NTS LogoSkeptical News for 6 June 2009

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings


Saturday, June 06, 2009

'Evolution is God's work' — Michael Reiss

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article6425138.ece

From The Times June 4, 2009

In his first interview since he was ousted from the Royal Society for saying that schools should not dismiss creationism, the priest and scientist explains how science and faith can be easy bedfellows

It takes a resilient person to find the good in an insult from the biologist and arch atheist Professor Richard Dawkins. When the Rev Professor Michael Reiss was ousted from his post as director of education at the Royal Society, the august scientific institution whose former presidents include Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Chistopher Wren, Dawkins was typically scathing: "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation — it's a Monty Python sketch."

Still, Reiss was able to see the funny side. "For my generation, to be compared to a character in a Monty Python sketch is a singular honour," says the 51-year-old, who has only recently emerged from a self-imposed purdah. As well as agreeing to this interview, he will appear at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival tonight, alongside Lord Winston and Usama Hasan, a computer scientist and part-time imam, in a discussion about faith and evolution.

Not much else about that episode was much of a laughing matter. Reiss, a thoughtful and erudite figure with whom I became acquainted when we sat on a Royal Society committee together many years ago, unwittingly sowed the seeds of his downfall with a speech to a science festival in September. In it, he argued that pupils who bring up the topic of creationism in a science lesson on evolution should not necessarily have their viewpoint dismissed; instead a teacher could use this "worldview" to start a scientific discussion.

A stream of articles followed, effecting a Chinese whispers-style, sexed-up distortion of Reiss's argument, suggesting that a Royal Society supremo was advocating the teaching of creationism in science lessons. Within the space of a few days, four years of Reiss's careful academic research on how to stop religiously minded pupils being turned off science had been reduced to ruinous headlines.

That Reiss possessed better pro-evolution credentials than most (a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Cambridge) counted for nothing when weighed against a furious campaign by Fellows of the Royal Society demanding his dismissal. In September, his contract — a secondment from his permanent position as Professor of Science Education at London University's Institute of Education in Bloomsbury— was terminated.

Eight months on, the disappointment and hurt is obvious, but he is gracious in defeat: "Because of [those headlines], I'm not surprised that members were phoning up the President [Lord Rees of Ludlow] saying, 'For crying out loud, who is this person and why are we employing him?'. Then The Observer carried a copy of a letter that three Fellows, all Nobel laureates, had written to Lord Rees urging that I step down or be dismissed.

"I think the Society found itself in a very difficult position and I have great sympathy for it. The Society is a member organisation, so it has to listen to its members, and then of course it has to think about how it's seen by the wider world. To many people, it looked as if its director of education was advocating the teaching of creationism in science lessons. The society had to make a judgment — either to ride it out, which is initially what it was doing, or cut its losses." The fuming laureates, who included Sir Harry Kroto, got their way.

Reiss's sense of bewilderment is obvious: "Because this [the issue of whether creationism can be dealt with in science lessons] is a sensitive issue that I'd been thinking about for several years, I knew that nothing that I had said or written contradicted either the Government's line on creationism and intelligent design (a pseudo-scientific form of creationism) or was contrary to Royal Society policy or practice. I didn't feel, 'Oh Michael, you idiot, you've made a complete mess of things'. I had taken a considerable amount of care to make sure I didn't put my foot in it."

He acknowledges it was a turbulent time but says that his wife, Jenny, who teaches earth sciences at the University of Cambridge, bore the brunt of the stress. Compared with many people who get sucked into a media whirlwind, he shrugs, "this was not the most pressurised situation of all time. I'm still on good terms with many people at the Society and I've been touched by messages of support, including from Fellows I didn't know."

The Monday after he was sacked, he returned to work at the Institute of Education, where he researches, writes and advises on such matters as how sex education should be taught (he edits a journal on the issue) and, of course, how science teachers should deal with pupils who claim their religious beliefs preclude them from believing in evolution or the Big Bang. (For the record, Reiss believes that science teachers should not have to address religious matters in science lessons if they don't want to.) Now, though, he believes it is time to take up the gauntlet again. His return to the fray will challenge the growing orthodoxy in science that one cannot subscribe fully to both science and religion. To be wedded to both worldviews is, so the orthodoxy goes, intellectually bigamous.

Of course, Reiss, an evolutionary biologist by training and an ordained minister, doesn't see it like that. He believes that the exclusion of religious believers from certain scientific positions amounts to discrimination. For him, there is nothing dishonourable about believing in the supremacy of the divine and of science. "Both positions can be held with absolute integrity," he says. So how does he reconcile the two realms? "Evolution is God's work. All of science is the outworking of God's activity."

Michael Jonathan Reiss was brought up, with his younger sister Julia, in an affluent, contentedly Godless household in North London. His father, an NHS consultant, was an agnostic Jew; his midwife mother rebelled against her Roman Catholic childhood by professing atheism in adulthood. Reiss was agnostic until the age of 19; it was as a natural sciences student at Cambridge, after attending some Christian meetings, that he decided religion was for him after all.

It was not a dramatic conversion involving miracles or supernatural phenomena, he explains, but "more of an inchoate feeling of it all making sense." But he was troubled by Genesis, whose account of the origins of the Universe ran rather differently from those in his scientific textbooks. Comfortingly for Reiss, theologians had long abandoned the idea that the Bible should be read literally.

"It was completely clear to me, as an intelligent 19-year-old educated in England at the end of the 20th century, that the Earth wasn't just 6,000 years old. If you start from that position [not reading Genesis literally] you're not going to get yourself into all sorts of knots."

Isn't that simply cherry-picking the bits of religion you like and binning the rest? Cherry-picking, he retorts, happens in science too; all great scientists get things wrong. Newton believed that the planets would wobble out of orbit, but that doesn't invalidate the rest of his opus.

Wanting to carry out God's work but not fancying life as a full-time vicar, Reiss opted for the non-stipendiary ministry. The unpaid position suits him: he holds one Sunday morning service a week, and officiates at the odd wedding and funeral. His mother was "not exactly overjoyed" at his ordination in 1990; his father bemused.

But Reiss finds that religion helps him to make sense of the world, to place it in an overall framework. Where is the evidence for a God? "The evidence is not the sort of evidence that stands up for a scientist," he states. "It's not scientific evidence. It's more what one might call inference." I tell him that it sounds like instinct, or intuition. Non-believers like me have that too; and in any case, hasn't science revealed that instinct is simply the brain working very, very quickly? His view is that a scientific worldview does not automatically invalidate a religious one.

"I'm extremely comfortable with the idea of scientific explanations for instincts and intuition, but that doesn't necessarily mean that those instincts and intuitions are mistaken. Our physiological perception of a sunset, using rods and cones, doesn't take away from the beauty of a sunset. You can have beauty and science, in the same way you can have religion and science, or moral philosophy and science. There's no clash between them, in my view."

His conviction that science and religion can co-exist is symbolised neatly on the front cover of a book, Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism, that he co-wrote with the American educator Leslie Jones: it features a Christian cross encircled by the DNA double helix, with a primate sitting to one side.

"But nor do I think I see sunsets any more beautifully than Harry Kroto does, just because I have religious faith," Reiss adds quickly. "One might see things differently, but religious belief doesn't make you a morally better person, a nicer person, a wiser person or anything like that." While he finds militant atheists wearing, it is still the religious fundamentalists, with their agenda of hate and terror, who cause him most despair.

For some people, belief in a God — for which, by his own admission, there is no scientific evidence — is akin to believing in fairies or astrology. Does he find that offensive? "No, I am not offended," he smiles. "Astrology claims to be a science, in which the positions of planets influence things. Those claims can be tested objectively and refuted.Good religion doesn't make those sorts of scientific claims so it's in a different category.

"The thing about belief in fairies and Father Christmas is that we grow out of them. It's clear that religion is pretty different, in that there are not millions of highly intelligent, well-functioning people who believe in fairies and spend many hours each week devoted to persuading other people to believe in fairies. One might just be able to erect an argument that they are on a spectrum of belief, and that there's some thread that connects them, but, at the very least, they are orders of magnitude apart."

And he lines up another analogy: the importance of religion to believers is a bit like the importance of music to others. While music structures the lives of some, for others it is incidental. His work as an education researcher — he has never taught RE — is all about getting the music-lover (the believer) and the musically deaf (the non-believer) to understand a little of where the other is coming from.

He dismisses the idea that neither side can ever understand each other, a view that has crept to our shores from across the Atlantic, where children are not schooled in religious education because of the historic separation between Church and State. As a result, one wing of American Christian educators has fought long and hard to shoehorn religious accounts of the world's creation into science lessons, to the horror of the science community.

In this country, he believes, Darwin's grand idea, now in its bicentenary year, should be taught to everyone before they leave school, alongside such curriculum staples as mathematics and literature.

He is suddenly energised: "My interest has always been what to do if a pupil brings up creationism as a reason for not accepting evolution or the cosmological account of the origins of the Universe. If a science teacher doesn't want to discuss it, they shouldn't have to, and that's fine. But supposing a teacher does feel comfortable allowing other children to discuss it. Providing it's a scientific discussion, about evidence, then I think its a great opportunity to get pupils to understand how scientific knowledge builds up. Too many 14 and 15-year-olds find school science uninteresting. So if anyone asks a genuine question, we should use that question as a vehicle for teaching good science.

"In the same way that PE teachers spend time thinking about how to deal with children who are too embarrassed to do sports, or who think they can't catch, or can't swim, biology educators have to deal with pupils whose beliefs contradict the scientific viewpoint. That's what teaching is all about. Anyone can teach the one child in 20 who loves science — the real challenge is to help the other pupils to understand it and perhaps come to love it."

Creationism and American schools

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article6425188.ece

From The Times June 4, 2009

The debate over whether religion or science should be given precedence in schools is ongoing in the United StatesAnjana Anjum

In the United States, the determination to keep the creationist flame alive in science classes burns fiercely. Just three months ago, its champions won the right to force Texas schoolbooks to state that evolutionary theory, a stable pillar of modern biology, is still a matter of scientific dispute.

The move was instigated by Don McLeroy, the creationist chairman of the Texas State Board of Education. In March, he argued to the board that textbook authors should be compelled to detail the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, allowing creationist discussions in the classroom. His case was crafted with the help of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organisation that has been instrumental in promoting the neocreationist concept of "intelligent design".

The board narrowly rejected McLeroy's idea but adopted a compromise, calling for students to "analyse and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data on sudden appearance and stasis" in the fossil record. Both phenomena are viewed by creationists, although not by scientists, as evidence against evolution.

Before the hearing, McLeroy recommended that board members read Sowing Atheism, a book that was written by Robert Bowie Johnson, to rebut the National Academy of Science's (NAS) anti-creationist stance. Johnson once stated: "Our nation cannot progress morally, spiritually, or politically so long as we permit the NAS to teach our children that they are descended by chance from worms."

A week ago, McLeroy was ousted from his post.

"Junk" DNA: Darwinism's Last Stand?

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/06/junk_dna_darwinisms_last_stand.html

We are often told that the evidence for evolution is "overwhelming." If "evolution" is defined as "change over time" or "minor changes within existing species," this is a truism. But what if "evolution" means Charles Darwin's theory? According to Darwin, all living things are descendants of a common ancestor that have been modified by unguided processes such as random variation and natural selection.

Despite the hype from Darwin's followers, the evidence for his theory is underwhelming, at best. Natural selection—like artificial selection—can produce minor changes within existing species. But in the 150 years since the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, no one has ever observed the origin of a new species by natural selection—much less the origin of new organs and body plans. As a result, the only evidence that all living things are biologically descended from a common ancestor comes from comparisons of the similarities and differences among fossil and living species. When making such comparisons, however, Darwinists start by assuming common ancestry. Then they try to fit similarities and differences into the branching-tree pattern that would result from it, and they ignore the glaring inconsistencies that often remain.

