards, followed by a second vote on the third day, January 23, 2009. After a period for further public comment, a final vote are expected, but not guaranteed, to occur at the board's March 26-27, 2009, meeting. There may not be any changes in the positions of the board members, however; the Morning News observed in its report on the first day of the hearing, "Most State Board of Education members appeared to have their minds made up." But groups supporting the integrity of science education in Texas -- including Teach Them Science, Texas Citizens for Science, the Texas Freedom Network, the 21st Century Science Coalition, the Texas Academy of Science, the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, the Texas Science Education Leadership Association, and the Science Teachers Association of Texas -- are sure to continue to fight.

In addition to the newspaper reports cited above, a variety of on-line sources provided detailed, candid, and often uninhibited running commentary on the proceedings: Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman is blogging, and posting photographs, on the Houston Chronicle's Evo.Sphere blog, the Texas Freedom Network is blogging on its TFN Insider blog, NCSE's Joshua Rosenau is blogging on his personal blog, Thoughts from Kansas (hosted by ScienceBlogs), and the Houston Press blogged the first day of the meeting. For those wanting to get their information from the horse's mouth, minutes and audio recordings of the board meeting will be available on the Texas Education Agency's website. And NCSE will, of course, have a report on the proceedings of the second and third days of the board's meeting as soon as possible.

For the story in The New York Times, visit:

For the old standards and the proposed standards (both PDF), visit:

For the story in the Dallas Morning News, visit:

For Branch and Mead's article (PDF), visit:

For the various blog reports, visit:

For the Texas Education Agency's minutes and audio recordings pages, visit:

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


Less than a month remains before Darwin Day! And since 2009 is the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, it promises to be a particularly exciting celebration. Colleges and universities, schools, libraries, museums, churches, civic groups, and just plain folks across the country -- and the world -- are preparing to celebrate Darwin Day, on or around February 12, in honor of the life and work of Charles Darwin. These events provide a marvelous opportunity not only to celebrate Darwin's birthday but also to engage in public outreach about science, evolution, and the importance of evolution education. NCSE encourages its members and friends to attend, participate in, and even organize Darwin Day events in their own communities. To find a local event, check the websites of local universities and museums and the registry of Darwin Day events maintained by the Darwin Day Celebration website. (And don't forget to register your own event with the Darwin Day Celebration website!)

And with Darwin Day comes the return of Evolution Weekend! Hundreds of congregations all over the country and around the world are taking part in Evolution Weekend, February 13-15, 2009, by presenting sermons and discussion groups on the compatibility of faith and science. Michael Zimmerman, the initiator of the project, writes, "Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic -- to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letter itself, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy." At last count, 875 congregations in all fifty states (and fourteen foreign countries) were scheduled to hold Evolution Weekend events.

Writing on the Beacon Broadside blog in February 2008, NCSE's deputy director Glenn Branch asked, "Why make such a point of celebrating Darwin Day, as opposed to, say, Einstein Day on March 14?" He answered, "A crucial reason, particularly in the United States, is to counteract the public climate of ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward evolution," citing a number of current attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The onslaught continues in 2009, with struggles in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. "So thats a fine reason," as Branch recommended in 2008, "for you to devote a day -- at the museum or in a pew, at a lecture hall or in a movie theater, out in the park or indoors on a badminton court -- to learn about, discuss, and celebrate Darwin and his contributions to science, and to demonstrate your support of teaching evolution in the public schools."

For the Darwin Day Celebration website's registry of events, visit:

For information about Evolution Weekend, visit:

For Branch's Darwin Day 2008 blog post, visit:


As the Texas state board of education prepared to vote on a revised set of state science standards, two organizations -- one secular, one religious -- joined forces to produce a new website, Teach Them Science, in order to advocate for a twenty-first-century science education for the students in Texas's public schools. Sponsored by the Center for Inquiry Austin and the Clergy Letter Project, the Teach Them Science website is intended to empower parents, educators, and concerned citizens to rally in support of the new standards, which treat evolution as the central and unifying principle of the biological sciences that it is. As NCSE previously reported, however, the current draft of the standards will be considered by the state board of education at its January 21-23, 2009, meeting, and it is likely that the creationist faction on the board will seek to restore language about "strengths and weaknesses" that was misused, in 2003, to try to undermine the treatment of evolution in biology textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas.

In a January 15, 2009, press release, Clare Wuellner, the executive director of CFI Austin, explained, "We knew people would care if they just knew what was happening. But too many people didn't know about this incredibly important issue. We decided to do something about it." As the press release observes, the Teach Them Science website "explains how curriculum is developed in Texas, provides a basic but accurate understanding of science, explains in simple terms why teaching evolution is essential to an effective science curriculum, explains the flaws in the SBOE's politically-motivated changes to the science curriculum, explains how teaching the alleged 'strengths and weaknesses' would actually teach students to think unscientifically, motivates parents, teachers and concerned citizens to become involved in the determination of what our children are taught, [and] gives the public tools to take action."

The Teach The Science website also emphasizes the fact that plenty of people of faith accept evolution, contrary to the misconception that evolution is intrinsically at odds with religious belief. "More than 12,000 clergy members can't be wrong," Michael Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, quipped in the same press release, adding, "Kids deserve to learn about the best scientists have to offer, and religion has nothing to fear." In supporting a scientifically appropriate and pedagogically responsible treatment of evolution in Texas's public schools, Teach Them Science joins Texas Citizens for Science, the Texas Freedom Network, the 21st Century Science Coalition, the Texas Academy of Science, the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, the Texas Science Education Leadership Association, and the Science Teachers Association of Texas.

For the Teach Them Science website, visit:

For the Teach Them Science press release, visit:

For information about the sponsors of Teach Them Science, visit:

For the websites of the organizations supporting science educaiton in Texas, visit:

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

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


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

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

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism

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

Newspaper claims suspect transformed into a goat


Fri Jan 23, 6:07 pm ET

LAGOS, Nigeria – One of Nigeria's biggest daily newspapers reported that police implicated a goat in an attempted automobile theft. In a front-page article on Friday, the Vanguard newspaper said that two men tried to steal a Mazda car two days earlier in Kwara State, with one suspect transforming himself into a goat as vigilantes cornered him.

The paper quoted police spokesman Tunde Mohammed as saying that while one suspect escaped, the other transformed into a goat as he was about to be apprehended.

The newspaper reported that police paraded the goat before journalists, and published a picture of the animal.

Police in the state couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Belief in black magic is widespread in Nigeria, particularly in far-flung rural areas.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Editorial: Uprooting Darwin's tree


21 January 2009
Magazine issue 2692. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.

For similar stories, visit the Editorials and Evolution Topic Guides

"THERE is nothing new to be discovered in physics." So said Lord Kelvin in 1900, shortly before the intellectual firestorm ignited by relativity and quantum mechanics proved him comprehensively wrong.

If anyone now thinks that biology is sorted, they are going to be proved wrong too. The more that genomics, bioinformatics and many other newer disciplines reveal about life, the more obvious it becomes that our present understanding is not up to the job. We now gaze on a biological world of mind-boggling complexity that exposes the shortcomings of familiar, tidy concepts such as species, gene and organism.

A particularly pertinent example is provided in this week's cover story - the uprooting of the tree of life which Darwin used as an organising principle and which has been a central tenet of biology ever since (see "Axing Darwin's tree"). Most biologists now accept that the tree is not a fact of nature - it is something we impose on nature in an attempt to make the task of understanding it more tractable. Other important bits of biology - notably development, ageing and sex - are similarly turning out to be much more involved than we ever imagined. As evolutionary biologist Michael Rose at the University of California, Irvine, told us: "The complexity of biology is comparable to quantum mechanics."

It is now accepted that the tree of life is something we impose on nature in an attempt to make the task of understanding it more tractable

Biology has been here before. Although Darwin himself, with the help of Alfred Russel Wallace, triggered a revolution in the mid-1800s, there was a second revolution in the 1930s and 1940s when Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright and others incorporated Mendelian genetics and placed evolution on a firm mathematical foundation.

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that "New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong". Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.

Nor will the new work do anything to diminish the standing of Darwin himself. When it came to gravitation and the laws of motion, Isaac Newton didn't see the whole picture either, but he remains one of science's giants. In the same way, Darwin's ideas will prove influential for decades to come.

So here's to the impending revolution in biology. Come Darwin's 300th anniversary there will be even more to celebrate.

From issue 2692 of New Scientist magazine, page 5. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
Browse past issues of New Scientist magazine

Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life


21 January 2009 by Graham Lawton

Magazine issue 2692. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
For similar stories, visit the Evolution Topic Guide

Read our related editorial: Uprooting Darwin's tree

IN JULY 1837, Charles Darwin had a flash of inspiration. In his study at his house in London, he turned to a new page in his red leather notebook and wrote, "I think". Then he drew a spindly sketch of a tree.

As far as we know, this was the first time Darwin toyed with the concept of a "tree of life" to explain the evolutionary relationships between different species. It was to prove a fruitful idea: by the time he published On The Origin of Species 22 years later, Darwin's spindly tree had grown into a mighty oak. The book contains numerous references to the tree and its only diagram is of a branching structure showing how one species can evolve into many.

The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth...