So the evidence for anything more than minor changes within existing species is surprisingly flimsy. In most other scientific fields, a theory with so little empirical support would probably have been discarded by now. To make matters worse for Darwinism's defenders, their theory now faces a new challenge: intelligent design (ID). According to ID, evidence from nature shows that some features of living things are explained better by an intelligent cause than by unguided natural processes.1

Junk DNA to the Rescue? Darwin was mistaken about the origin and hereditary transmission of variations, and it wasn't until his followers embraced Mendel's competing theory of genetics in the 1930s that evolutionary theory began to rise to the prominence it enjoys today. According to modern neo-Darwinism, genes that are passed from generation to generation carry a program that directs embryo development; mutations occasionally alter the genetic program to produce new variations; and natural selection then sorts those mutations—the raw materials of evolution—to produce organisms better adapted to their environment.

In the 1950s, molecular biologists discovered that sequences of nucleotide subunits in an organism's DNA encode proteins, and they equated "gene" with "protein-coding sequence." When genetic mutations were traced to molecular accidents in the DNA, neo-Darwinian theory seemed complete. In 1970, molecular biologist Jacques Monod announced that with its "physical theory of heredity" and "the understanding of the random physical basis of mutation that molecular biology has also provided, the mechanism of Darwinism is at last securely founded. And man has to understand that he is a mere accident."2

With design seemingly eliminated, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins wrote in 1976 that the only "purpose" of DNA is to ensure its own survival. Dawkins considered the predominant quality of successful genes to be "ruthless selfishness." It follows that "we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world." A body is simply "the genes' way of preserving the genes unaltered." Thus natural selection favors genes "which are good at building survival machines, genes which are skilled in the art of controlling embryonic development." And genes control embryonic development by encoding proteins that build the body.3

By the 1970s, however, it was clear that most of the DNA in humans and many other animals does not code for proteins. In 1972, Susumu Ohno remarked that there is "so much 'junk' DNA in our genome." 4 Dawkins was aware of this, but he argued that such junk was consistent with the logic of neo-Darwinism. "The amount of DNA in organisms," he wrote, "is more than is strictly necessary for building them: a large fraction of the DNA is never translated into protein. From the point of view of the individual organism this seems paradoxical. If the 'purpose' of DNA is to supervise the building of bodies, it is surprising to find a large quantity of DNA which does no such thing. Biologists are racking their brains trying to think what useful task this apparently surplus DNA is doing. But from the point of view of the selfish genes themselves, there is no paradox. The true 'purpose' of DNA is to survive, no more and no less. The simplest way to explain the surplus DNA is to suppose that it is a parasite, or at best a harmless but useless passenger, hitching a ride in the survival machines created by the other DNA."5

In 1980, Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel argued in Nature that "much DNA in higher organisms is little better than junk." The spread of junk DNA in the course of evolution "can be compared to the spread of a not-too-harmful parasite within its host." Since it is unlikely that such DNA has a function, "it would be folly in such cases to hunt obsessively for one." In a companion article, W. Ford Doolittle and Carmen Sapienza similarly argued that many organisms contain "DNAs whose only 'function' is survival within genomes," and that "the search for other explanations may prove, if not intellectually sterile, ultimately futile."6

Some biologists wrote to Nature expressing their disagreement. Thomas Cavalier-Smith considered it "premature" to dismiss non-protein-coding DNA as junk, and Gabriel Dover wrote that "we should not abandon all hope of arriving at an understanding of the manner in which some sequences might affect the biology of organisms in completely novel and somewhat unconventional ways." Orgel, Crick and Sapienza replied that "most people will agree" that higher organisms contain "parasitic" DNA or "dead" DNA. "Where people differ," they wrote, "is in their estimates of the relative amounts. We feel that this can only be decided by experiment."7

In 1980, the techniques for DNA sequencing were tedious and slow, but they improved rapidly. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health established the Human Genome Project (HGP), with the goal of sequencing the entire human genome by 2005.8

Throughout the 1990s, however, many biologists continued to regard much of human DNA as non-functional "junk." For example, according to the 1995 edition of Voet & Voet's Biochemistry "a possibility that must be seriously entertained is that much repetitive DNA serves no useful purpose whatever for its host. Rather, it is selfish or junk DNA, a molecular parasite." Indeed, it may be that "a significant fraction, if not the great majority, of each eukaryotic genome is selfish DNA."9

In the coming days I'll address the junk-DNA hypothesis in more detail.

Notes:
1 "What Is the Theory of Intelligent Design?" Center for Science & Culture, Discovery Institute. Available online (2009) here.
2 Monod is quoted in Horace Freeland Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, p. 217.
3 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford, 1976), pp. 2, 24-25.
4 Susumu Ohno, "So much 'junk' DNA in our genome," Brookhaven Symposia in Biology 23 (1972): 366-70.
5 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 47.
6 Leslie E. Orgel & Francis H.C. Crick, "Selfish DNA: the ultimate parasite," Nature 284 (1980): 604-607.
W. Ford Doolittle & Carmen Sapienza, "Selfish genes, the phenotype paradigm and genome evolution," Nature 284 (1980): 601-603.
7 Gabriel Dover, "Ignorant DNA?" Nature 285 (1980): 618-620.
Thomas Cavalier-Smith, "How selfish is DNA?" Nature 285 (1980): 617-618.
Leslie E. Orgel, Francis H.C. Crick & Carmen Sapienza, "Selfish DNA," Nature 288 (1980): 645-646.
8 Edmund Pillsbury, "A History of Genome Sequencing," Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Yale University (1997). Available online (2009) here.
9 Donald Voet & Judith Voet, Biochemistry, Second Edition (New York: Wiley, 1995), p. 1138.

Posted by Jonathan Wells on June 4, 2009 8:00 AM

Panelists provide support for evolution at 'trial'

http://media.www.thetriangle.org/media/storage/paper689/news/2009/06/05/News/Panelists.Provide.Support.For.Evolution.At.trial-3746483.shtml

Shyam Patel Issue date: 6/5/09

Panelists Ted Daeschler, Peter Dodson, Judge John E. Jones III and James Herbert argued for evolution at "Drexel University's Evolution on Trial: Science, Religion and the Future of American Education" June 3 at the A.J. Drexel Picture Gallery.

"There really is no debate within the scientific community about the validity of evolution," Jacob Russell, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, said in introductory remarks.

However, according to Herbert, interim head of the biology department at Drexel, many Americans still deny evolution for creationist theories.

Ken Lacovara, associate professor of biology and event moderator, said the United States is the most fundamentally religious developed nation.

Herbert said the public views theory as "tenuous" and something that has yet to be proven and is not a fact.

"We must not call it the theory of evolution, but just evolution or the fact of evolution," Lacovara said.

Herbert said until there is a change, 50 percent of the American population will continue to subscribe themselves to creationism.

"We do a poor job in teaching students how to think," Herbert said.

Prominent topics were the Dover Trials, which panelist Jones had presided over, and the concept of intelligent design.

To familiarize the audience with the Dover Trials, a short segment of PBS's Nova special was shown. It explained the theory of intelligent design, an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution, which the Dover board of education had selected to teach in schools.

Some believed this was an attempt to bring religion back into school while proponents of intelligent design argued it was simply to make students more aware of the gaps and flaws in evolution.

Jones, who had ruled against intelligent design in 2005, said proponents believed evolution was not provable. They argued that the complexity of some organisms pointed to a design by an intelligent being, not evolution.

Dodson, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, explained that there are many functional adaptive steps to things as complex as the eye.

According to Jones, he was never swayed by the proponents of intelligent design during the Dover trial. A number of their witnesses failed to show and the quality of the testimony was poor. When it came down to actual examples, the proponents lost ground.

The panel event was held to commemorate Charles Darwin's 200th birthday and the anniversary of the publication of his most famous scientific work, "The Origin of Species."

The audience that attended ranged from teaching assistants and college professors to undergraduates from various schools in the area.


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Evolution education update: May 29, 2009

The Texas Senate voted not to confirm avowed creationist Don McLeroy in his post as chair of the Texas state board of education, and NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott is to receive the inaugural Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution. There is a new antievolution bill in South Carolina, but the two antievolution resolutions in Oklahoma are dead. And Eugenie C. Scott chatted about Ida and its relevance to teaching evolution on Culture Shocks.

CREATIONIST BOARD CHAIR OUT IN TEXAS

The Texas Senate voted not to confirm Don McLeroy in his post as chair of the Texas state board of education on May 28, 2009. Although the vote to confirm him was 19-11, a two-thirds approval was required. The San Antonio Express-News (May 28, 2009) explained, "The Senate seldom rejects gubernatorial appointments. The Senate's blocking of McLeroy will force Gov. Rick Perry to appoint a new board leader. McLeroy will keep his spot as a board member."

Earlier, the Houston Chronicle (May 25, 2009) reported that, "there is speculation in the Capitol and within the Texas Education Agency that Gov. Rick Perry might elevate Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, to lead the board" if McLeroy was not confirmed. The newspaper added, "Like McLeroy, Dunbar also holds strong Christian beliefs and recently authored a book that advocates more religion in the public square."

McLeroy's confirmation was editorially opposed by a number of Texas newspapers, including the San Antonio Express-News (May 3, 2009), which wrote, "McLeroy has demonstrated he is unfit to lead a body that crafts public education policy for this great state," and the Austin American-Statesman (May 8, 2009), which described his tenure as chair as "disastrous," while cautioning, "Simply removing McLeroy, a dentist, from the chairmanship won't be enough to bring sanity" to the board.

A major concern of the senators voting against McLeroy's confirmation was his attempts to undermine the treatment of evolution in the state science standards. Eliot Shapleigh (D-District 29), for example, questioned his endorsement of a book that describes parents who want their kids to learn about evolution as "monsters," scientists as "atheists," and clergy who see no conflict between science and faith as "morons." McLeroy is, notoriously, a creationist himself, as the Austin American-Statesman (March 8, 2009) described in detail.

In a statement dated May 28, 2009, Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network commented, "We had hoped that the Legislature would take more action to put this train back on the tracks, but clearly new leadership on the board was a needed first step. The governor should know that parents will be watching closely to see whether he chooses a new chairman who puts the education of their children ahead of personal and political agendas."

For the story in the San Antonio Express-News, visit:
http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/46402537.html

For the story in the Houston Chronicle, visit:
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/6440787.html

For the editorials quoted, visit:
http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/editorials/McLeroy_wrong_choice_for_SBOE.html
http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/stories/05/08/0508sboe_edit.html

For the Austin American-Statesman's profile of McLeroy, visit:
http://www.statesman.com/news/content/region/legislature/stories/03/08/0308mcleroy.html

For the statement from the Texas Freedom Network, visit:
http://tfnblog.wordpress.com/2009/05/28/tfn-statement-on-senates-mcleroy-vote/

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/news/texas

NCSE's SCOTT AWARDED STEPHEN JAY GOULD PRIZE

NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott is to be the first recipient of the Stephen Jay Gould Prize, awarded annually by the Society for the Study of Evolution "to recognize individuals whose sustained and exemplary efforts have advanced public understanding of evolutionary science and its importance in biology, education, and everyday life in the spirit of Stephen Jay Gould." According to the citation:

***

As the executive director of the National Center for Science Education she has been in the forefront of battles to ensure that public education clearly distinguishes science from non-science and that the principles of evolution are taught in all biology courses. ... In these efforts, she has been an important leader in the public sphere, molding and focusing the efforts of scientists, educators, lay people, religious groups, skeptics, agnostics, believers, scholars, and ordinary citizens through firm but gentle guidance. ... Dr. Scott is a gifted communicator and public intellectual. She is a frequent guest on radio and television shows, and an eloquent spokeswoman for science. Her writings have illuminated the process of science to thousands, and her books have exposed the efforts of many groups in our society to hobble and undermine the teaching of science to our younger generation. The organization she helped create far transcends the considerable reach of her own voice, vastly amplifying her impact on public understanding. For these many reasons, it is extremely appropriate that Dr. Scott be the first recipient of the Gould Prize.

***

She will receive the award at the Evolution 2009 conference, held June 12-16, 2009, at the University of Idaho, where she will present a public lecture, entitled "The Public Understanding of Evolution and the KISS Principle," at 8:00 p.m. on June 12; the lecture will be recorded and presented on-line as streaming video later in the week.

For the citation, visit:
http://www.evolutionsociety.org/awards.asp#gouldprize

For information about the conference, visit:
http://www.uiweb.uidaho.edu/evolution09/index.html

ANTIEVOLUTION LEGISLATION IN SOUTH CAROLINA

Senate Bill 873, introduced in the South Carolina Senate on May 21, 2009 and referred to the Senate Committee on Education, would, if enacted, require the state board of education to "examine all curriculum in use in this State that purports to teach students about the origins of mankind to determine whether the curriculum maintains neutrality toward religion." The bill further provides, "Related to non-religion, the examination must include a review as to whether the curriculum contains a sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus preferring those who believe in no religion over those who hold religious beliefs." The first year of the current two-year legislative session ended on May 21, 2009, so S. 873 is not likely to be considered until the second year begins in 2010.

S. 873 was introduced by Senator Michael Fair (R-District 6), who spearheaded a number of previous antievolution efforts in South Carolina. In 2003, he sought to establish a committee to "determine whether alternatives to evolution as the origin of species should be offered in schools." The Greenville News (May 1, 2003), reported that Fair "said his intention is to show that Intelligent Design is a viable scientific alternative that should be taught in the public schools." In 2005, he introduced a bill modeled on the so-called Santorum language often misrepresented as contained in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The bill failed, but Fair won himself a description as "the dominant voice advocating for S.C. schools to teach more than Charles Darwin's theories of evolution," according to The State (June 17, 2005). In 2008, he introduced a version of the "academic freedom" antievolution bill, which died in committee.

For the text of S. 873 as introduced, visit:
http://www.scstatehouse.gov/sess118_2009-2010/bills/873.htm

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in South Carolina, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/news/south-carolina

ANTIEVOLUTION RESOLUTIONS DEAD IN OKLAHOMA

With the the end of the Oklahoma legislative session on May 27, 2009, House Resolutions 1014 and 1015, attacking Richard Dawkins, are dead. Both measures, if adopted, would have expressed the strong opposition of the Oklahoma House of Representatives to "the invitation to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma to Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whose published statements on the theory of evolution and opinion about those who do not believe in the theory are contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma." Both measures were introduced shortly before Dawkins spoke at the University of Oklahoma on March 6, 2009, as part of the university's celebrations of the Darwin anniversaries.

The sole sponsor of both resolutions was Todd Thomsen (R-District 25). But Thomsen wasn't the only legislator concerned about Dawkins's visit. The Tulsa World reported (March 30, 2009), "Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City, filed a lengthy open records request with the university, asking for any correspondence regarding Dawkins' speech, information on any costs to OU, a list of any money Dawkins received and who provided the funds, and any other 'pertinent financial information.'" In fact, Dawkins waived his speaking fee for the event, and additionally announced during his talk that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science would be donating $5000 to Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education.

The Muskogee Phoenix (April 2, 2009) editorially commented, "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out Thomsen and Hamilton are not concerned about free speech. They are concerned only about promoting their particular point of view and satisfying what they see as the majority view on religion," adding, "our state has legislators complaining about the infringement of free speech while they promote it at the same time." Similarly, Piers Hale, a historian of science at the University of Oklahoma, told the university's student newspaper, the Oklahoma Daily (April 3, 2009), "I find it deeply [troubling] that elected state officials appear to be using the powers of their offices to attempt to censor the opinions of those with whom they personally disagree."

For the text of the resolutions, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/03/antievolution-resolutions-introduced-oklahoma-004637

For the Tulsa World's story, visit:
http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=11&articleid=20090330_11_A1_Statel165138

For the Muskogee Phoenix's editorial, visit:
http://www.muskogeephoenix.com/opinion/local_story_092191305.html

For the Oklahoma Daily's story, visit:
http://oudaily.com/news/2009/apr/03/investigation-raises-censorship-questions/

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Oklahoma, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/news/oklahoma

NCSE'S SCOTT ON CULTURE SHOCKS

NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott discussed the significance of Ida, the 47-million-year-old primate fossil dominating the headlines, on the Culture Shocks radio show on May 26, 2009. Hosted by the Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Culture Shocks "examines issues and trends in today's culture wars through conversations with and about some of the most fascinating figures of our times."

To listen to or download the MP3 of the show, visit:
http://www.cultureshocks.com/shows/2009/05/26/eugenie-scott/

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://ncseweb.org -- where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.

-- Sincerely,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://ncseweb.org

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!
http://ncseweb.org/evc

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

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


Monday, May 25, 2009

Origin of the Specious

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article6350095.ece

Ida the fossil was hailed as the 'missing link' in our evolution. Don't believe the hype
Lemur is common ancestor of all primates.

For Sir David Attenborough there was no doubt. "The link until now was missing. Well, it is no longer missing," he announced last week.

It was a powerful statement. The missing link Attenborough was talking about was Ida, the beautifully preserved fossilised remains of an early primate that roamed part of Germany 47m years ago.

Ida, he suggested, was the clinching evidence showing how humans and other primates evolved from the simple mammals that roamed the Earth alongside the dinosaurs more than 65m years ago.

The claims were marred only by Attenborough's choice of an evocative phrase with a rather dodgy history. Last century the term "missing link" became tainted by its association with the "discovery" in 1912 of Piltdown Man. This fossil of an apparent early human fooled scientists for 40 years before tests revealed it as a hoax.

Ida appears not to be a hoax - but could she be hype?

Attenborough acted in good faith but he was just one element of the media circus turning Ida into humanity's newest and best link with its ancient past.

Such finds are usually unveiled to the world through the sober pages of an academic journal but for Ida nothing less than a glittering press conference at the American Museum of Natural History in New York would do.

There, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, stood beside Ida's glass box, his arm around a schoolgirl who was wearing a T-shirt advertising a television tie-in. It read: "The Link. This changes everything." The mayor repeated the missing link claim.

Later the scientists who have studied Ida outlined the details of their research. Their pronouncements were just as extravagant.

"This fossil rewrites our understanding of the evolution of primates," said Jorn Hurum, a paleontologist from the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway. "It will probably be pictured in all the textbooks for the next 100 years." He made allusions to the Mona Lisa to emphasise the significance of the find.

His co-authors supported him. "When our results are published, it will be just like an asteroid hitting the earth," said Jens Franzen of the Senckenberg Research Institute of Frankfurt. "She is the eighth wonder of the world."

The excitement spread fast. One newspaper said Ida could "revolutionise how we see human evolution". Even geeky Google was impressed, adding an impression of the fossil to the front page of its website.

Many scientists, however, were shocked. They revere understatement, knowing how easily allegations of hype can damage careers.

What is more, in the research paper detailing the discovery, the scientists had painted a rather different picture. Ida, they said, "could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates (including humans) evolved but we are not advocating this here".

So, if they were not advocating a link to humans in their research, why did they appear to be doing so in their public statements? Was it anything to do with the television documentary, narrated by Attenborough, that Hurum was launching on the back of his discovery? Or a book about Ida, called The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, which was published last week? Was science taking second place to PR hype?

IDA'S story began 47m years ago in a period of the Earth's history known as the eocene. The dinosaurs had been gone for 18m years and the planet was in the middle of a long period of global warming.

Back then, Messel, near Frankfurt, where Ida lived and died, was part of a giant tropical rainforest. It would have been hot, humid and teeming with life.

What made Messel special, however, was its lakes, formed in the giant basins left by the explosion of a volcano. These lakes were full of poisonous gases from the volcano. Every so often, it is thought the gases would bubble out and kill any animal that breathed them.

Many of these fell into the water and sank to the bottom, where they were enveloped by the sediments and preserved for humans to find eons later.

Ida was one of thousands of animals to have died and been preserved there. Other discoveries nearby include pygmy horses, giant mice, primitive ostriches and crocodiles.

It was in 1983 that an anonymous collector unearthed Ida. He would have known straight-away that he had found something remarkable, simply because Ida was so complete.

Most fossils are just bits of animals - usually teeth since these are the toughest. Ida, by contrast, was so well preserved that 95% of her skeleton could be seen, along with the contents of her stomach and the outline of her fur.

The collector took meticulous care to preserve Ida's remains, but then she disappeared. For the past 20 years she has sat in his private collection, enjoyed, it is thought, by just one person.

Two years ago, however, the collector commissioned Thomas Perner, a fossil dealer, to put Ida on the market. He approached Hurum and they fixed up a meeting in a Hamburg vodka bar.

"I knew the dealer had a world sensation in his hands," said Hurum, who agreed to pay Perner £630,000 to buy her for the University of Oslo.

Ever since then a team of scientists have painstakingly deconstructed Ida, measuring every tooth, bone and nail. They have confirmed that Ida is indeed a real find. Her opposable thumbs, nails on her digits and lack of a grooming claw showed the researchers she was a primate rather than just one of the many other tree-dwelling creatures of the era. In recognition of her importance, she was given the name Darwinius masillae, in honour of the 200th anniversary of the naturalist's birth.

For the rest of us, however, her significance is rather more puzzling.

Christophe Soligo, a specialist in early primate evolution at University College London, is an admirer of Ida – but concerned over what he fears may be hype.

"This is an absolutely amazing fossil," he said. "But to suggest she might be the missing link in human evolution is simply too much. There is a great risk of discovery bias, where we read too much into a good fossil just because we have it available."

Robert Foley, professor of human evolution at Cambridge University, believes many people misunderstand the huge timescales involved in assessing fossils.

"This animal lived around 47m years ago but human-like creatures only appeared in the last 2m years," he said. "That's a gap of around 45m years with many other species lying between us and that era. Any one of them could be called a missing link. Really, the term is meaningless."

Foley and others calculate that mammal species last an average of 1m-2m years before going extinct. This suggests that Ida is, at best, just one of dozens of direct forebears.

It is far more likely, however, that she is even more distant than this. That's because every one of those forebears, including those before Ida, could have given rise to several separate new species and hence new lines of descent.

Simple calculations suggest there must have been several thousand such species. The likelihood, based on the numbers alone, is that Ida was just one of those.

The science and the hype have had one unexpected benefit, however - they have unified in outrage two famous rival paleontologists: Elwyn Simons of Duke University, who maintains that primates emerged out of Africa, and Christopher Beard, curator of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, who counter-argues for an Asian Eden.

"Dr Simons phoned me for the first time in 10 years to share his outrage about this malarkey and, for the first time in a decade, I agree with him," said Beard last week.

"First, the paper is shoddy scholarship because it avoids comparing Darwinius masillae with similar fossils to put it into a proper context. The roll-out was extraordinary and it is now clear that the scientists were under pressure to meet the showbusiness deadlines. The tail was wagging the dog– or maybe the lemur."

Simons does not buy the spin either. "It's absurd and dangerous," he said. "This is all bad science and it plays into the hands of the creationists, who look for any excuse to discredit evolution.