The tree-of-life concept was absolutely central to Darwin's thinking, equal in importance to natural selection, according to biologist W. Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Without it the theory of evolution would never have happened. The tree also helped carry the day for evolution. Darwin argued successfully that the tree of life was a fact of nature, plain for all to see though in need of explanation. The explanation he came up with was evolution by natural selection.

Ever since Darwin the tree has been the unifying principle for understanding the history of life on Earth. At its base is LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all living things, and out of LUCA grows a trunk, which splits again and again to create a vast, bifurcating tree. Each branch represents a single species; branching points are where one species becomes two. Most branches eventually come to a dead end as species go extinct, but some reach right to the top - these are living species. The tree is thus a record of how every species that ever lived is related to all others right back to the origin of life.

...The green and budding twigs may represent existing species, and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species

For much of the past 150 years, biology has largely concerned itself with filling in the details of the tree. "For a long time the holy grail was to build a tree of life," says Eric Bapteste, an evolutionary biologist at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, France. A few years ago it looked as though the grail was within reach. But today the project lies in tatters, torn to pieces by an onslaught of negative evidence. Many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded. "We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality," says Bapteste. That bombshell has even persuaded some that our fundamental view of biology needs to change.

So what happened? In a nutshell, DNA. The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 opened up new vistas for evolutionary biology. Here, at last, was the very stuff of inheritance into which was surely written the history of life, if only we knew how to decode it. Thus was born the field of molecular evolution, and as techniques became available to read DNA sequences and those of other biomolecules such as RNA and proteins, its pioneers came to believe that it would provide proof positive of Darwin's tree of life. The basic idea was simple: the more closely related two species are (or the more recently their branches on the tree split), the more alike their DNA, RNA and protein sequences ought to be.

It started well. The first molecules to be sequenced were RNAs found in ribosomes, the cell's protein-making machines. In the 1970s, by comparing RNA sequences from various plants, animals and microorganisms, molecular biologists began to sketch the outlines of a tree. This led to, among other successes, the unexpected discovery of a previously unknown major branch of the tree of life, the unicellular archaea, which were previously thought to be bacteria.

By the mid-1980s there was great optimism that molecular techniques would finally reveal the universal tree of life in all its glory. Ironically, the opposite happened.

The problems began in the early 1990s when it became possible to sequence actual bacterial and archaeal genes rather than just RNA. Everybody expected these DNA sequences to confirm the RNA tree, and sometimes they did but, crucially, sometimes they did not. RNA, for example, might suggest that species A was more closely related to species B than species C, but a tree made from DNA would suggest the reverse.

Which was correct? Paradoxically, both - but only if the main premise underpinning Darwin's tree was incorrect. Darwin assumed that descent was exclusively "vertical", with organisms passing traits down to their offspring. But what if species also routinely swapped genetic material with other species, or hybridised with them? Then that neat branching pattern would quickly degenerate into an impenetrable thicket of interrelatedness, with species being closely related in some respects but not others.

We now know that this is exactly what happens. As more and more genes were sequenced, it became clear that the patterns of relatedness could only be explained if bacteria and archaea were routinely swapping genetic material with other species - often across huge taxonomic distances - in a process called horizontal gene transfer (HGT).

At first HGT was assumed to be a minor player, transferring only "optional extra" functions such as antibiotic resistance. Core biological functions such as DNA replication and protein synthesis were still thought to be passed on vertically. For a while, this allowed evolutionary biologists to accept HGT without jeopardising their precious tree of life; HGT was merely noise blurring its edges. We now know that view is wrong. "There's promiscuous exchange of genetic information across diverse groups," says Michael Rose, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine.

From tree to web As it became clear that HGT was a major factor, biologists started to realise the implications for the tree concept. As early as 1993, some were proposing that for bacteria and archaea the tree of life was more like a web. In 1999, Doolittle made the provocative claim that "the history of life cannot properly be represented as a tree" (Science, vol 284, p 2124). "The tree of life is not something that exists in nature, it's a way that humans classify nature," he says.

Thus began the final battle over the tree. Many researchers stuck resolutely to their guns, creating ever more sophisticated computer programs to cut through the noise and recover the One True Tree. Others argued just as forcefully that the quest was quixotic and should be abandoned.

The battle came to a head in 2006. In an ambitious study, a team led by Peer Bork of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, examined 191 sequenced genomes from all three domains of life - bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes (complex organisms with their genetic material packaged in a nucleus) - and identified 31 genes that all the species possessed and which showed no signs of ever having been horizontally transferred. They then generated a tree by comparing the sequences of these "core" genes in everything from E. coli to elephants. The result was the closest thing yet to the perfect tree, Bork claimed (Science, vol 311, p 1283).

Other researchers begged to differ. Among them were Tal Dagan and William Martin at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, who pointed out that in numerical terms a core of 31 genes is almost insignificant, representing just 1 per cent of a typical bacterial genome and more like 0.1 per cent of an animal's. That hardly constitutes a mighty oak or even a feeble sapling - more like a tiny twig completely buried by a giant web. Dagan dubbed Bork's result "the tree of 1 per cent" and argued that the study inadvertently provided some of the best evidence yet that the tree-of-life concept was redundant (Genome Biology, vol 7, p 118).

The debate remains polarised today. Bork's group continue to work on the tree of life and he continues to defend the concept. "Our point of view is that yes, there has been lots of HGT, but the majority of genes contain this tree signal," Bork says. The real problem is that our techniques are not yet good enough to tease that signal out, he says.

Meanwhile, those who would chop down the tree of life continue to make progress. The true extent of HGT in bacteria and archaea (collectively known as prokaryotes) has now been firmly established. Last year, Dagan and colleagues examined more than half a million genes from 181 prokaryotes and found that 80 per cent of them showed signs of horizontal transfer (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, p 10039).

Surprisingly, HGT also turns out to be the rule rather than the exception in the third great domain of life, the eukaryotes. For a start, it is increasingly accepted that the eukaryotes originated by the fusion of two prokaryotes, one bacterial and the other archaeal, forming this part of the tree into a ring rather than a branch (Nature, vol 41, p 152).

The neat picture of a branching tree is further blurred by a process called endosymbiosis. Early on in their evolution, eukaryotes are thought to have engulfed two free-living prokaryotes. One of these gave rise to the cellular power generators called mitochondria while the other was the precursor of the chloroplasts, in which photosynthesis takes place. These "endosymbionts" later transferred large chunks of their genomes into those of their eukaryote hosts, creating hybrid genomes. As if that weren't complicated enough, some early eukaryotic lineages apparently swallowed one another and amalgamated their genomes, creating yet another layer of horizontal transfer (Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol, 23, p 268).

This genetic free-for-all continues to this day. The vast majority of eukaryote species are unicellular - amoebas, algae and the rest of what used to be known as "protists" (Journal of Systematics and Evolution, vol 46, p263). These microscopic beasties have lifestyles that resemble prokaryotes and, according to Jan Andersson of the University of Uppsala in Sweden, their rates of HGT are often comparable to those in bacteria. The more we learn about microbes, the clearer it becomes that the history of life cannot be adequately represented by a tree.

Hang on, you may be thinking. Microbes might be swapping genes left, right and centre, what does that matter? Surely the stuff we care about - animals and plants - can still be accurately represented by a tree, so what's the problem?

Well, for a start, biology is the science of life, and to a first approximation life is unicellular. Microbes have been living on Earth for at least 3.8 billion years; multicellular organisms didn't appear until about 630 million years ago. Even today bacteria, archaea and unicellular eukaryotes make up at least 90 per cent of all known species, and by sheer weight of numbers almost all of the living things on Earth are microbes. It would be perverse to claim that the evolution of life on Earth resembles a tree just because multicellular life evolved that way. "If there is a tree of life, it's a small anomalous structure growing out of the web of life," says John Dupré, a philosopher of biology at the University of Exeter, UK.

More fundamentally, recent research suggests that the evolution of animals and plants isn't exactly tree-like either. "There are problems even in that little corner," says Dupré. Having uprooted the tree of unicellular life, biologists are now taking their axes to the remaining branches.

For example, hybridisation clearly plays an important role in the evolution of plants. According to Loren Rieseberg, a botanist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, around 14 per cent of living plant species are the product of the fusion of two separate lineages.

Hybrid humans Some researchers are also convinced that hybridisation has been a major driving force in animal evolution (see "Natural born chimeras", and "Two into one"), and that the process is ongoing. "It is really common," says James Mallet, an evolutionary biologist at University College London. "Ten per cent of all animals regularly hybridise with other species." This is especially true in rapidly evolving lineages with lots of recently diverged species - including our own. There is evidence that early modern humans hybridised with our extinct relatives, such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol 363, p 2813).

Hybridisation isn't the only force undermining the multicellular tree: it is becoming increasingly apparent that HGT plays an unexpectedly big role in animals too. As ever more multicellular genomes are sequenced, ever more incongruous bits of DNA are turning up. Last year, for example, a team at the University of Texas at Arlington found a peculiar chunk of DNA in the genomes of eight animals - the mouse, rat, bushbaby, little brown bat, tenrec, opossum, anole lizard and African clawed frog - but not in 25 others, including humans, elephants, chickens and fish. This patchy distribution suggests that the sequence must have entered each genome independently by horizontal transfer (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, p 17023).