"Darwinius is a wonderful fossil, but it is not a missing link of any kind. It representsa dead end in evolution. It tells us nothing that we do not already know, except that people will be overwhelmed by hype."

THE answer to why Ida received so much publicity, despite these reservations, may lie with Hurum's own flourishing media career.

One of his biggest hits was in February 2008, when he announced the discovery of the "largest and fiercest reptile ever to terrorise the oceans".

"The Monster", as he dubbed it, was a 50ft pliosaur that Hurum described as having teeth and jaws that "could crush almost anything".

Last March he was back with another fantastic fossil, also a pliosaur and roughly the same size. It could have sounded all too similar but Hurum's masterstroke was to devise a new name. Predator X, he told the world, was "turbo-charged" and "the most ferocious hunter ever".

A television documentary soon followed and it was during the making of it that he told Atlantic Productions, the film-maker, about Ida, his new project.

The company snapped it up and has since sold The Link, a documentary, to the BBC and the History Channel, which will screen it this week. It will include computer-generated graphics showing the reconstructed animal standing on its hind legs – in an uncannily human pose.

"We were just lucky to be working with him at the time he found Ida," said a spokesman for Atlantic.

Hurum himself defended the showmanship surrounding Ida. "Any pop band is doing the same thing," he said. "Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science."

To be fair to him, he did qualify the claims being made for Ida. "We are not stating that this is our direct ancestor. That's too much," he said. "We [humans] go just a few million years back and Ida was alive 47m years ago."

Somehow, however, that line got lost amid the talk of everything changing and wonders of the world.

Physics, chemistry say evolution is impossible

http://www.reporternews.com/news/2009/may/24/physics-chemistry-say-evolution-is-impossible/

By Charles A. Rodenberger Guest Columnist
Sunday, May 24, 2009

This is for Sunday school teachers. I have been teaching Sunday school for more than 50 years.

As an engineer, I kept wondering how I could teach that God created the heaven and the earth with all the people and animals in six days and rested on the seventh when my students had all been taught that the cosmos was billions of years old.

I have looked at the literature arguing for evolution and creation, and I have some strong opinions. Scientists argue that evolution is a proven scientific fact, but the facts are that the laws of physics and chemistry say that evolution is impossible. This means that people were created by some other method.

The chief scientist of the Vatican gave a talk in Abilene a few years ago and stated that he believed in the laws of physics and that they said evolution was impossible. He then said, "But it happened." Why did he say that? Because if he had said that he believed that God had created humanity, he would have been unable to publish any scientific findings.

As a result of their beliefs, well-qualified scientists and engineers who believe in creation must publish their scientific findings in their own journals. One is the Creation Research Society Quarterly. They also have a bimonthly newsletter, Creation Matters, that publishes science articles. These are not preachers publishing, but credentialed scientists with degrees from well-known universities.

Some recent scientific facts using DNA studies have stated that everyone on earth came from one woman. I already believed that, and I believe that the number of people today could very well have come from eight people getting off a boat not too many thousand years ago. If we stick to scientific facts and not myths created to justify an atheistic viewpoint, then I am happy to teach that the Bible does not disagree with science. Scientists should acknowledge a creation and should be arguing whether the earth is young or old. Personally, I am convinced that it is a young earth created by catastrophic events that are visible and going on today. Google the word "creation" to find a number of organizations of accredited scientists who support creation science.

You can check my scientific credentials by looking me up in Who's Who in several editions. I hold three degrees in engineering and taught engineering for 22 years and now hold an emeritus status.

Charles A. Rodenberger, Ph.D. is a retired engineer from Baird.

Clear argument bolsters evolutionary truth

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/entertainment/books/clear-argument-bolsters-evolutionary-truth-45953227.html

Reviewed by Dr. Ted St. Godard

Why Evolution is True
By Jerry Coyne

Penguin Canada, 282 pages, $31

"Suffice for me to say... that, of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions could be raised."

-- Woodrow Wilson (1922)

IT surely ought to disappoint, if not embarrass us all, that in the 21st century there continues to be any serious debate vis-a-vis the relative merits of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution on the one hand and creationism (now tarted up as "intelligent design") on the other.

Volumes, indeed libraries, have been filled with unequivocal evidence that life on Earth has evolved. Generations of thinkers have stood on each others' shoulders and added credence to the simple yet profound ideas presented to the world in Darwin's 1859 The Origin of Species.

Nevertheless, discussions and science curriculum deliberations continue, particularly south of the border. Into this milieu, University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne has launched a provocatively titled new book, Why Evolution is True.

Coyne's offering is a forceful and respectful attempt to render perhaps less opaque Darwin's elegantly simple ideas, and thereby further dispel some of the misunderstandings surrounding evolution.

Coyne refers to Darwin's Earth-shattering realization that all life on Earth has evolved over time as "the greatest idea that anyone ever had," but notes that natural selection, the mechanism of that evolution, is "the most misunderstood part of Darwinism."

Doubters with the courage to read him (repaying the courtesy of skeptics who have read, for example, Of Pandas and People, a creationist tome purporting to be a science textbook) will find that Coyne writes well, and clearly knows his material. He provides abundant notes, a good index, and a glossary.

Those looking for creationist-bashing might be disappointed with Coyne's even tone. Which certainly is not to say that putative merits of creationist theories are respectfully debated.

They deliberately are not, but neither are they given the obvious lampooning others (think of Christopher Hitchens) might deliver. You see, as Coyne is at pains to point out, creationism is "a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory," and one simply cannot argue with religion; dogma is not swayed by logic.

The price of Coyne's book is easily repaid if one reads only his clear discussion surrounding the misguided tendency on the part of some to dismiss evolution as "just a theory."

Evolution is a theory like gravity is a theory. Coyne emphasizes that evolution, like gravity, but unlike religious ideas like creationism, makes testable, verifiable and refutable predictions.

As he puts it nicely, "[d]espite innumerable possible observations that could prove evolution untrue, we don't have a single one. We don't find mammals in Precambrian rocks, humans in the same layers as dinosaurs, or any other fossils out of evolutionary order. ... Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right."

"Evolution is a fact," Coyne writes, and "scientists have as much confidence in Darwinism as they do in the existence of atoms, or in microorganisms as the cause of infectious disease."

That said, Coyne notes that although no serious biologist doubts Darwinism, "[this] doesn't mean that Darwinism is scientifically exhausted, with nothing left to understand."

There are abundant holes in our knowledge, but certainly no need to resort to the "realm of the supernatural," or to what the late Stephen Jay Gould referred to as the "God of the gaps."

Acerbic British biologist Richard Dawkins, himself no stranger to polemic, has cogently argued that those who do not subscribe to Darwin's theory are mad, muddled or simply ignorant.

Coyne's clear and forceful arguments may offer some clarity to members of the latter groups. One worries, however, that they won't bother to read it, taking as they often do their guidance from rather older books.

Ted St. Godard is a Winnipeg physician.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Evolution education update: May 22, 2009

NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott is honored by Scientific American, while NCSE's Joshua Rosenau reports on the mess in Texas for Seed. Meanwhile, the antievolution bills in Alabama and Missouri are dead. And congratulations are due to three members of NCSE honored by the American Institute for Biological Sciences.

EUGENIE C. SCOTT AMONG SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 10

NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott is among the Scientific American 10 for 2009, described by the magazine in its June 2009 issue as "researchers, politicians, business executives and philanthropists who have recently demonstrated outstanding commitment to assuring that the benefits of new technologies and knowledge will accrue to humanity." The citation reads, in part:

***

Thomas Henry Huxley was the 19th-century biologist known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his defense of the great scientist's ideas. The 21st century has a counterpart in the woman who describes herself as "Darwin's golden retriever." Eugenie Scott has emerged as one of the most prominent advocates for keeping evolution an integral part of the curriculum in public schools in her role as head of the nonprofit National Center for Science Education (NCSE). ... With the ever changing semantics of antievolutionists, Darwin's golden retriever will have plenty more chances to act as a loyal defender of teaching evolution in the schools.

***

Besides Scott, the Scientific American 10 for 2009 are Todd Brady of Intel, Shai Agassi of Better Place, Wafaa El-Sadr of Harlem Hospital Center, Robert J. Linhardt of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, Bryan Willson of Colorado State University, Kristian Olson of the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, Andras Nagy of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and President Barack Obama.

For information about the award, visit:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=scientific-american-10

"DON'T MESS WITH TEXTBOOKS"

Writing in Seed, NCSE's Joshua Rosenau explains what the new Texas state science standards mean for science education nationwide. Rosenau, who attended (and blogged from) both the January and the March meetings of the Texas state board of education, writes, "Despite our efforts, after a total of 24 hours of testimony in three separate hearings, pro-evolution moderates brokered a compromise with the board's seven creationists. Heeding McLeroy's cry that 'someone's got to stand up to experts!,' the board approved standards that promote creationism's mantra of 'sudden appearance' of new species, echo creationist beliefs that the complexity of the cell cannot be scientifically explained, and mandate that students study 'different views on the existence of global warming.'"

In the wake of the adoption of the flawed standards in Texas, Rosenau explains, "Textbook publishers are already preparing for hearings in 2011, which will judge whether rewritten textbooks fit the new standards. Textbook author and biologist [and NCSE Supporter] Ken Miller and publisher Rene LeBel both say they'll abide by the letter, but not the spirit, of the standards; for instance, by fulfilling the requirement to cover 'all sides of scientific evidence' without including creationist pseudoscience. Miller, a vocal defender of evolution education, insists that 'biology textbook authors will all stand together on evolution,' refusing to include creationist attacks or to drop good science."

But it isn't only the authors and publishers of textbooks that are preparing to defend the integrity of science education, and it isn't only in Texas -- as Rosenau relates, "The NCSE recently worked with a family and local professors to give a student in Washington the courage to denounce his teacher's creationist lectures. He won not only the school's support but also a college scholarship from the ACLU." The lesson to be learned from the experience of those fighting for the integrity of science education, whether in Texas, Washington, or wherever it is under assault, Rosenau concludes: "It doesn't take an expert to stand up for science. Whether the battle is large or small, success depends on these types of broad coalitions."

For Rosenau's article in Seed, visit:
http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/dont_mess_with_textbooks/

ALABAMA ANTIEVOLUTION BILL DIES

When the Alabama legislative session ended on May 15, 2009, House Bill 300, the so-called Academic Freedom Act, died in committee. If enacted, HB 300 would have purportedly protected "the right of teachers identified by the United States Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard to present scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories" and "the right of students to hold a position on views [sic]." Previous similar antievolution bills in Alabama -- HB 923 in 2008; HB 106 and SB 45 in 2006; HB 352, SB 240, and HB 716 in 2005; HB 391 and SB 336 in 2004 -- failed to win passage. In 2004, a cosponsor of SB 336 told the Montgomery Advertiser (February 18, 2004), "This bill will level the playing field because it allows a teacher to bring forward the biblical creation story of humankind."

For NCSE's previous coverage of events in Alabama, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/news/alabama

ANTIEVOLUTION BILL DEAD IN MISSOURI

When the Missouri legislative session ended on May 15, 2009, House Bill 656 died, without ever having been assigned to a committee. If enacted, HB 656 would have required state and local education administrators to permit teachers to "to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of theories of biological and chemical evolution." Otherwise a typical instance of the current spate of antievolution "academic freedom" bills, HB 656 was interestingly expansive about what it was not intended to do: "this section shall not be construed to promote philosophical naturalism or biblical theology, promote natural cause or intelligent cause, promote undirected change or purposeful design, promote atheistic or theistic belief, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or ideas, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion. Scientific information includes physical evidence and logical inferences based upon evidence."

The chief sponsor of HB 656 was Robert Wayne Cooper (R-District 155), joined by Mike Sutherland (R-District 99), Ed Emery (R-District 126), Therese Sander (R-District 22), Brian Nieves (R-District 98), and Stanley Cox (R-District 118). Cooper was the sponsor of numerous failed antievolution bills in the past. In 2008, he introduced the similar HB 2554. In 2006, he introduced HB 1266, which if enacted would have required that "If a theory or hypothesis of biological origins is taught, a critical analysis of such theory or hypothesis shall be taught in a substantive amount." In 2004, he introduced two bills, HB 911 and HB 1722, that called for equal time for "intelligent design" in Missouri's public schools. HB 911 moreover contained idiosyncratic definitions of various scientific and philosophical terms as well as the draconian provision, "Willful neglect of any elementary or secondary school superintendent, principal, or teacher to observe and carry out the requirements of this section shall be cause for termination of his or her contract."

For NCSE's previous coverage of events in Missouri, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/news/missouri

CONGRATULATIONS TO FELSENSTEIN, PENNOCK, AND ALTERS

Among those honored in 2009 by the American Institute for Biological Sciences for their outstanding contributions to the biological sciences were three members of NCSE. In a joint statement quoted in a May 15, 2009, press release, AIBS President May Berenbaum and Executive Director Richard O'Grady said, "AIBS is pleased to honor such exceptional and dedicated individuals. Though they are from diverse backgrounds, they have all made significant positive contributions to the field of biology." They received their awards in a special ceremony at the AIBS annual meeting, "Sustainable Agriculture: Greening the Global Food Supply," in Arlington, Virginia, on May 18, 2009.

Joe Felsenstein, Professor of Genome Sciences and Biology at the University of Washington, received the Distinguished Scientist Award. Robert T. Pennock, Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University, received the Outstanding Service Award; AIBS cited his book Tower of Babel (MIT Press, 1999) as well as his testimony in Kitzmiller v. Dover. And NCSE Supporter Bruce Alberts, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, editor-in-chief of the journal Science, and past president of the National Academy of Sciences, received the AIBS Education Award. Congratulations to all three!

For the press release from AIBS, visit:
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-05/aiob-aho051509.php

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://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 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://ncseweb.org

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!
http://ncseweb.org/evc

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

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


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fossil Find May Tweak Evolution Debate

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/05/15/tech/main5015948.shtml

47 Million-Year-Old Primate Skeleton Suggests Different Precursor To Monkeys, Apes, Humans

(CBS) A primate skeleton claimed to be 47 million years old could further amplify the often contentious debate between evolutionists and creationists.

A prominent paleontologist says the discovery of the ancient primate fossil suggests the creature is the common ancestor of monkeys, apes and humans, reports The Wall Street Journal.

The find bolsters the less-popular stance that humans' ape-like ancestor was a precursor to the lemur - the tarsier, a tiny, bug-eyed primate in Asia, is more commonly thought of as the precursor, the Journal reports.

Dr. Philip Gingerich, the president-elect of the Paleontological Society in the U.S., will discuss the findings next week in an online journal. The fossil will be unveiled next week at New York's Museum of Natural History.

"This discovery brings a forgotten group into focus as a possible ancestor of higher primates," Mr. Gingerich, a professor of paleontology at the University of Michigan, told the Journal.

While the fossil doesn't relate to the more heated debate over whether chimpanzees and humans share a common identity - the fossil is not the so-called "missing link" - the two factions will likely pounce on this new find with evolutionists claiming the skeleton adds to the limited fossil record.

Ancient termite provides look at evolution

http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2009/05/15/Ancient-termite-provides-look-at-evolution/UPI-62301242413367/

Published: May 15, 2009 at 2:49 PM

CORVALLIS, Ore., May 15 (UPI) -- A termite entombed for 100 million years has revealed the oldest example ever found of animals and microorganisms working together, a U.S. scientist said.

The termite was found in a chunk of amber excavated in 2001 from a mine in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, said George Poinar, a researcher at Oregon State University.

The termite, which lived during the Early Cretaceous period in the age of the dinosaurs, landed in the amber with a wounded abdomen, from which spilled protozoa the termite needed to digest wood.

This mutualism, or symbiotic relationship in which two species help each other, has enabled the termite to become one of the most successful insect groups in the world, with about 2,300 known species.

"These protozoa would die outside of the termite, and the termite would starve if it didn't have the protozoa to aid in digestion," Poinar said. "In this case they depend on each other for survival."

Poinar's findings have been published in the most recent issue of Parasites and Vectors, a professional journal.

Alabama antievolution bill dies

http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/05/alabama-antievolution-bill-dies-004781

May 15th, 2009Alabama

When the Alabama legislative session ended on May 15, 2009, House Bill 300, the so-called Academic Freedom Act, died in committee. If enacted, HB 300 would have purportedly protected "the right of teachers identified by the United States Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard to present scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories" and "the right of students to hold a position on views [sic]." Previous similar antievolution bills in Alabama — HB 923 in 2008; HB 106 and SB 45 in 2006; HB 352, SB 240, and HB 716 in 2005; HB 391 and SB 336 in 2004 — failed to win passage. In 2004, a cosponsor of SB 336 told the Montgomery Advertiser (February 18, 2004), "This bill will level the playing field because it allows a teacher to bring forward the biblical creation story of humankind."


Friday, May 15, 2009

Evolution education update: May 15, 2009

NCSE urged the federal government to promote and protect scientific integrity, particularly with reference to its informal education projects. And a teacher's description of creationism as "superstitious nonsense" was ruled to be unconstitutional by a federal court.

NCSE ENCOURAGES FEDERAL SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY

NCSE recently offered its advice on ways the federal government can promote and protect scientific integrity. The comment will be considered as presidential science advisor John Holdren and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) develop regulations implementing President Obama's March 9, 2009, memorandum ordering federal agencies to "ensur[e] the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes."

The order specifically asks the OSTP to recommend regulations protecting scientific staff from political litmus tests in hiring and firing, ensuring scientific integrity of internal processes, requiring that information used in policy-making "be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate," making scientific findings publicly available, and generally "ensur[ing] the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking or otherwise uses or prepares."

NCSE's comment to the OSTP focuses on educational materials used in informal education at federal facilities, citing reports of creationist books offered for sale at Grand Canyon National Park bookstores and of a political appointee at NASA demanding that the Big Bang be called a "theory" on public websites because "it is not proven fact; it is opinion." It also expresses concern about reports of creationism being taught at schools directly administered by the federal government.

The comment concludes: "Establishing clear policies protecting the accuracy of formal and informal educational content provided by the federal government is necessary to ensure the long-term integrity of science. Such content prepares the next generation of federal scientists, and is vital to constituents as they evaluate science-based policies. In particular, agencies should develop policies that provide for scientists and educators to peer review material and to protect potentially controversial topics from political or religious pressure."

For the complete text of NCSE's comment, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/05/ncse-encourages-federal-scientific-integrity-004777

For the president's memorandum, visit:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Memorandum-for-the-Heads-of-Executive-Departments-and-Agencies-3-9-09/

For the OSTP's call for comments, visit:
http://blog.ostp.gov/2009/04/22/presidential-memo-on-scientific-integrity-request-for-comment

For NCSE's most recent update of events at Grand Canyon National Park, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/rncse/27/3-4/renewed-concern-creationism-at-grand-canyon-national-park

For NCSE's report on the situation at NASA, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/news/2006/02/creationist-interference-at-nasa-00937

VERDICT AGAINST CRITIC OF CREATIONISM

A teacher's description of creationism as "superstitious nonsense" was ruled to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by a federal judge in a decision in C. F. et al. v. Capistrano Unified School District et al., issued on May 1, 2009. James Corbett, a twenty-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California, was accused by a student, Chad Farnan, of "repeatedly promoting hostility toward Christians in class and advocating 'irreligion over religion' in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause," according to the Orange County Register (May 1, 2009). "Farnan's lawsuit had cited more than 20 inflammatory statements attributed to Corbett, including 'Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies -- that's interfering with God's work' and 'When you pray for divine intervention, you're hoping that the spaghetti monster will help you get what you want.'"

In his decision in the case, however, Judge James Selna of the United States District Court, Central District Court of California, identified only one of the statements as constitutionally impermissible, writing:

The Court turns first to Corbett's statement regarding John Peloza ... This statement presents the closest question for the Court in assessing secular purpose. Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. ... Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, "was not telling the kids [Peloza's students] the scientific truth about evolution." ... Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, "I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense." ... One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is "superstitious nonsense." The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Selna ended his decision by writing, "The Supreme Court's comments with regard to governmental promotion of religion apply with equal force where the government disapproves of religion ... The ruling today protects Farnan, but also protects teachers like Corbett in carrying out their teaching duties."

Corbett was evidently describing Peloza's lawsuit against the Capistrano Unified School District, arguing that the district and its trustees and employees were violating his constitutional rights by "pressuring and requiring him to teach evolutionism, a religious belief system, as a valid scientific theory"; Corbett was among the named defendants. The lawsuit failed in the United States District Court, Central District Court of California, and then in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which specifically endorsed the district court's statement, "Since the evolutionist theory is not a religion, to require an instructor to teach this theory is not a violation of the Establishment Clause. ... Evolution is a scientific theory based on the gathering and studying of data, and modification of new data. It is an established scientific theory which is used as the basis for many areas of science."

Opinion is predictably divided about the verdict. Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told the Orange County Register (May 5, 2009), "I'm not sure [Judge Selna] drew the line in the right place ... The line can be fine sometimes. But here we have a teacher who wasn't interested in finding the line, and the judge manages to explain away all but one of the teacher's comments," while Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said, "What it means is that if you're a teacher, your liability can turn on a single sentence ... Teachers can avoid this by not talking about these issues at all, but that has a chilling effect," and John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University, said, "School districts are routinely sued for making one statement that favors a religion ... The rules apply both ways here."

Corbett himself told the alternative OC Weekly (May 6, 2009), "I expected to win. I expected the whole case would be thrown out." But, the newspaper added, "after rereading it and thinking about it, he says he's come to different conclusions with regard to the judgments in his favor. 'I think it's a victory for the right of teachers to provoke students into thinking,' he says." He expressed concern, however, about the possible chilling effect of the verdict, commenting, "You'd almost have to survey the class to find out what their beliefs are so you wouldn't insult anyone." Corbett hopes to appeal the decision. In the meantime, fees and damages have yet to be determined; the Orange County Register (May 5, 2009) reported, "Farnan plans to ask for attorneys' fees, nominal damages and a court injunction prohibiting Corbett from violating the establishment clause again."

For the stories in the Orange County Register, visit:
http://www.ocregister.com/articles/corbett-religion-court-2387684-farnan-selna
http://www.ocregister.com/articles/corbett-law-court-2394203-teacher-selna

For the story in the OC Weekly, visit:
http://www.ocweekly.com/2009-05-07/news/james-corbett

For court documents from C. F. v. Capistrano, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/creationism/legal/c-f-v-capistrano-usd

For court documents from Peloza v. Capistrano, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/creationism/legal/peloza-v-capistrano-usd

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://www.ncseweb.org -- where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.

Sincerely,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://ncseweb.org

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!
http://ncseweb.org/evc

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

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


Thursday, May 14, 2009

NCSE encourages federal scientific integrity

http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/05/ncse-encourages-federal-scientific-integrity-004777

May 13th, 2009

NCSE recently offered its advice on ways the federal government can promote and protect scientific integrity. The comment will be considered as presidential science advisor John Holdren and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) develop regulations implementing President Obama's March 9, 2009, memorandum ordering federal agencies to "ensur[e] the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes."