Other cases of HGT in multicellular organisms are coming in thick and fast. HGT has been documented in insects, fish and plants, and a few years ago a piece of snake DNA was found in cows. The most likely agents of this genetic shuffling are viruses, which constantly cut and paste DNA from one genome into another, often across great taxonomic distances. In fact, by some reckonings, 40 to 50 per cent of the human genome consists of DNA imported horizontally by viruses, some of which has taken on vital biological functions (New Scientist, 27 August 2008, p 38). The same is probably true of the genomes of other big animals. "The number of horizontal transfers in animals is not as high as in microbes, but it can be evolutionarily significant," says Bapteste.

Nobody is arguing - yet - that the tree concept has outlived its usefulness in animals and plants. While vertical descent is no longer the only game in town, it is still the best way of explaining how multicellular organisms are related to one another - a tree of 51 per cent, maybe. In that respect, Darwin's vision has triumphed: he knew nothing of micro-organisms and built his theory on the plants and animals he could see around him.

Even so, it is clear that the Darwinian tree is no longer an adequate description of how evolution in general works. "If you don't have a tree of life, what does it mean for evolutionary biology?" asks Bapteste. "At first it's very scary... but in the past couple of years people have begun to free their minds." Both he and Doolittle are at pains to stress that downgrading the tree of life doesn't mean that the theory of evolution is wrong - just that evolution is not as tidy as we would like to believe. Some evolutionary relationships are tree-like; many others are not. "We should relax a bit on this," says Doolittle. "We understand evolution pretty well - it's just that it is more complex than Darwin imagined. The tree isn't the only pattern."

Others, however, don't think it is time to relax. Instead, they see the uprooting of the tree of life as the start of something bigger. "It's part of a revolutionary change in biology," says Dupré. "Our standard model of evolution is under enormous pressure. We're clearly going to see evolution as much more about mergers and collaboration than change within isolated lineages."

Rose goes even further. "The tree of life is being politely buried, we all know that," he says. "What's less accepted is that our whole fundamental view of biology needs to change." Biology is vastly more complex than we thought, he says, and facing up to this complexity will be as scary as the conceptual upheavals physicists had to take on board in the early 20th century.

If he is right, the tree concept could become biology's equivalent of Newtonian mechanics: revolutionary and hugely successful in its time, but ultimately too simplistic to deal with the messy real world. "The tree of life was useful," says Bapteste. "It helped us to understand that evolution was real. But now we know more about evolution, it's time to move on."

Read our related editorial: Uprooting Darwin's tree

Two species become one

It could be time to ditch the old idea that hybrids are sterile individuals that cannot possibly have played a role in shaping the history of life on Earth. Hybridisation is a significant force in animal evolution, according to retired marine biologist Donald Williamson, formerly of the University of Liverpool, UK. His conclusion comes from a lifetime studying marine animals such as starfish, sea urchins and molluscs, many of which lead a strange double life, starting out as larvae and metamorphosing into adult forms.

The conventional explanation for metamorphosis is that it evolved gradually, with the juvenile form becoming specialised for feeding and the adult for mating, until they barely resembled each other. Williamson thinks otherwise. He points out that marine larvae have five basic forms and can be organised into a family tree based on shared characteristics. Yet this tree bears no relationship to the family tree of adults: near-identical larvae often give rise to adults from different lineages, while some closely related adults have utterly unrelated larvae.


It's as if each species was randomly assigned one of the larval forms - which is exactly what Williamson argues happened. He believes metamorphosis arose repeatedly during evolution by the random fusion of two separate species, with one of the partners assuming the role of the larva and the other that of the adult.

If that sounds unlikely, Williamson points out that many marine species breed by casting their eggs and sperm into the sea and hoping for the best, giving ample opportunity for cross-species hybridisation. Normally nothing comes of this, he says, but "once in a million years it works: the sperm of one species fertilises another and two species become one". The most likely way for this biological mash-up to function is if the resulting chimera expresses its two genomes sequentially, producing a two-stage life history with metamorphosis in the middle.

This explains many anomalies in marine biology, says Williamson. His star witness is the starfish Luidia sarsi, which starts life as a small larva with a tiny starfish inside. As the larva grows, the starfish migrates to the outside and when the larva settles on the seabed, they separate. This is perfectly normal for starfish, but in Luidia something remarkable then happens. Instead of degenerating, the larva swims off and lives for several months as an independent animal. "I can't see how one animal with one genome could do that," says Williamson. "I think the larval genome and the adult genome are different."

Natural born chimeras

The idea that microbes regularly swap portions of genetic code with individuals from another species doesn't seem so far-fetched (see main story). But could the same process also have shaped the evolution of multicellular animals? In 1985, biologist Michael Syvanen of the University of California, Davis, predicted that it did (Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol 112, p 333). Back then there was no way to test that claim, but there is now.

Syvanen recently compared 2000 genes that are common to humans, frogs, sea squirts, sea urchins, fruit flies and nematodes. In theory, he should have been able to use the gene sequences to construct an evolutionary tree showing the relationships between the six animals.

He failed. The problem was that different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories. This was especially true of sea-squirt genes.

Conventionally, sea squirts - also known as tunicates - are lumped together with frogs, humans and other vertebrates in the phylum Chordata, but the genes were sending mixed signals. Some genes did indeed cluster within the chordates, but others indicated that tunicates should be placed with sea urchins, which aren't chordates. "Roughly 50 per cent of its genes have one evolutionary history and 50 per cent another," Syvanen says.

The most likely explanation for this, he argues, is that tunicates are chimeras, created by the fusion of an early chordate and an ancestor of the sea urchins around 600 million years ago.

"We've just annihilated the tree of life. It's not a tree any more, it's a different topology entirely," says Syvanen. "What would Darwin have made of that?"

Graham Lawton is features editor of New Scientist

From issue 2692 of New Scientist magazine, page 34-39. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.

Browse past issues of New Scientist magazine

In Texas, a Line in the Curriculum Revives Evolution Debate


By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr. Published: January 21, 2009

AUSTIN, Tex. — The latest round in a long-running battle over how evolution should be taught in Texas schools began in earnest Wednesday as the State Board of Education heard impassioned testimony from scientists and social conservatives on revising the science curriculum.

The debate here has far-reaching consequences; Texas is one of the nation's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material.

Many biologists and teachers said they feared that the board would force textbook publishers to include what skeptics see as weaknesses in Darwin's theory to sow doubt about science and support the Biblical version of creation.

"These weaknesses that they bring forward are decades old, and they have been refuted many, many times over," Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, said after testifying. "It's an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the classroom in an attempt to get students to reject evolution."

In the past, the conservatives on the education board have lacked the votes to change textbooks. This year, both sides say, the final vote, in March, is likely to be close.

Even as federal courts have banned the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in biology courses, social conservatives have gained 7 of 15 seats on the Texas board in recent years, and they enjoy the strong support of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.

The chairman of the board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist, pushed in 2003 for a more skeptical version of evolution to be presented in the state's textbooks, but could not get a majority to vote with him. Dr. McLeroy has said he does not believe in Darwin's theory and thinks that Earth's appearance is a recent geologic event, thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion as scientists contend.

On the surface, the debate centers on a passage in the state's curriculum that requires students to critique all scientific theories, exploring "the strengths and weaknesses" of each. Texas has stuck to that same standard for 20 years, having originally passed it to please religious conservatives. In practice, teachers rarely pay attention to it.

This year, however, a panel of teachers assigned to revise the curriculum proposed dropping those words, urging students instead to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence."

Scientists and advocates for religious freedom say the battle over the curriculum is the tip of a spear. Social conservatives, the critics argue, have tried to use the "strengths and weaknesses" standard to justify exposing students to religious objections in the guise of scientific discourse.

"The phrase 'strengths and weaknesses' has been spread nationally as a slogan to bring creationism in through the back door," said Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science in Education, a California group that opposes watering down evolution in biology classes.

Already, legislators in six states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina — have considered legislation requiring classrooms to be open to "views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory," according to a petition from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent-design movement.

Stephen C. Meyer, an expert on the history of science and a director at the Discovery Institute, denied that the group advocated a Biblical version of creation. Rather, Mr. Meyer said, it is fighting for academic freedom and against what it sees as a fanatical loyalty to Darwin among biologists, akin to a secular religion.

Testifying before the board, he asserted, for instance, that evolution had trouble explaining the Cambrian Explosion, a period of rapid diversification that evidence suggests began about 550 million years ago and gave rise to most groups of complex organisms and animal forms.

Of the Texas curriculum standards, Mr. Meyer said, "This kind of language is really important for protecting teachers who want to address this subject with integrity in the sense of allowing students to hear about dissenting opinions."

But several biologists who appeared in the hearing room said the objections raised by Mr. Meyer and some board members were baseless. The majority of evidence collected over the last 150 years supports Darwin, and few dissenting opinions have survived a review by scientists.

"Every single thing they are representing as a weakness is a misrepresentation of science," said David M. Hillis, a professor of biology at the University of Texas. "These are science skeptics. These are people with religious and political agendas."

Many of the dozens of people who crowded into the hearing room, however, seemed unimpressed with the body of scientific evidence supporting evolution.

"Textbooks today treat it as more than a theory, even though its evidence has been found to be stained with half-truths, deception and hoaxes," said Paul Berry Lively, 42, a mechanical engineer from Houston who brought along his teenage son. "Darwinian evolution is not a proven fact."