The order specifically asks the OSTP to recommend regulations protecting scientific staff from political litmus tests in hiring and firing, ensuring scientific integrity of internal processes, requiring that information used in policy-making "be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate," making scientific findings publicly available, and generally "ensur[ing] the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking or otherwise uses or prepares."

NCSE's comment to the OSTP focuses on educational materials used in informal education at federal facilities, citing reports of creationist books offered for sale at Grand Canyon National Park bookstores and of a political appointee at NASA demanding that the Big Bang be called a "theory" on public websites because "it is not proven fact; it is opinion." It also expresses concern about reports of creationism being taught at schools directly administered by the federal government.

The comment concludes: "Establishing clear policies protecting the accuracy of formal and informal educational content provided by the federal government is necessary to ensure the long-term integrity of science. Such content prepares the next generation of federal scientists, and is vital to constituents as they evaluate science-based policies. In particular, agencies should develop policies that provide for scientists and educators to peer review material and to protect potentially controversial topics from political or religious pressure."

NCSE's comment is available in a PDF or in text form:

Comments on scientific integrity regulations

National Center for Science Education

The National Center for Science Education is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the teaching of evolution, and to improving understanding of the nature of science. Attacks on the scientific integrity of federal policy pose great dangers to public understanding of science, and we applaud efforts to prevent such abuses. In particular, we hope that the resulting policies will protect the treatment of evolution and related scientific concepts in the federal government's important contributions to informal science education.

Informal science education occurs at parks, museums, and research centers, and includes signs and displays, public lectures or tours at such facilities, and websites and brochures which describe the research conducted at a site, or which provide background on an agency's research. Teachers, school groups and the general public rely on such material for accurate and unbiased scientific information. Such material therefore must reflect the generally accepted views of the scientific community, and indeed, in some federal agencies, this is required by existing statute or regulation. Omission and simplification is unavoidable in educational contexts, but scientifically and pedagogically valid content should not be altered for political or religious purposes. Peer review of educational content is appropriate and necessary; the reviewers should include both scientists and educators with experience in relevant fields. Science educators at federal sites must be protected against political or religious censorship.

Over the last several years, NCSE has monitored attacks on evolution and related concepts in several different federal agencies. Some examples illustrate the dangers and may suggest policies which would avoid similar problems.

There is a long-running conflict over a creationist book being sold in the science section of bookstores at Grand Canyon National Park, creating a conflict between the scientifically-oriented presentations of Park Service staff and an implied Park Service endorsement of erroneous scientific views. The federal government should not lend its credibility to material which falsely claims scientific support for a 6000 year-old Earth or other attempts to masquerade religious apologetics as science. It is appropriate to discuss religious views in publications, presentations, and other educational settings, but the integrity of the scientific process is compromised when descriptions of religious views are not clearly distinguished from empirically tested scientific results.

A NASA public affairs officer ordered changes to the discussion of the Big Bang on NASA web pages, demanding that it be referred to as "a theory" because "it is not proven fact; it is opinion." The official also blurred the line between science and religion: "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be, to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator." Making those changes would have misinformed the general public, including schoolchildren, about both cosmology and the scientific process. Agency websites, especially educational websites describing scientific research and scientific knowledge, should adhere to the highest standards of scientific accuracy, and should be free from political or religious pressure.

NCSE has received reports that interpreters at certain National Park Service sites were instructed to avoid discussing the (ancient) age of the Earth or the age of particular rock strata, to "avoid controversy." Of course, there is no scientific controversy concerning an ancient age of the Earth; the controversy was religious. School groups and the general public rely on programs at National Parks for accurate, unbiased information, and should be confident that scientific content will not be censored for religious reasons. Policies for public information programs must distinguish scientific controversy from political or societal controversy. Educational staff at parks or in other educational programs administered or funded by the federal government must not be restricted from discussing relevant science that is widely accepted by the scientific community. Where a topic is regarded as controversial, agencies should allow review by scientists and educators experienced in the topic and age groups at issue and should defend that peer reviewed content.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Defense directly administer schools, and the Department of Education supports teachers and administrators in schools nationwide. In schools administered by the federal government, as in all public schools, science classes must present science as it is understood and practiced by the scientific community. Science textbooks and other instructional materials ought to be subject to peer review and approval by educators who teach the subject at the same grade level. Scientific materials published by federal agencies for use in classrooms should be subject to peer review by scientists and teaching experts, and not subject to political or religious interference. In order to safeguard the integrity of the scientific process, instructional materials used by federal schools or provided to teachers by the federal government should describe the nature of science in clear terms, emphasizing that scientific explanations must be open to empirical testing and that they are evaluated by a community of scientists.

NCSE has received reports of teachers in Department of Defense schools teaching creationism, or being pressured not to teach evolution; this is a widespread problem in public schools, with 31% of respondents to an informal survey by the National Science Teachers Association reporting pressure not to teach evolution and 30% reporting pressure to teach creationism. Evolution is accepted by the scientific community as the foundation of modern biology, and must be the organizing principle of biology classes and biology instructional materials. In addition, federal schools must establish policies protecting teachers from pressure to omit or downplay evolution, or to teach religious alternatives to evolution, in science classes.

Establishing clear policies protecting the accuracy of formal and informal educational content provided by the federal government is necessary to ensure the long-term integrity of science. Such content prepares the next generation of federal scientists, and is vital to constituents as they evaluate science-based policies. In particular, agencies should develop policies that provide for scientists and educators to peer review material and to protect potentially controversial topics from political or religious pressure.

Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/14/science/14rna.html

Published: May 13, 2009

An English chemist has found the hidden gateway to the RNA world, the chemical milieu from which the first forms of life are thought to have emerged on earth some 3.8 billion years ago.

He has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.

The author, John D. Sutherland, a chemist at the University of Manchester, likened his work to a crossword puzzle in which doing the first clues makes the others easier. "Whether we've done one across is an open question," he said. "Our worry is that it may not be right."

Other researchers say they believe he has made a major advance in prebiotic chemistry, the study of the natural chemical reactions that preceded the first living cells. "It is precisely because this work opens up so many new directions for research that it will stand for years as one of the great advances in prebiotic chemistry," Jack Szostak of the Massachusetts General Hospital wrote in a commentary in Nature, where the work is being published on Thursday.

Scientists have long suspected that the first forms of life carried their biological information not in DNA but in RNA, its close chemical cousin. Though DNA is better known because of its storage of genetic information, RNA performs many of the trickiest operations in living cells. RNA seems to have delegated the chore of data storage to the chemically more stable DNA eons ago. If the first forms of life were based on RNA, then the issue is to explain how the first RNA molecules were formed.

For more than 20 years researchers have been working on this problem. The building blocks of RNA, known as nucleotides, each consist of a chemical base, a sugar molecule called ribose and a phosphate group. Chemists quickly found plausible natural ways for each of these constituents to form from natural chemicals. But there was no natural way for them all to join together.

The spontaneous appearance of such nucleotides on the primitive earth "would have been a near miracle," two leading researchers, Gerald Joyce and Leslie Orgel, wrote in 1999. Others were so despairing that they believed some other molecule must have preceded RNA and started looking for a pre-RNA world.

The miracle seems now to have been explained. In the article in Nature, Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues Matthew W. Powner and Béatrice Gerland report that they have taken the same starting chemicals used by others but have caused them to react in a different order and in different combinations than in previous experiments. they discovered their recipe, which is far from intuitive, after 10 years of working through every possible combination of starting chemicals.

Instead of making the starting chemicals form a sugar and a base, they mixed them in a different order, in which the chemicals naturally formed a compound that is half-sugar and half-base. When another half-sugar and half-base are added, the RNA nucleotide called ribocytidine phosphate emerges.

A second nucleotide is created if ultraviolet light is shined on the mixture. Dr. Sutherland said he had not yet found natural ways to generate the other two types of nucleotides found in RNA molecules, but synthesis of the first two was thought to be harder to achieve.

If all four nucleotides formed naturally, they would zip together easily to form an RNA molecule with a backbone of alternating sugar and phosphate groups. The bases attached to the sugar constitute a four-letter alphabet in which biological information can be represented.

"My assumption is that we are here on this planet as a fundamental consequence of organic chemistry," Dr. Sutherland said. "So it must be chemistry that wants to work."

The reactions he has described look convincing to most other chemists. "The chemistry is very robust — all the yields are good and the chemistry is simple," said Dr. Joyce, an expert on the chemical origin of life at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

In Dr. Sutherland's reconstruction, phosphate plays a critical role not only as an ingredient but also as a catalyst and in regulating acidity. Dr. Joyce said he was so impressed by the role of phosphate that "this makes me think of myself not as a carbon-based life form but as a phosphate-based life form."

Dr. Sutherland's proposal has not convinced everyone. Dr. Robert Shapiro, a chemist at New York University, said the recipe "definitely does not meet my criteria for a plausible pathway to the RNA world." He said that cyano-acetylene, one of Dr. Sutherland's assumed starting materials, is quickly destroyed by other chemicals and its appearance in pure form on the early earth "could be considered a fantasy."

Dr. Sutherland replied that the chemical is consumed fastest in the reaction he proposes, and that since it has been detected on Titan there is no reason it should not have been present on the early earth.

If Dr. Sutherland's proposal is correct it will set conditions that should help solve the many other problems in reconstructing the origin of life. Darwin, in a famous letter of 1871 to the botanist Joseph Hooker, surmised that life began "in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts." But the warm little pond has given way in recent years to the belief that life began in some exotic environment like the fissures of a volcano or in the deep sea vents that line the ocean floor.

Dr. Sutherland's report supports Darwin. His proposed chemical reaction take place at moderate temperatures, though one goes best at 60 degrees Celsius. "It's consistent with a warm pond evaporating as the sun comes out," he said. His scenario would rule out deep sea vents as the place where life originated because it requires ultraviolet light.

A serious puzzle about the nature of life is that most of its molecules are right-handed or left-handed, whereas in nature mixtures of both forms exist. Dr. Joyce said he had hoped an explanation for the one-handedness of biological molecules would emerge from prebiotic chemistry, but Dr. Sutherland's reactions do not supply any such explanation. One is certainly required because of what is known to chemists as "original syn," referring to a chemical operation that can affect a molecule's handedness.

Dr. Sutherland said he was working on this problem and on others, including how to enclose the primitive RNA molecules in some kind of membrane as the precursor to the first living cell.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Plea for Intelligently Designed Evolution

http://www.christianpost.com/blogs/books/2009/05/a-plea-for-intelligently-designed-evolution-09/

May 09,2009, 9:57AM
By Randal Rauser

Intelligent design is a great idea, but why is it owned by those who repudiate neo-Darwinian evolution?

A clue as to why the theistic IDers reject evolution comes in the neo-Darwinian definition of the core mechanism of random mutation and natural selection. It is the "random" part that is the problem. I have heard IDers on mutiple occasions state that they have no principled objection to common descent. The problem, rather, is that within neo-Darwinism "random" is understood to be absolute and thus to exclude even divine guidance. And a theory of origins which excludes God from the process altogether is deism at best and atheism at worst.

Well it is true, many neo-Darwinians do understand random in that absolute sense. But so what? Why accept their rules for the game? For one thing, that statement is itself not scientific, it is metaphysical or philosophical. It transcends the reach of science altogether and belongs to the territory of one's prior worldview. (The same applies to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum indeterminacy. There may be no prior natural cause that determines the position and/or velocity of a sub-atomic particle, but who can say that there is no absolute determining cause?)

So an IDer could simply say that random means not determined by a prior physical cause, while leaving it open the extent to which the process is determined or guided by a divine cause. (See chapter three of my book Faith Lacking Understanding for a discussion of science and divine causation.)

What I simply don't get then, is why IDers do not challenge the tendentious metaphysical reading of "random" and appropriate an ID form of neo-Darwinian theory.

Maybe the reason is that some IDers really are biblical conservatives at heart who believe that Genesis 1-2 excludes common descent. Perhaps they believe that being made in the image of God must mean I could not share a common ancestor with a chimpanzee (and a sea cucumber). Maybe they worry that evolution undermines a historical Adam, and that we need a historical Adam.

But even in that case, surely they could set their personal hermeneutics aside for the sake of the movement. Currently those neo-Darwinians who accept an absolute, metaphysical reading of random are aided immeasurably by IDers who concede the point. And as a result, IDers unwittingly perpetuate the "intelligent design" vs. "evolution" myth.


Saturday, May 09, 2009

Casey Luskin, smirking liar

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/05/casey_luskin_smirking_liar.php

Posted on: May 8, 2009 4:50 PM, by PZ Myers

The smug and rather imbecilic face in this video belongs to Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, who was interviewed on a conservative talk show, Fox & Friends. Watch it at your peril. Like the recent Matthews/Tancredo incident, it's two people who know nothing about science babbling at each other.

At the beginning, the host says,

Your main problem with science books is that they take a one-sided look at evolution.

No one seems to notice that this is a show that claims to be examining a "white-hot controversy" with one guest discussing only the Discovery Institute's position. Hmmm.

Luskin parrots a couple of Discovery Institute talking points, and he lies, lies, lies. He claims all the biology textbooks are completely wrong, and that all they want is for good science to be taught. His evidence? The first thing he talks about is Haeckel's embryos, and repeats the oft-told canard that Haeckel's embryos are presented uncritically — that they are fraudulent, the biologists know it, and they still use them.

Oh, dog. Not again. I have been all over the Haeckel story so many times. It's not true: relatively few textbooks use the Haeckel/Romanes diagram, and when they do, they present it in a historical context. And the Discovery Institute doesn't object to the obsolete figure itself, since they also castigate textbooks that use photos of embryos. Vertebrate embryos at the phylotypic or pharyngula stage do show substantial similarities to one another that are evidence of common descent. That's simply a fact. The creationists are just frantic to suppress that piece of information, I guess.

The second piece of 'evidence' Luskin throws out is another one that pisses me off: he cites the New Scientist article that claims Darwin was wrong! I told you all that we were going to be seeing a lot of quote mining of that blatantly misleading cover — as I also told you, they ignore the content that says the opposite, and they ignore the strongly worded rebuttals that scientists have published. New Scientist has a lot to answer for; these creationists are desperately mendacious and will be flaunting that rag at us for years to come, claiming that New Scientist has shown that Darwin's tree of life is all wrong, yet we still keep teaching it.

Luskin's new twist is that "when you look at one gene, it gives you one version of the tree of life, and when you look at a different gene, it gives you an entirely different tree of life". Of course, if you actually read the NS article, it's about horizontal gene flow in bacteria making the root of the tree of life more syncytial, saying nothing about the variation you get when you look at single genes. Luskin's argument is completely bogus. It's like saying that when we look at the history of the English language and pluck out one word, it may have a different etymology and rate of change than another, therefore English could not have evolved.

Luskin has had this stuff explained to him repeatedly, and it never sinks in…or more likely, as a dishonest propagandist, he chooses to disregard all the demonstrations of the problems with his claims. How he can accuse scientists of peddling fraudulent evidence when he sits there and lies nonstop is beyond me.

Fox&Friends Interview "Intelligent Design" Spokesman To Critique Textbook Treatment Of Evolution – "Fair and Balanced" or Bizarro World?

http://www.newshounds.us/2009/05/07/foxfriends_interview_intelligent_design_spokesman_to_critique_textbook_treatment_of_evolution_fair_and_balanced_or_bizarro_world.php

Reported by Priscilla - May 7, 2009

It is a sad testament to the state of American education that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution. So it came as no surprise that Fox&Friends devoted their weekly "Trouble with Textbooks" ("Trouble" being "liberal bias") to textbook "problems" with evolution; as the culturally conservative content of Fox&Friends would seem to indicate that their audience might not have a problem with the idea of dinosaurs and cavemen cavorting together. The title of the segment, "Evolution vs. Creationism, Debate Still Rages in U.S. Classrooms," suggested that the heated controversy of the Scopes Trial is still "raging" – despite the preponderance of recent court and school board decisions which have been against the teaching of creationism in our public school system. But in an effort to repackage creationism, the Christian right is still pushing "Intelligent Design," so it was no surprise that Fox&Friends had, as their guest, one of the current grand poobahs of Intelligent Design (ID), Casey Luskin, who claimed that evolution is not being taught correctly.

MENSA member Steve Doocy introduced the segment by commenting that "when the Texas Board of Education approved objections to evolution…the fight about how to teach evolution should have been over but the textbooks are still getting it wrong." He then asked whether the power of the board to select textbooks should be stripped. He introduced his one and only guest (fair and balanced, as usual) Casey Luskin, of the Discovery Institutute whose organization, according to Doocy, was "heavily involved in the Texas case." What Doocy didn't say is that the Discovery Institute is the flagship for the "Intelligent Design" movment which pushes "ID" curriculums as an "alternative" to evolution. The Texas case, which Doocy didn't explain, was an effort, on the part of social conservatives, to require teachers and textbooks to cover the "weaknesses" of evolution. While the creationists didn't get all that they wanted, they did get compromise language requiring students to learn "all sides of scientific evidence." Doocy said that the fight between creationism and Darwinism is "white hot" (Really, Steve and in what regressive area is that happening in?) and asked Luskin if it were correct that his (Luskin's) "main problem" was that textbooks had just a "one sided look" at evolution. Luskin then made the unsubstantiated assertion, sure to get the pitchfork crowd riled up, that today's textbooks "censor anything that challenges Darwin" and that "this isn't about Creationism; but allowing the students to hear evidence that challenges evolution as well as that which supports it." While Luskin discussed how textbooks are still using the flawed "Haekels Embroys," the screen had an drawing of a blackboard with "Weird Science – most common and unchallenged errors" written over a short definition of the embroyos. Luskin then proceeded to tell us what's wrong with this evolutionary theory that, according to Luskin, erroneously posits a common ancestor (oh, no!!!). Doocy said that during the break, Luskin told him that 100% of the science books get this wrong. Debunking of the ID Haekel's argument found here and here. Doocy then claimed that there are "holes" in the Darwin "Tree of Life." The blackboard, under "Weird Science," had the statement that the Darwin "Tree of Life" claims that all living species are connected to a parent species" (OH, NO!!!). Luskin went on to debunk this "tree" and claimed that a recent article in New Scientist annihiliated the "Tree of Life" and that the texts present the "tree" as unadulterated fact. Luskin either misread the article or is misrepresenting it because the conclusion is that the Darwin's simple tree is actually much more complex and still a basis for evolutionary theory. In summing it up, Doocy said to Luskin "you're not taking a side" (ROFL!) …but you're saying that if the textbooks are going to be teaching, get it right because everybody is getting it wrong."

Comment: You just can't make this stuff up. Once again, Fox&Friends presents a totally partisan view. At lest when Larry Schweikart spoke, he had real books as "evidence" of "errors." Luskin made the claim, with no evidence, that 100% of the texts are wrong so I guess that makes it right! Luskin represents an intellectually flawed and religiously based movement (as shown during the Dover vs. Kitzmiller trial regarding ID in the classroom). If Fox were "fair and balanced," a real scientist would have been present to refute the refuted arguments used by Mr. Luskin, who is an attorney (albeit with a Masters in Earth Science) and not a scientist and who is connected to right wing causes such as the anti-evolution Florida "academic freedom" bills. So contrary to what Doocy said, Luskin is definitely "taking a side" which is the debunking of evolution in favor of something that the Judge in the Dover case said is "not science." But as Galileo found out, science does take a back seat to ideology and Fox News is the media "Magesterium" of right wing ideology!

P.S. I highly recommend the book, "Monkey Girl" by Edward Humes which is about the Dover "ID" trial.

Evolution education update: May 8, 2009

Florida's antievolution bill is apparently dead; the winners of Alliance for Science's third annual essay contest have been announced; and NCSE is expanding its presence on Facebook.

FLORIDA ANTIEVOLUTION BILL DIES

With the close of the regular legislative session in Florida on May 1, 2009, Senate Bill 2396 apparently died in committee. If enacted, the bill would have amended a section of Florida law to require "[a] thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." The bill's sponsor, Stephen R. Wise (R-District 5), originally announced his intention to introduce a bill requiring "intelligent design" to be taught in Florida's public schools, telling the Jacksonville Times-Union (February 8, 2009), "If you're going to teach evolution, then you have to teach the other side so you can have critical thinking."

The phrase "[a] thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution" appeared in the previous legislative session in Florida. House Bill 1483, which originally purported to protect the right of teachers to "objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution," was eventually amended -- due to concerns about its constitutionality -- to require the public schools to provide "[a] thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." Both that bill and its Senate counterpart died in committee.

After SB 2396 was introduced, Florida Citizens for Science quickly denounced it, writing, in a February 27, 2009, press release, "Wise's antievolution bill is an insult to citizens who are tired of stomping over the same ground over and over again. The Florida Board of Education and last year's state legislature have already debated the teaching of evolution ad nauseam. To insist on bringing this up again is irresponsible because it will distract our lawmakers from the important tasks at hand, and could burden one of our school districts with a million dollar legal bill" (a reference to the Kitzmiller case).

For the story in the Jacksonville Times-Union, visit:
http://www.jacksonville.com/news/metro/2009-02-08/story/wise_to_introduce_intelligent_design_bill

For Florida Citizens for Science's press release, visit:
http://www.flascience.org/wp/?p=926

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

ALLIANCE FOR SCIENCE ESSAY CONTEST WINNERS

NCSE congratulates the winners of Alliance for Science's third annual essay contest, announced on April 30, 2009. Alliance for Science -- a non-profit organization which seeks "to heighten public understanding and support for science and to preserve the distinctions between science and religion in the public sphere" -- invited high school students to compare the achievements and dedication of a modern-era scientist with those of Charles Darwin.

Alliance for Science received entries from students around the country. The winning entry was submitted by Regina Parker, a high school sophomore in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who wrote about Walter J. Gehring. She received copies of Lauri Lebo's The Devil in Dover and Carl Zimmer's Microcosm as well as $300 as a prize, while her teacher Jessica Jones received copies of Kenneth R. Miller's Finding Darwin's God and Only a Theory as well as $150 toward classroom supplies.

Parker's prize essay, as well as four other prize-winning essays from the contest, are now posted in PDF form at Alliance for Science's website. "Our winners this year really showed how well they grasped the theme of the contest," said Dick Lessard, the director of Alliance for Science's essay contest. "We hope that all of the students who entered the contest learned to look at Darwin's work and career in a new light, while also developing an appreciation for the challenges and excitement of science today."

For the announcement of the winners (PDF), visit:
http://www.allianceforscience.org/files/active/0/Alliance%20for%20Science%20Essay%20Contest%20Press%20Release.pdf

For the prize essays, visit:
http://www.allianceforscience.org/2009_essay_winners

NCSE'S EXPANDED PRESENCE ON FACEBOOK

NCSE is expanding its presence on the social networking website Facebook with a new page, supplementing the existing NCSE group. The new page enables NCSE to showcase its work and interact with its fans to a greater degree than ever before. To become a fan of NCSE's page, visit the page and click on the "Become a Fan" link in the upper right. Almost 2000 Facebook users are fans of the new page already — please join them! NCSE's Facebook group, with over 3000 members, will continue to operate as well.