Other conservative parents told board members that their children had been intimidated and ridiculed by biology teachers when they questioned evolution. Some asserted that they knew biology teachers who were afraid to bring up theories about holes in Darwin's theory.

Business leaders, meanwhile, said Texas would have trouble attracting highly educated workers and their families if the state's science programs were seen as a laughingstock among biologists.

"The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all," said Eric Hennenhoefer, who owns Obsidian Software.

More Articles in Education

A version of this article appeared in print on January 22, 2009, on page A17 of the New York edition.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Vote could impact teaching of evolution in Texas



Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Jan. 22, 2009, 8:11AM

AUSTIN — Science and religion collide on Wednesday when the State Board of Education takes a preliminary vote on curriculum standards that could impact the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools for the next decade.

The argument hinges on a single word: weaknesses.

A panel of science experts has recommended that teachers no longer be required to present the "strengths and weaknesses" of various theories, including evolution.

Instead, the proposed science curriculum standards would encourage students to use critical thinking, scientific reasoning and problem solving to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.

Some parents and experts insist that the "weaknesses" of scientific theory be taught as a matter of academic freedom, scientific inquiry and a search for truth.

Others contend the "weaknesses" provision is simply a back-door attempt to legitimize "creationism" or "intelligent design" — a concept that an intelligent being is responsible for the complex structure of biology rather than chance or undirected natural processes.

A narrow board vote is expected, with social conservatives intent on keeping the existing "strengths and weaknesses" language in the science curriculum standards.


Evolution is a religion, not a provable science


Grace Discher

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 4:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 8:30 a.m.

When debating the validity of Creationism, versus Evolution, many evolutionists seem to believe that the conflict is a disagreement between a well-proven scientific fact and the Christian religion. In reality, it is a battle between two opposing religions and their subsequent world views. Evolution is as much a faith-based religion as Christianity, Islam, etc.

Scientific philosopher and ardent Darwinian atheist Michael Ruse has candidly admitted this. "Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion-a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality… Evolution is a religion."

When evolutionists urge "misled" Creationists "...to understand the difference between science and faith," they obviously consider Evolution to be "science," rather than "faith." However, true "science" must be observable and repeatable. No witness was present as life "evolved" into its present state; therefore, these events were not observed and cannot be repeated. The evolutionary theory falls under "historical" science: man's interpretation, based on his world view, of unobservable, unrepeatable events. Evolution must be believed by faith: "…firm belief in something for which there is no proof," and Evolution cannot be proved.

"Religion" is a "…system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith." Surely this description fits the theory of Evolution. "Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow." (Theodosius Dobzhansky) This statement is surprising, if evolution is merely a scientific theory.

In conclusion, Evolution is a religion, promoted, not because of scientific fact, nor from overwhelming proof, but because it satisfies man's desires. Namely, if all life evolved through random chance or necessity, then man is the highest of all evolved creatures. He is God, and there is no higher authority.

I trust that the Evolutionists will apply their own advice and "…use their logical reasoning to understand the difference between science and faith."

This story appeared in print on page A8

Texas wrestles with science standards, evolution


By APRIL CASTRO – 5 hours ago

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Experts and activists concerned about the way evolution is taught in Texas' public schools made their case before the state's board of education.

Dozens of people, including a six-member expert review panel, lined up to testify as the board considers new science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade. The standards adopted also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks.

The crowd — as well as the review panel — was sharply split on the proposal to drop language in the current curriculum that requires teachers to address "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory.

Instead, a panel of science experts recommended that students use critical thinking, scientific reasoning and problem solving to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.

Critics say the use of the word "weaknesses" has been used to undermine Darwin's theory of evolution and promote creationism — or intelligent design.

"In science education, 'weaknesses' has become a code word in the culture wars to attack evolution and promote creationism," said Kathy Miller, president of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network. "If it weren't, we wouldn't see this crusade by some of the board members and outside pressure groups to keep this single word in the science standards."

Critics of dropping the "weaknesses" mandate blame "left-wing ideology," for trying to stifle free speech. The review panel, which was appointed by the education board, has suggested putting similar language back in.

"The board is being asked to choose between free and open scientific inquiry and censorship," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Free Market Foundation. "That's an easy choice."

Last year, legislation permitting criticism of Darwinism in schools was introduced in Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama, Michigan and Louisiana, according to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that supports teaching students about the criticism of evolution.

A tentative vote in Texas is expected later this week, but the board is not expected to make a final decision on the curriculum proposal until March.

Much of Wednesday's testimony focused on the scientific evidence of evolution.

"I hope you understand now that there are good reasons to think that, yes, evolution has weaknesses that reasonable people can see, that, yes, those weaknesses do really influence the theory," said Ralph Seelke, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, who served on the review panel.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, said the proposal to drop the inclusion of weaknesses is a "superior critical thinking standard."

"Abandoning the inaccurate strengths and weaknesses language does not encourage the singling out of evolution for special treatment," Scott said.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press

Ginkgo herbal remedy doesn't prevent dementia


BMJ Group, Thursday 20 November 2008

Hopes that a commonly used herbal remedy could help prevent Alzheimer's disease have been dashed, in a big, good-quality new study.

What do we know already?

The herbal remedy ginkgo biloba is an extract of leaves from the Chinese maidenhair tree. It has been used for many years as a traditional treatment for memory problems.

Researchers hoped ginkgo might help people with Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia, or stop people getting dementia in the first place. They thought it might protect against the build up of protein plaques in the brain. These plaques seem to play a part in causing Alzheimer's disease. But so far, a lot of the research into ginkgo hasn't been very good, so it's not clear whether or not it works.

Researchers have now done a high-quality study comparing ginkgo biloba with a dummy (placebo) treatment, to see whether it could protect older people from getting dementia.

What does the new study say?

The results are disappointing. People who took ginkgo for six years were just as likely to get dementia as people who took the placebo.

During the study, 523 of 3,069 people were diagnosed with dementia. About 16 in 100 people taking a placebo got dementia, compared with 18 in 100 people taking ginkgo.

The people in the study were all over 75, and didn't have dementia at the start of the study. They were tested every six months for signs of dementia.

How reliable are the findings?

The findings should be very reliable. The researchers did a randomised controlled trial, which is the best type of study for seeing whether a treatment works. They checked whether people took their medicines or not, and they included enough people in the trial to be confident their results weren't just down to chance.

Where does the study come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from several US universities, including the University of Virginia. It was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It was paid for by grants from several organisations, including the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the US.

What does this mean for me?

Taking ginkgo biloba is unlikely to help prevent Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia. However, the study doesn't show whether ginkgo can be helpful for memory generally, or whether it helps people who already have dementia.

From: DeKosky S, Williamson J, Fitzpatrick A, et al. Ginkgo biloba for prevention of dementia: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2008; 300: 2253-2262.

To find out more about Alzheimer's disease and similar conditions, see our information on dementia.

© BMJ Publishing Group Limited ("BMJ Group") 2009

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Testimony scheduled Wednesday in curriculum debate


© 2009 The Associated Press
Jan. 20, 2009, 1:58PM

AUSTIN — The debate over teaching evolution in public schools will take center stage Wednesday during a State Board of Education hearing on proposed revisions to Texas' science curriculum.

The board is in the process of deciding what language will guide Texas science teachers in the classroom for the next 10 years. The evolution portion has drawn attention from both sides of the debate.

The current curriculum requires students be taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories, wording that some say has been used to undermine the theory of evolution.

But a six-member panel has recommended the curriculum be changed to say students should be able to "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations" of scientific theory. Religious freedom activists and scientists are protesting the change.

The panel, which will testify before the board, is split on whether to approve the final draft, according to a report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Two of the reviewers are Discovery Institute members; the third is a chemistry professor at Baylor University.

The reviewers who support evolution, all Texas scientists and biology teachers, don't want any such phrase included in the curriculum, said Kathy Miller, a spokeswoman for the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based nonprofit group that opposes religious influence on public education.

The 21st Century Science Coalition, formed by Texas scientists and educators who say politics and ideology should not influence science education, criticizes what it sees as attempts to water down or censor scientific information. An online petition was signed by almost 1,400 scientists and teachers.

Federal courts have ruled against forcing the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.

The State Board of Education is expected to vote on the proposal in March.

Standards adopted by the board will remain in place for the next decade.


On the Net:

The proposed recommendations, http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/scienceTEKS.html

The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, http://www.discovery.org/csc/texas

The Texas Freedom Network, http://www.tfn.org

The 21st Century Science Coalition, http://www.texasscientists.org

Evolution Disclaimer Proposed for Miss. Textbooks


By Katherine T. Phan
Christian Post Reporter
Tue, Jan. 20 2009 05:43 PM EST

A Mississippi lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require textbooks to include a disclaimer describing evolution as a "controversial theory" and advising students to keep an "open mind" to other explanations for the origin of life.

Rep. Gary Chism introduced the legislation, House Bill 25, earlier this month. The bill has been referred to two committees, Education and Judiciary A.

The proposal, if enacted, would require the State Board of Education to include the 200-word disclaimer on the inside front cover of textbooks that include evolution topics.

"The word 'theory' has many meanings, including: systematically organized knowledge; abstract reasoning; a speculative idea or plan; or a systematic statement of principles," the opening paragraph of the bill states. "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," the proposal continues.