For the new NCSE Facebook page, visit:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/NCSE-The-National-Center-for-Science-Education/185362080579

For the existing NCSE Facebook group, visit:
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=5105447682

Sincerely,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://ncseweb.org

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!
http://ncseweb.org/evc

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

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

MIOS MEETING

Metroplex Institute of Origin Science

Hear

Wayne Spencer

Present on June 2, 2009

"A Creation View of Planetary Science"

Wayne Spencer is a creation researcher and former science teacher who has published creationist papers in various creation publications and on the web. Wayne has presented technical papers at the International Conferences on Creationism (1994 to 2008). He has written technical and non-technical articles for Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, Biblical Creation Society (of UK) and the Bible Science Association.

His research topics include the origin of the solar system, planets around other stars, craters on Earth and in our solar system, and the age of moons and planets. Wayne will speak about how to understand our solar system, and other solar systems, from a Biblical, young-age perspective.

Dr. Pepper Starcenter
12700 N. Stemmons Fwy
Farmers Branch, TX
Tuesday, June 2nd---7:30 PM

Verdict against critic of creationism

http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/05/verdict-against-critic-creationism-004771

May 8th, 2009

James CorbettA teacher's description of creationism as "superstitious nonsense" was ruled to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by a federal judge in a decision in C. F. et al. v. Capistrano Unified School District et al., issued on May 1, 2009. James Corbett, a twenty-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California, was accused by a student, Chad Farnan, of "repeatedly promoting hostility toward Christians in class and advocating 'irreligion over religion' in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause," according to the Orange County Register (May 1, 2009). "Farnan's lawsuit had cited more than 20 inflammatory statements attributed to Corbett, including 'Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies — that's interfering with God's work' and 'When you pray for divine intervention, you're hoping that the spaghetti monster will help you get what you want.'"

In his decision in the case, however, Judge James Selna of the United States District Court, Central District Court of California, identified only one of the statements as constitutionally impermissible, writing (PDF):

The Court turns first to Corbett's statement regarding John Peloza ... This statement presents the closest question for the Court in assessing secular purpose. Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. ... Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, "was not telling the kids [Peloza's students] the scientific truth about evolution." ... Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, "I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense." ... One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is "superstitious nonsense." The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Selna ended his decision by writing, "The Supreme Court's comments with regard to governmental promotion of religion apply with equal force where the government disapproves of religion ... The ruling today protects Farnan, but also protects teachers like Corbett in carrying out their teaching duties."

Corbett was evidently describing Peloza's lawsuit against the Capistrano Unified School District, arguing that the district and its trustees and employees were violating his constitutional rights by "pressuring and requiring him to teach evolutionism, a religious belief system, as a valid scientific theory"; Corbett was among the named defendants. The lawsuit failed in the United States District Court, Central District Court of California, and then in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which specifically endorsed the district court's statement, "Since the evolutionist theory is not a religion, to require an instructor to teach this theory is not a violation of the Establishment Clause. ... Evolution is a scientific theory based on the gathering and studying of data, and modification of new data. It is an established scientific theory which is used as the basis for many areas of science."

Opinion is predictably divided about the verdict. Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told the Orange County Register (May 5, 2009), "I'm not sure [Judge Selna] drew the line in the right place ... The line can be fine sometimes. But here we have a teacher who wasn't interested in finding the line, and the judge manages to explain away all but one of the teacher's comments," while Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said, "What it means is that if you're a teacher, your liability can turn on a single sentence ... Teachers can avoid this by not talking about these issues at all, but that has a chilling effect," and John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University, said, "School districts are routinely sued for making one statement that favors a religion ... The rules apply both ways here."

Corbett himself told the alternative OC Weekly (May 6, 2009), "I expected to win. I expected the whole case would be thrown out." But, the newspaper added, "after rereading it and thinking about it, he says he's come to different conclusions with regard to the judgments in his favor. 'I think it's a victory for the right of teachers to provoke students into thinking,' he says." He expressed concern, however, about the possible chilling effect of the verdict, commenting, "You'd almost have to survey the class to find out what their beliefs are so you wouldn't insult anyone." Corbett hopes to appeal the decision. In the meantime, fees and damages have yet to be determined; the Orange County Register (May 5, 2009) reported, "Farnan plans to ask for attorneys' fees, nominal damages and a court injunction prohibiting Corbett from violating the establishment clause again."


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Team claims second batch of soft dinosaur tissue

http://www.newsobserver.com/front/story/1508668.html

NCSU scientist led team on Montana dig; skeptic still expresses doubt

By Jay Price - Staff writer
Published: Fri, May. 01, 2009 04:35AM Modified Fri, May. 01, 2009 08:23AM

RALEIGH -- A team of researchers led by the N.C. State University scientist famed for the controversial discovery of soft tissue in the fossilized bone of a 68 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex in 2005 has found more soft tissue in an even older dinosaur skeleton.

Results of the more recent discovery, from the femur of an 80 million-year-old duckbill dinosaur, appear today in the journal Science. The new evidence not only undermines skeptics of Mary Schweitzer's earlier work, but also may offer clues about where more bones with such material may be found. That could help other scientists replicate the findings and investigate how such delicate material could last for such an extraordinary length of time.

Schweitzer is an associate professor of marine, earth and atmospheric science at NCSU and has a joint appointment to the staff of N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. She and John Asara, a pathologist at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, were the principal authors of the paper. They collaborated with a team of researchers, including several from Montana State University.

An artist's rendering shows the hadrosaur, nicknamed Dakota, as scientists think it would have looked, based on their analysis of the fossil evidence so far. One of the most complete dinosaur mummies ever found is revealing secrets locked away for millions of years, bringing researchers as close as they will ever get to touching a live dinosaur. - NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY PHOTOCLICK FOR MORE PHOTOS

A crew including Schweitzer and some of her students dug the duckbill femur out of a Montana cliff in 2007, after other research suggested that soft tissue may be more common in bones that had been buried quickly in deep sandstone.

They left a layer of stone around the bone to help preserve any soft tissue that might be inside and reduce the potential for contamination, Schweitzer said. That meant retrieving a chunk of rock and old bone that weighed 750 pounds, a feat that involved fashioning a sled from an old truck hood and dragging it up the cliff with a winch.

Then the crew rushed the rock and bone back to Raleigh, where the testing and examination began. Some of the material was eventually shipped to Asara's lab in Massachusetts.

Some critics had said the earlier study wasn't elaborate enough. This time, the researchers subjected the bone and its contents to more thorough analysis, including examination by more sensitive equipment and verification of the results by several independent labs.

As with the T. rex bone, there was no DNA, the code stored in cells that acts as a blueprint for every living thing, which may keep the talk of recreating live dinosaurs to a minimum this time. But the bits of protein provided at least some information about the dinosaur, including support for the theory that dinosaurs are more closely related to modern birds than reptiles such as alligators, something supported by the earlier T. rex study.

Thomas Kaye, a fossil researcher with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, remains skeptical that Schweitzer and her team have found dinosaur tissue. Last year, Kaye joined researchers in Poland and California in writing a paper published in an online journal suggesting that material her team believed was blood vessels was actually more recent biological contamination from slime that grew after moisture invaded the channels in the bones which once held blood vessels.

Kaye said Thursday that the new study shows material with structure similar to that in the earlier one. He said that the team found barely detectable amounts of protein that they believe came from the dinosaur and said that if the researchers had found real dinosaur blood vessels large enough to be visible, as those in the studies are, they would contain vast amounts of it.

He noted that the paper mentions that Schweitzer's team had also found some bacterial protein, which could be consistent with his slime theory.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

'Evolutionary Algorithms' Mimic Natural Evolution In Silico And Lead To Innovative Solutions For Complex Problems

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090502091200.htm

ScienceDaily (May 2, 2009) — Constantly "re-rolling the dice", combining and selecting: "Evolutionary algorithms" mimic natural evolution in silico and lead to innovative solutions for complex problems.

Extensive resource management is required in low rainfall regions, where groundwater reserves are rare and must be tapped with great care. Various factors must be taken into account: How the ground water interacts with its environment, where drilling must be performed without disadvantaging neighbours, how the ground water can be protected over a long period of time, and how the development costs can be kept as low as possible: This complex application problem was examined by Tobias Siegfried and Wolfgang Kinzelbach, professor at the Institute for Environmental Engineering at the ETH Zurich, with the help of simulated evolution. In doing so, they used methods developed by the group of Eckart Zitzler, assistant professor for System Optimization at the Department for Information Technology and Electrical Engineering. Eckart Zitzler specialises in tackling these types of hard problems with "Evolutionary Algorithms".

Approximating the best

The algorithms are called "evolutionary" because the characteristics of evolution – mutation, recombination and selection – form the basis of their search for promising solutions. They are most often used for complicated construction problems in engineering. The method is time-intensive but flexibly applicable; meaning it is particularly suitable for complex applications in which classic analytical processes do not work.

The random search process on which the algorithms are based is not mainly about finding the best solution, but rather about meliorization, i.e. constantly improving solutions. The researchers never know when they have reached the maximum improvement. "That's not the main issue. We are more interested in how well the initial solution can be improved," says Zitzler.

Optimally wiring automotive electronics

The Zitzler Group's most recent research project deals with automotive electronics; the computer systems, which, for example, control braking, air-conditioning and airbags, must be optimised. The problem here is that the wiring of the components, spread over various parts of the car, weighs over 100 kilograms. The researchers must build a hardware structure, and determine where which element can be optimally assembled in the car to keep the wiring weight low, costs minimal and the reaction time of the entire system short. The system must also be as reliable as possible.

Zitzler explains the process using a backpack which must be packed optimally as an example. If you are going on a hike and have to choose different things to take with you, but can only pack up to a given weight limit, Evolutionary Algorithms can generate different pack combinations. The items are thus given a number depending on their usefulness. The number combinations of a possible backpack filling form a sort of DNA. A random combination is initially selected. The DNA strands are then cut in half and re-combined. The content mutates by removing items and replacing them with new ones. Calculations are then performed to determine how good the combinations are, how useful and how heavy they are, and the top 50 percent from the populations of various backpack stuffing is selected.

The principle of randomness

The Evolutionary Algorithms find their solutions by explicitly making use of random decisions. A perfect example is one of the first studies of this type, which was conducted in the nineteen sixties by bionics specialist Ingo Rechenberg and engineer Hans Paul Schwefel by hand using a dice. They improved a supersonic nozzle so that it optimally accelerated the air flowing through. To do this, they sliced the nozzle into pieces. The researchers threw a dice to determine the mutation for how large the nozzle's diameter was to be.

The researchers had to test every configuration created in this way. They then chose the best (selection) from the so-called population of arrangements, and mutated these further. Every fifth configuration proved to be better. After 400 mutations and configurations, and a bizarre new nozzle shape, the supersonic nozzle's degree of effectiveness had improved from 55 percent to just under 80 percent.

At the time, computers which could perform the dice rolling task and simulate the respective new nozzles were not affordable. The process was therefore time-consuming, and owed an explanation as to why the new nozzles achieved a better degree of effectiveness. Nowadays, this method is called an Evolution Strategy. It was approximately another three decades until this type of problem solving was established in and as science.

Scientists only started using the method more often when computers became affordable. At the end of the 1980s, the first conference was held on the subject; today, there are several large and smaller conferences addressing Evolutionary Algorithms every year. The Evolutionary Algorithms are therefore a collective term for the various branches of research which have gradually developed: evolution strategies, evolutionary programming, genetic algorithms and genetic programming.

Today, Evolutionary Algorithms are also used in various aspects of teaching: For example, students at the D-ITET have written software which constructs towers from building bricks in such a way that they can soar well beyond the edge of a table.

Adapted from materials provided by ETH Zurich.