"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."

The textbook disclaimer would end with the following advice: "Study hard and keep an open mind."

Other states have proposed similar disclaimers.

Alabama is currently the only state that requires a disclaimer on evolution be included in science textbooks discussing the topic. The most recent version of the text was adopted by the Alabama State Board of Education in 2005.

Much of the language of the Mississippi proposal has been adopted from the 1995 and 2001 versions of the Alabama disclaimer, according to the National Center for Science Education, an organization which advocates the teaching of evolution in public schools.

In March 2002, the Cobb County School District in Georgia approved a short disclaimer on evolution for the inside front cover of biology and other science textbooks.

"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered," the label stated.

The issue went to court after four parents filed suit against the district. A federal district court judged ruled that the disclaimers were unconstitutional. The district appealed the decision. The case was referred by an appeals court to a district court for clarification but the district later agreed in a settlement not to make any disclaimers about evolution.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Law creates pride in La.


January 20, 2009

I thank our legislators and governor for taking a stand for God. Our teachers will be able to teach evolution is only a theory. By teaching the option of creationism, I pray our children will realize God created them.

A Monroe attorney said it would be an economic catastrophe for Louisiana to be identified internationally as having passed anti-science legislation. He said Louisiana will suffer educational isolation and economic isolation.

If you polled Louisiana and asked everyone if they believe in God, probably over 95 percent would say yes. If you believe in God, you have to believe in the Bible.

The Bible says in 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive my sin and will heal their land."

If we will just do what God says, He will heal Louisiana. We will have more jobs than we have people to fill them. We need to start seeking God today. We need to start teaching our children the truth at home and in the classroom.

Let's avoid a real economic catastrophe and put our trust in the One who really created the heavens, the earth and each one of us. It makes me proud to live in Louisiana where we have a government willing to stand for God. Who has enough faith to believe we came from a monkey?

Donnie Brown

West Monroe

Louisiana Creates: New Pro-Intelligent Design Rules for Teachers


Last year, Louisiana passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, a law that many scientists and educators said was a thinly veiled attempt to allow creationism and its variants into the science classroom. On Tuesday, the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted a policy that sharpens those fears, giving teachers license to use materials outside of the regular curriculum to teach "controversial" scientific theories including evolution, origins of life, and global warming. Backers of the law, including the Louisiana Family Forum, say it is intended to foster critical thinking in students. Opponents insist its only purpose is to provide a loophole for creationists to attack the teaching of evolution.

"We fully expect to see the Discovery Institute's book, Explore Evolution, popping up in school districts across the state*," says Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, is a proponent of Intelligent Design. In a statement on the institute's Web site, its education analyst Casey Luskin hailed the new policy as a "victory for Louisiana students and teachers." The policy will now be printed in the Louisiana Handbook for School Administrators, which public school officials use as a guide.

State education officials tasked with translating last year's law into policy drafted a document that explicitly prohibits teachers from teaching intelligent design, but on 2 December, board members deferred a scheduled vote. Forrest says the advocates of the law used the delay to pressure education officials to remove that language and a disclaimer saying that religion should not be taught under the guise of critical thinking. On 13 January, the 11-member board unanimously approved a policy that contains no such caveats.

Education officials have defended the revision, arguing that it already includes language barring the use of materials that promote any religious doctrine. But Patsye Peebles, a retired science teacher who served on a committee that helped the education department draft the original policy language, thinks otherwise. "The creationists got what they wanted. We will have to redouble our efforts to educate our teachers and get them to teach good science," Peebles says.

—Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

(*This item has been corrected. The original item quoted Forrest incorrectly.)

Go here for the Discovery Institute's take.

Posted on January 15, 2009 5:44 PM in Education Permalink

Evolution Debate Settled By A&M, To A Degree


By Paul Knight in Edumacation Friday, Jan. 16 2009 @ 4:10PM

There's less than a week to go before the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design showdown in Austin, and scientists at Texas A&M - the Aggies - have dropped a bombshell.

They've proven evolution exists.

Kind of.

Aggie researcher and assistant professor Katy Kao has reportedly developed "the first direct evidence of aspects [of the evolutionary process], which up until now have remained mostly theory."

Problem solved!!

Kao is on a scientists' retreat this weekend, so Hair Balls spoke with Ryan Garcia, a spokesman in the chemical engineering department at A&M, for some clarification.

"I don't think she'd be comfortable saying that we've flat out proven evolution, but she will say that it's really cool because she has a visual view of it," Garcia says. "There are certain adaptations that are required in an organism's evolution that, prior to now, weren't accounted for. It had certainly been theorized, but never shown in the lab."

According to Garcia, Kao watched evolution, and was able to document -- using DNA-based testing -- how and when a cell adapted to its environment.

"She can see different populations rise and fall under the microscope, and she definitely set out to evolve these things generation after generation," Garcia says. "One of the other professors here said, 'Only if Darwin would've looked under a microscope.'"

But here's the catch: Kao obtained the evidence in yeast cells, which are asexual. From monkey to man, the reproduction was sexual all the way -- in theory, still.

"Research scientists don't like to speculate on things beyond what they've looked at, but she says it does say some things about the evolutionary process that weren't proven before," Garcia says. "When you start getting into talks about a creator and human beings, I will say this will not apply. If someone wants to make an inference, who knows?"

-- Paul Knight

Evolution's Evolution


Darwin's dangerous idea has adapted to modern biology

By Rachel Ehrenberg January 31st, 2009; Vol.175 #3 (p. 21)

Just a decade after he published On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin was already worrying about the evolution of his idea. In an 1869 letter to botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin lamented:

"If I lived twenty more years and was able to work, how I should have to modify the Origin, and how much the views on all points will have to be modified! Well, it is a beginning, and that is something."

Calling the Origin a mere "beginning" is like saying the Beatles were just a rock band or that Shakespeare wrote some decent plays. Darwin's gifts to science were radical. He not only proposed that all of Earth's diverse beings shared a common ancestry, but also described an elegant mechanism to explain how all that diverse life came to be. Darwin was a master of merging data from different disciplines, pain-stakingly drawing from zoology, botany, geology and paleontology to build a solid foundation for evolutionary biology. Today, 150 years later, scientists continue to grapple with ideas descended from that foundation. Still, Darwin's central tenets survive, fit enough to frame the questions posed by modern biology.

"He had great intuition," says Yale University's Michael Donoghue. "He's the guy we all envy."

Darwin's powers of observation and reason extended from microflora to megafauna; he could see the whole forest while scrutinizing the branches on the trees. His ideas illuminated life's development in the Earth's deep past and foreshadowed many scientific developments that would come in the future, including the modifications and refinements to his theory that scientists are still exploring. Yet, were Darwin alive today, his head might spin at the complexities entangling the expansion of his original ideas.

Evolutionary theory is not a well-preserved fossil in a dusty museum, but a thriving field of study pursued at lab benches, on beaches and in bogs. The exploding research program known as "evo-devo," for instance, has wed evolutionary theory to embryology and genetics, helping to unravel the evolution of organisms' structures and forms. Scientists are also reformulating ideas about evolution's pace, showing that

Darwin's idea that change happens gradually and incrementally doesn't always capture the whole story. Researchers are fleshing out Darwin's central idea of natural selection?—?discovering when it's the driver and when it takes a back seat. And along with investigating how selection operates on organisms?—?Darwin's unit of choice?—?scientists are also showing how it acts on groups, genes and behavior. Experts are still debating the very definition of a species.

The 'dangerous idea' Of course, Darwin was familiar with radical change. In his day most biologists (or "naturalists," then) believed that each species was individually created and forever immutable. But during his travels in the 1830s on her majesty's ship the Beagle, Darwin saw plants and animals and fossils?—?and distributions of all three?—?that just didn't square with the idea that species don't change.

"It was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me," he noted in his autobiography.

Upon his return to England, Darwin pored over his notes and "collected facts." Eventually he accepted the unacceptable and wrote, in 1844, to his friend Hooker: "At last gleams of light have come and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable."

That year Darwin penned his idea in a manuscript that remained unknown to the public until portions of it were presented to the Linnean Society in 1858. Subversive as it was, Darwin's proposal that species can change was not the first. Naturalists and philosophers had long been contemplating life's diversity. By the late 1700s, French naturalist Georges Cuvier had established that after great environmental change, some organisms got snuffed out, went kaput, extinct. A little later, zoologist and philosopher Jean Baptiste Lamarck proposed the notion of adaptation, explaining variation among organisms as a response to their environments. But Lamarck saw the change in organisms through time as a one-way path to perfection, from simple to increasingly complex, with humans at the pinnacle. His environment-caused variation was an excuse to explain why some organisms strayed from the "tendency toward perfection."

It took Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to recognize (independently) that variety was actually the spice of life, not its flaw. Both men had read the work of economist Thomas Malthus, who warned that food supplies could never keep up with growing populations. No matter what, some people would meet an early death. Darwin and Wallace both reasoned that beetles, birds and beech trees also have more babies than can survive and that variation among such offspring was important in determining who lived. Individuals who were better equipped for their environment than their siblings or neighbors would survive; the features that enabled their survival would be passed on to their kids.

Darwin called this process natural selection, and life evolved largely because of it, he argued in the Origin. (The word evolved appeared only once, the last word on the

Those similarities are repeatedly and presciently remarked upon by Darwin, who called morphology?—?the study of form?—?"the most interesting department of natural history, and may be said to be its very soul." In the Origin he writes: "What can be more curious that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of a horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?"

But only in recent years have evolution and embryology become integrated into a flourishing field dubbed "evo-devo," for evolutionary development, a research program investigating how bodies?—?their size, shape, color and different parts?—?evolve.

Body building

An early evo-devo milestone came in the 1980s when scientists learned that the genes for the body plan in fruit flies have counterparts in creatures as distantly related as humans, worms and yeast. As opposed to housekeeping genes that code for proteins involved in day-to-day living, these toolkit genes actually govern the construction of the house. Mutations in some fruit fly toolkit genes, for instance, transform a fly's antennae into legs.

Scientists are finding more and more cases where toolkit proteins do the same jobs in animals separated by many millions of years of evolution. The toolkit proteins in charge of building the contractile muscles that eventually become a pumping heart, for example, appear to be shared by flies and fish and even mammals.

Mining the DNA record has revealed that regulation of gene activity?—?often by stretches of DNA previously thought of as junk?—?is critical in shaping development. These regulatory regions of DNA command genes to roar, keep quiet or merely murmur?—?making lots, none or a little of the molecules they encode. Several plant traits that aided domestication are associated with changes in where, when and how much genes are turned on. Mutations in genes linked to this regulation process helped enlarge tomato's fruit, for example. Changes in regulation also get credit for the architectural shift from corn's shrubby progenitor to the single-stalk version that now grows as high as an elephant's eye.

DNA also allows scientists to penetrate the smokescreen often presented by anatomy. Many cave-dwelling fish, for example, who spend their lives in perpetual darkness, have lost their eyes and pigment, which puzzled Darwin (he ascribed the fishes' loss of eyes as "wholly to disuse"). But scientists have recently shown that the loss results from the careful coordination of gene activity?—?the eyes are actively "killed" during development. Why remains unknown.

Exploring the gulf between genes and an organism's observable physical and biochemical traits (its phenotype) has revealed a much more complex picture of selection and inheritance than sketched by Darwin. In his view, natural selection was a grim reaper whose scythe was the external environment. As the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould put it, the organism proposes, the environment disposes. But many scientists now view the developing body as an environment in constant conversation with itself. Rather than a one-way street from DNA to organism, scientists now talk about U-turns, crosstown buses and roundabouts.

"It's much more complicated than what we thought," says biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci of Stony Brook University. "Nonlinear interactions, branching, with lots of feedback. That's the new frontier."

For example, more and more scientists are investigating how environmental factors such as pH, diet or nurturing behaviors can change the way DNA is packaged. This packaging, which involves such features as the presence or absence of a chemical tag, can change gene activity, and these epigenetic patterns can be inherited. Such findings suggest "a bewildering increase in the complexity of the entire inheritance system," Pigliucci wrote recently in Evolution.

Other factors influencing the evolution of shapes and forms include the physical properties of cells.

Enlarge"Take a pool of water?—?we're familiar with it having a still surface," says Stuart Newman of New York Medical College in Valhalla. "If we agitate it, we can get waves or vortices?—?but it can't do any old thing. It's hard to get variety?—?there's only a few things it will do based on its physical properties."

Similarly, the clusters of cells in a rudimentary embryo can do only so much. One kind of perturbation might make them elongate, another might prompt a hollow cavity to form. Newman and his colleagues reported last year in Developmental Biology that when wings and legs begin to bud off a developing chicken embryo, a protein spurs the limb cells to become more cohesive than nearby nonlimb cells. This physical property of being differentially sticky can lead to the layers of tissues seen in embryos. Add some feedback loops and you can get repeating patterns, the kinds of patterns seen over and over again in animal body plans, such as the vertebrae of a backbone or a segmented abdomen.

Of course, even if physical properties can dictate some limits on form, you also need selection, says Newman. "There's still going to be a shakeout?—?you need selection on what can exist." But physics may have had much more to do with the evolution of innovations?—?the big leaps on the path of life?—?than Darwin had realized.

"Darwin wanted a worm to be an incremental worm, to build up little by little. But you don't have to put waves in the water one by one. If you use physics you can get segments in one generation with a feedback loop," Newman says. "You can get rapid transitions to novel forms with physics."

Not always gradual Darwin was not a fan of rapid transitions. In his view evolution acted through the relentless accumulation of tiny changes through vast spans of time. These gradual transitions are sometimes found in the fossil record, but plenty of times they are not. And that record also reveals exuberant bursts of innovation, such as the Cambrian explosion, a period of roughly 20 million years beginning about 520 million years ago. The major body plans found in most modern animal groups, such as arthropods and chordates, were established by the Cambrian, available fossil evidence suggests.

In 1971 Niles Eldredge proposed an explanation for these moments of great change, an idea he later expanded with Gould. Rather than evolution always proceeding as an "easy and inevitable result of mere existence, as something that unfolds in a natural and orderly fashion," Eldredge and Gould argued that it can happen in fits and starts. Organisms remaining unchanged for long periods of geologic time?—?the stability so often seen in the fossil record?—?was actually the norm. This general state of equilibrium is then on occasion punctuated by the emergence of new species.

Punctuated equilibrium (or punk-eke) considered the limited clues left at the geologic crime scene. Say you are a paleontologist and observe the same snail fossil in layer after layer of rock. Then in the next layer up, a different snail fossil appears. What went down? Darwin's gradualism can't be excluded; the rock layers represent millions of years and Snail One might have gradually changed into Snail Two, but the transitional snails never fossilized.

Eldredge and Gould were familiar with the work of biologist Ernst Mayr and geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who developed ideas on how species originate, laid out in Mayr's 1942 book Systematics and the Origin of Species. Punctuated equilibrium captured Mayr's idea of speciation?—?an isolated subpopulation accruing so many changes that it can no longer breed with its former population?—?and translated it into the language of the geologic record.

Mayr's ideas became a core part of the "modern synthesis," the merging of Darwinian selection with Mendelian genetics and paleontology during the 1920s through the 1940s. In the early 1900s, after the rediscovery of Mendel's pea experiments, scientists such as Thomas Hunt Morgan began experimenting with fruit flies and established that mutations could be passed along to the next generation. The 1920s brought scientists such as J.B.S. Haldane, Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright, who gave evolution a mathematical backbone. The field of population genetics was born; its tenets being that variation arises in populations through both random genetic mutation and recombination (sex), and evolution occurs when the gene frequencies in a population change through time. Dobzhansky's and Mayr's ideas on speciation rounded out the mix, laying a rich foundation for exploring how evolution proceeds.

Selection and chance

While adaptation was at the core of the modern synthesis, the mathematical musings of Fisher and Wright demonstrated that natural selection wasn't the only guest at evolution's cocktail hour. Chance also plays a role in determining the genes of the next generation.

The idea of natural selection "was brilliant, original, it was called the 'dangerous idea' because it was so powerful," says Futuyma. "But is that going to explain everything? No."

Recall the snail population that gets divided by a river and suppose that the original population was a mixture of red-shelled snails and brown-shelled snails. When the river runs through it and isolates a portion of the population, that new subpopulation?—?just by chance?—?might be mostly red snails.

Through time, the genes for red shells might dominate in this new population, or they might peter out?—?the ratio of brown to red snails will "drift" around. This genetic drift happens without selection?—?neither color gives either snail a leg up in that environment?—?yet the gene frequencies for different shell colors in the population are changing through time. That genetic drift?—?often called the evolutionary equivalent of statistical sampling error?—?can be a mechanism of evolution. Drift can also reduce the amount of variation in a population, especially if that population is small, leaving natural selection less raw material on which to act.

While the idea of genetic drift arose out of the math of the modern synthesis, it was largely seen as a sideshow to selection's starring role. But following the discovery in 1953 of DNA's structure, molecules grabbed the attention of many scientists; intense investigations of enzymes, other proteins and amino acids, protein building blocks, ensued. In the late 1960s geneticist Motoo Kimura and others began making the case that most changes at the molecular level were neutral?—?imparting no benefit, or harm?—?suggesting that genetic drift, not selection, was the prevailing evolutionary force.

Many scientists found Kimura's "neutral theory" tough to swallow, seeing it as relegating selection to the sidelines. But today scientists generally accept that the evolution of molecules may differ in some ways from the evolution of organisms. Selection is still a star, drift certainly has its place, and which has the dominant role is often a matter of circumstance and which level of the hierarchy is being examined.

Acknowledging mechanisms other than selection didn't minimize Darwin's contribution; rather it signaled a larger view of evolution. This refreshing breadth vitalizes many subspheres of evolutionary theory, including the question of where in the biological hierarchy that selection really does its business.

Russian nesting dolls

Darwin doggedly argued that selection acts on organisms, each individual engaged in a personal struggle for survival. Troubled by the sterile workers of a bee colony, he fumbled to explain how their existence did not "annihilate" his whole theory. Investigating "the" target of selection is still a productive if contentious field, but increasingly scientists are embracing a hierarchical view. Evolution can be a team sport, with selection acting above the level of individual, for the "good of the group." Selection can also act below the level of the organism?—?on genes and cells.

Sterile workers of a bee or termite nest who live in dedicated service to their queen, or a vampire bat who regurgitates blood for colony members who haven't had a meal, are examples of altruism?—?their behavior benefits other organisms, often at a cost. In the Darwinian, organism-focused view, altruism shouldn't evolve. But if selection can act at the level of groups (an idea broached by Darwin in The Descent of Man), a gang of altruists might have an advantage over a gang of selfish individuals.

However, if there is a cost to behaving kindly, then selfish individuals should have an advantage, which would eliminate altruism from the gene pool. In the 1960s, though,

scientists started thinking about altruism in terms of kin. If altruistic behavior benefits relatives, then even if an individual doesn't get to pass on its genes, its siblings might. "Kin selection" says that organisms will behave altruistically toward close relatives, a prediction borne out by research, including recent work showing that related male turkeys work together to attract females, even though only the dominant male might sire offspring.

While debate continues over where and how selection acts, many scientists advocate the "Russian nesting doll" approach that allows selection at numerous levels, including species, groups, individuals, cells and, of course, genes, as popularized by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

A similarly contentious (and productive) area of research focuses on the concept of "species" itself. Experts still debate whether Darwin concerned himself with actually defining species; many scientists argue that he viewed the category as an arbitrary point in the fuzzy, gradual divergence of lineages. In the past 50 years many species concepts have been proposed. A dominant approach, first championed by Mayr in animals (and later by botanist Verne Grant in plants), argues that species are real entities defined by their ability to interbreed. Yet some organisms snub this "biological species" concept. Among species with several populations over an extended range, it isn't unusual that populations near each other can successfully interbreed, while populations at the opposite ends of the range (or ring) are so divergent that they are incompatible. (Recent work on Ensatina salamanders of the Pacific Coast, a noted example of a ring species, indicates both current and past hybridization between some of the more distant "species," complicating matters further.)

While the ability to interbreed is certainly important in the maintenance of species, it does leave something to be desired as a definition (what about asexual species, for example?). Some scientists have proposed phenetic species, which define organisms by their overall similarities. Many scientists now call for a phylogenetic species concept that recognizes groups descended from a common ancestor, as evidenced by the sharing of special derived characteristics, such as mammals having fur and mammary glands. Brent Mishler of the University of California, Berkeley, who with Donoghue was a framer of the phylogenetic species concept, has recently argued that hierarchical ranking, from subspecies to species and up through families and orders, is of little use intellectually or practically and that ranks on all levels, species included, should be done away with.

The tree of life has thousands of nested levels, Mishler writes in a chapter to appear in Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology. Defining species?—?or any other rank for that matter?—?is in many ways arbitrary. For example, given a genus of moths and a genus of spiders, the rank of "genus" actually tells us almost nothing about the two groups, such as their evolutionary age, or the number of species. It would be better to recognize branches or "clades" on the tree of life?—?a fork and all the twigs that arise from it, which actually have meaning evolutionarily, Mishler says. For a conservation land manager comparing bird diversity in two canyons, for example, the meaningful information is how much of the bird section of the tree of life is represented in each canyon, not how many species.

Mishler points to similar problems with discrete definitions, biological or otherwise. Take the Gulf Stream, for example. It is so distinct that you can see it from outer space. "This water comes up from Florida, crosses the Atlantic, and affects the weather in England?—?it is absolutely real," Mishler says. "But if you were in a rowboat at the Gulf Stream's edge and were trying to tell me which molecule of water is part of it and which isn't?—?you'd be hard pressed."

While humans crave discrete definitions, little in biology is tidy, and putting its parts together isn't necessarily becoming easier. In making the tremendous progress since Darwin in documenting and exploring the mechanisms of evolution, scientists have become more and more specialized, says Pigliucci.

That's how novel contributions are made. But ironically, that specialization often comes at a cost?—?there's a lack of integration at higher levels?—?even though integration was Darwin's claim to fame. His insights connected everything in biology, all life becoming related pieces of an integrated whole.

"Genealogy became the great problem of zoology and botany, of paleontology, and of all allied studies. The mighty maze of organic life was no longer without a plan," scholar and writer Grant Allen wrote in Darwin's obituary in April 1882.

Such integrated thinking is needed today as humans grapple with how ecosystems will respond to climate change or invasive species, says Futuyma. Figuring out the genetic variation in a little alpine weed is one thing, but it doesn't necessarily tell you whether that plant will be able to adapt to a warming world.

"It's funny that evolutionary biology has not played much of a role in biodiversity?—?it's been almost entirely seen as an ecological issue," says Donoghue. "But evolutionary biology has a lot to say about these issues?—?oddly enough, evolutionary biology is all about diversity. We're just starting to connect these dots."

Darwin was all about connecting dots, says Pigliucci. "Today Darwin would be excited and bewildered by what we know, but would also probably push us to focus on the interdisciplinary aspects," he says. Darwin was "an inherently interdisciplinary guy. But it took him years! The bulk of the Origin is painstaking examples from a variety of disciplines?—?in a sense we aren't there now. We know a lot about molecular biology and development in model systems and we know a little about ecology and evolution, but we know almost nothing about how they all fit together."

Our Views: Creationists show clout


Published: Jan 17, 2009 - Page: 6B - UPDATED: 12:05 a.m.

A miracle of sorts has occurred: Backers of creationism in public schools have exposed themselves by their hardball politicking at the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

For years, backers of "creation science" and "intelligent design" have said they seek only to promote critical thinking about the origins of life on Earth. Nothing more.

If "critical thinking" is sought in classrooms, there was no need for a new state law. Yet creationism backers pushed a bill through a weak Legislature that authorizes "supplemental materials" in science classes. But no, not creationism, they said. Over and over again. Gov. Bobby Jindal, who signed the bill into law, said he only wanted students to get the full range of opinion on the subject.

There is no need for a state law to encourage critical thinking on specific subjects. But if one's goal is to push the Bible story of creation into classrooms, some sort of legal cover is needed.

When the state Department of Education and an expert committee wrote rules to implement the new law, the rules forbid the teaching of religion in schools.

The original rules touched directly on creationism: "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."

That's what the U.S. Supreme Court ordered when it struck down a Louisiana creationism law in 1987. That's what other federal courts have ordered in similar debates.

That is the law in the United States.

But with a certitude born of zealotry, the creationists wanted that sentence out of the rules, and BESE agreed.

The creationists don't want to be reminded of the law they don't like. They really don't want teachers to comply with the law, for that defeats the purpose of sneaking religious tracts into public school classrooms.

The list of the weak-kneed on this issue gets longer and longer every time it is discussed. Not only the BESE members but state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek acquiesced in the lobbying from creationism backers such as the Louisiana Family Forum. The latter is a particularly influential backer of Jindal. Three members of the 11-member BESE are Jindal appointees.

BESE joins the ranks of the wimps who have rolled over on the issue of creationism. It's a sad thing. Not because faith is a bad thing in its proper place. Not because the Family Forum doesn't have a right to its views. But because the state is siding with the backward against not only science but the rule of law in this country.

Through faith we understand


January 18, 2009

To condemn the science platform because "nature's all there is" illustrates the enduring 500-year war between science and faith.

The church's weakness: Dividing itself into 3,188 denominations over what one God said. The church has never understood Creationism's presentation in the Bible because it cannot agree.

Scientists separated their acumen from the church because they were being burned at the stake for heresy. Galileo was placed under house arrest for proving the earth and planets rotated around the sun; the church said: heresy.

Galileo responded to the pope, "It would be a terrible detriment to the souls if people found themselves convinced by visible proof of something that it was made a sin to believe."

The church countered the sun and the planets rotated around earth.

Much of the scientific community is now looking in the direction of a Creator. Patrick Glenn, a former atheist and Harvard scholar, said, "A reasonable person weighing the purely scientific evidence on the issue would likely have come down on the side of skepticism ... Today the concrete data point strongly in the direction of the God hypothesis." This is the result from science's failure to synthesize life from non-living matter.

Atoms, chromosomes and DNA, all unseen under microscope, were written in the Bible 2,000 years ago. They are the signatures of the Creator.

Hebrews 11:3: Through faith we understand that the worlds were formed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

Bobby Bentz


YEC's Attack Earth Science Standards in Texas


Posted on: January 19, 2009 9:02 AM, by Ed Brayton

It isn't just evolution under attack in Texas. My friend Steve Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science, who is a member of the committee writing the standards for a new Earth and Space Sciences course in Texas public schools, notes that the creationist members of the Texas BOE have also placed young earth creationists on that committee. Here's his description of the standards the committee has written for that course:

Our new Texas ESS course is innovative and pathbreaking, and I seriously believe it will serve as a national model for ES and ESS courses in the future. The standards we wrote compare favorably to the new ES Literacy Initiative standards; we anticipated many important topics and concerns. The course standards are composed of three traditional themes and three very non-traditional strands. The three themes (or topical sections) are Earth in Space and Time, Solid Earth, and Fluid Earth. The first contains the most important information about cosmology and planetary astronomy in addition to traditional historical geological topics. It emphasizes geological time, stellar system and planet formation, the origin of the Earth's atmosphere and ocean, and fossil life. The second deals with plate tectonics, internal heat transfer, Earth structure, continent formation, geophysics, mountain building, volcanism, erosion and mass wasting, mineral resources, fossil fuels, etc. The third section discusses the movement of heat and fluids in Earth's atmosphere and hydrosphere, sea-level changes, the origin of life as a result of chemical processes and geochemical cycles, solar radiation, various chemical cycles, groundwater, and climate.

The innovative part of the course are the three strands: systems, energy, and relevance. We tried to incorporate these strands in every student expectation and at least in every knowledge and skill requirement. The course uses a system concept which shows the interactions among Earth's subsystems and can be modeled. Energy formation, movement, transfer, and effect as Earth process driving forces are emphasized throughout. Finally, every topic required was judged for its relevance to student lives. If a topic was not very relevant, it was omitted. Believe it or not, we actually left out about a third of traditional physical and historical geological topics, almost all of meteorology, much of non-planetary astronomy, and much of physical and biological oceanography. Some critics said the course was too long, but actually it could have been twice as long if we left in all the traditional topics. Also, our standards are longer than other high school courses because we were more specific in listing topics rather than lumping many of them under simple headings.

We decided to create a course that looked at fewer topics in depth rather than many topics superficially. Left out are rocks and minerals, desert processes, most erosion and weathering processes, different types of volcanic and plutonic bodies, a detailed survey of the geologic periods, almost everything dealing with weather, all discussion about galaxies and types of stars, and large parts of oceanography. Instead, we included a great deal about climate and climate change, Earth's geologic hazards, energy resources, geophysics, geologic time, origin of planets, the Moon, smaller planetary bodies, the history and chemistry of Earth's water and elements in the oceans and atmosphere, stratigraphy, sedimentary basins, fossil fuels, and the origin and evolution of ancient life. We wanted to keep as many relevant, exciting, and thought-provoking topics as possible to attract and interest students, and we left out much about topics that some students find to be uninteresting. We also emphasized the use of space imagery and modern instruments such as GPS, personal computers, and the Internet.

I think this course will be something special: a course that many students will want to take as an elective (since the former Texas Earth Science Task Force couldn't get an ES course accepted as required credit). Many students will want to take this course in their senior year, and even students going on in science who are taking an AP course their senior year may want to take ESS as a fifth science course in high school, simply because it will be exciting and relevant. This is a course I think Texas Earth scientists can be proud of, especially geologists (meteorologists probably won't like it, but climatologists will love it!).

And he reports on a minority faction on the committee made up of two YECs who are issuing their own report, in a mirror image of what happened in Kansas in 2005:

There will certainly be an effort made by some members of the SBOE to rewrite and injure the ESS standards in ways that will weaken them and make them unscientific. Whether they have a majority or not is uncertain. I know this will happen because two individuals appointed to the ESS panel by two radical religious-right SBOE members are attempting to sabotage the new ESS standards before they are even approved. The following is a copy of a "minority report" that was sent to all the members of the SBOE on 2008 November 6. You can obtain a copy of the original email and fax at http://www.texscience.org/pdf/Sigler-Henderson-ESS-Minority-Report-2008Nov6.pdf. It was written by two members appointed to the ESS standards-writing panel or workgroup, Roger Sigler and Tom Henderson. Both Sigler and Henderson are Young Earth Creationists (YECs) and Flood Geology believers (that is, Noah's Flood). Sigler was appointed by Terri Leo and Henderson was appointed by David Bradley, also both YECs and members of the SBOE. It is my opinion that Sigler and Henderson were deliberately planted into the ESS workgroup by two of the most extreme YEC radicals on the SBOE to disrupt the work of the panel and ultimately write a minority report (if they couldn't get their unscientific changes to the standards accepted by the other panel members, and there was almost no chance of that happening). During the initial panel meetings, both Sigler and Henderson suggested wording and revisions that would have weakened the scientific accuracy and reliability of ESS topics that YECs find to be controversial, such as radiometric dating, ancient ages of Earth and universe, evolution of fossils, the abiotic origin of life, and similar subjects.

The minority report was sent in secret to the SBOE without the knowledge of the other ESS panel members. Secret minority reports are especially reprehensible, since the scientist panel members, the "majority," did not have a chance to respond to or forestall the minority report by more discussion and possible compromise. Also, minority reports are supposed to be written after all the work of the panel is completed and the two sides are at an impasse, which was not the case here. This minority report was written on November 6, soon after the Oct 30-Nov 1 penultimate meeting of the ESS panel. The last meeting was scheduled for Dec 4-6, so there was plenty of time to deal with issues contained in the minority report and make changes that might be agreeable to all. Sigler and Henderson sent the minority report was sent to all the SBOE members--the ultimate decision-makers--without any context or forewarning to their colleagues on the ESS panel. The majority on the ESS panel never had an opportunity to respond to or even read the minority report, and have never had the opportunity to write a rebuttal to the SBOE. For almost two months, the minority report was the only ESS report that the SBOE had--the de facto ESS report--which is extremely destructive and unfortunate.

Needless to say, the November 2008 minority report is nonsense and contains numerous untruths. The ESS panel members examined and took into account all the expert feedback and made several changes in light of that feedback. Sigler and Henderson say "the thrust of the 'expert opinions' was inadequately incorporated," but what they mean by this is the "opinions" of the three Creationist "expert" reviewers--Stephen Meyer, Charles Garner, and Ralph Seelke--was not given preference. Indeed they were not, since almost all the suggestions of those three in their feedback documents were grossly anti-scientific, such as promoting retaining the unscientific phrase "strengths and weaknesses." Contrary to the claim, not a single standard in the ESS document was "dogmatic," but firmly based on mainstream science. The claim of scientific "dogmatism" is common among Scientific Creationists, who are angry that legitimate scientists won't accept their pseudoscientific beliefs.

With one exception, the majority members of the panel, i.e. the non-YEC and legitimate Earth scientists and teachers, were concerned and upset when they learned about the existence of a minority report, because it undermined the unity and legitimacy of the ESS panel. SBOE members antagonistic to science--and there are almost a majority of these--could use the minority report to question the credibility of the ESS panel and its proposed ESS standard recommendations. In fact, this was almost certainly the intended goal of the minority report. Unable to produce scientific reasons to convince the other panel members to write specific standards in ways that suggested scientific uncertainty or weakness, the YECs on the panel and the SBOE cooked up this plan to discredit the work of the panel, thus giving the SBOE YECs an opportunity to attack the ESS standards as too controversial, incomplete, or dogmatic to accept without extensive revision. SBOE religious-right member Terri Leo has used the minority report ploy in the past, in 2003 for the biology textbook review panel, and I believe she and Roger Sigler planned to use this tactic from the beginning. Tom Henderson went along with this plan. He told me that Roger originally wrote and sent him an even stronger minority report that he wouldn't sign, but they agreed on this one which Tom thought was reasonable.

I was the one exception on the ESS workgroup who thought a minority report might happen. Because of my long familiarity with American pseudoscience (I consider myself the national expert on geological pseudoscience, and of course I know biological pseudoscience intimately), I was the only one on the panel who recognized at the first meeting that the two members appointed by Terri Leo and David Bradley were YECs and Flood Geologists. Tom Henderson is a retired NASA engineer whose main occupation now is giving YEC PowerPoint presentations to churches and Sunday Schools about Young Earth Creationism (see http://users.hal-pc.org/~tom/bkg.html and http://users.hal-pc.org/~tom/topics.html). These presentations include such things as dinosaurs dying by a giant extraterrestrial impact during Noah's Flood and claiming the Acámbaro Figures (miniature ceramic figures of dinosaurs!) found by Waldemar Julsrud in 1944 in Mexico--a notorious hoax--are authentic artifacts that provide evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together in historical times. One long presentation is devoted to proving that all radiometric dating methods are wrong and the Earth is no older than 10,000 years. He is not an Earth scientist but, as he told us, knows something about planetary astronomy because he frequently attends talks at the Lunar and Planetary Institute of NASA! Roger Sigler is a community college geology instructor who does have a M.S. degree. He has worked for years with the Institute for Creation Research students in a study about Noah's Flood deposits in California's Mojave Desert, "Submarine Flow and Slide Deposits in the Kingston Peak Formation, Kingston Range, Mojave Desert, California: Evidence for Catastrophic Initiation of Noah's Flood" at http://www.icr.org/research/index/researchp_rs/ (also see http://www.icr.org/article/4310/ and http://www.rae.org/ICCreport.html). His paper correlating the record of Noah's Flood in the Hebrew Bible with the geologic record, "Hebrew and Geologic Analyses of the Chronology and Parallelism of the Flood: Implications for Interpretation of the Geologic Record," can be found at http://www.drbarrick.org/Website%20Files/ICC2003PaperRev030130.pdf. Both Tom and Roger believe in Flood Geology and, and I believe, Impact Catastrophism as primary mechanisms for forming Earth's surficial features during the last 10,000 years, the maximum age of the Earth in their view. If you are not aware of the extent of Flood Geology (or Creation Geology) in our country, you should visit http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/25/magazine/25wwln-geologists-t.html for a report about this community and http://www.cedarville.edu/event/geology/ for access to their pseudoscientific publications. This is the kind of geological pseudoscience that I deal with all the time, and I am probably the only person opposing this nonsense in the country in an organized way (because almost the entire national effort is quite correctly focused on opposing Creationism and Intelligent Design Creationism). It is not just biology that is being attacked by organized Creationism--geology is at risk, too.

Kansas all over again.