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A Mammal for Your Monday

July 26, 2010 5 comments

Nyctereutes lockwoodi

July 21, 2010 4 comments

Back in December, I noted the announcement of a new species of raccoon dog (Nyctereutes lockwoodi). The paper is now online and, as we suspected, the species is “[n]amed after the late Charles Lockwood, for his contribution to our knowledge of the genus Australopithecus in South and East Africa as well as his role in the exploration of the morphological temporal trends of A. afarensis in the Hadar Formation.” As it happens, Bill Kimbel and I are currently putting the finishing touches to our final manuscript with Charlie. More of that later, no doubt.

Ref: Gerrads et al., (2010) “Nyctereutes lockwoodi, n. sp., a New Canid (Carnivora: Mammalia) from the Middle Pliocene of Dikika, Lower Awash, Ethiopia.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(3):981-987. doi: 10.1080/02724631003758326

Some crazy for your Sunday

June 13, 2010 5 comments

Those of you who can remember high-school physics will know that kinetic energy is the energy a body has due to its motion, or the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its current velocity. Not according to “psychic” and convicted fraud, Sylvia Browne, who defines it thusly in her latest book :

Kinetic energy is the unintentional, spontaneous manipulation of inanimate objects through no obvious physical means, causing its possessor to become kind of a hapless walking force field. There are several theories about what creates kinetic energy. And, of course, there are just as many skeptics who will swear it doesn’t exist at all, which I’d be happy to consider if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes a few thousand times.

What? You see, Browne believes that your “kinetic energy” can can cause inanimate objects to be spontaneously manipulated without your volition.

(Hat tip to J-Walk Blog)

[Review] 99% Ape: How Evolution Adds Up.

June 6, 2010 1 comment

The following review first appeared in Journal of the History of Biology (2009).

To historians, textbooks can be useful data. Because of their very nature that can act as time capsules for “consensus science” during the period of their publication: cutting-edge science is usually omitted and students are usually only exposed to what is accepted by the majority of the scientific community. This is particularly true of textbooks aimed at secondary-level students. Yet textbooks – due to their pedagogical role – never fully disentangle themselves with the socio-political milieu from which they emerge. A classic example of this is George William Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914) which – along with the accepted science of the day – discussed eugenics, the perceived negative implications of “parasitic” families, and the hoped for future improvement of the human race. Textbooks, in short, can be more than just collections of scientific facts and theories; they are also embedded (and can function) within a socio-political matrix. I will return to this issue presently.

The work under review is the textbook for an entry-level Open University (UK) course titled Darwin and Evolution and as such is aimed at readers with no previous background in the biological sciences. As such, it offers an entry into the current state of evolutionary biology and sacrifices breadth for depth. Throughout the reader is presented with the evidence for evolution as fact (change over time within populations in both the neontological and paleontological realms) and as pathway (hypotheses about what changes into what through deep time). In addition various mechanisms for evolution are briefly discussed, with pride of place being given to Charles Darwin’s two mechanisms of natural and sexual selection. The examples will be familiar to many readers: Galapagos finches, East African cichlids, Hawaiian picture wing flies, the evolution of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) from simian viruses, the transition to land, the evolution of birds and feathered dinosaurs, the evolution of whales, industrial melanism in peppered moths, and of course, human evolution. All are covered relatively briefly using clear text and often stunning illustrations.

Throughout the work genetic and morphological studies unite to offer explanations of organic diversity. Data from fossils are united with genetic studies (both phylogenetic and within the field of evolutionary developmental biology) to present our current understanding of a particular phenomenon. Often these investigations are put with an historical context. A good example of this is the chapter devoted to Darwin’s finches. Beginning with an account of Darwin’s own engagement with the group (and after tipping the hat to the pioneering work of David Lack) the chapter discusses the long-term studies of Peter and Rosemary Grant before culminating in a brief discussion of how the proteins calmodulin (CaM) and bone-modulating protein 4 (bmp4) control beak size and shape, illuminating how changes in the activation of genes controlling the production of these proteins could account for aspects of speciation within Geospiza. These findings are then integrated into a discussion of the geological and environmental history of the Galapagos archipelago. All of this occurs in eleven pages with twelve figures.

Historians of evolutionary biology are not likely to learn much new from this work and its value will be to us as teachers, providing as it does a brief and visually appealing introduction to modern evolutionary biology, one which can be recommended to students with little or no background in the sciences. That said the seven co-authors, all biologists, work hard to include historical information within the individual chapters. The work is richly illustrated with many images that historians will recognize and quotes abound from Darwin’s notebooks, Origin, and the Journal of Researches. Yet Darwin is not the only historical figure one encounters – Thomas Henry Huxley, William Paley, Samuel Wilberforce, and Louis Agassiz are (somewhat predictably) mentioned. There are however some surprises. The chapter on whale evolution introduces the reader to the relatively little known anatomist, William H. Flower, who in 1883 proposed – based on multiple lines of evidence – that whales evolved from artiodactyls. This idea received little support until the late 1980’s when new fossil finds and genetic studies overthrew the prevailing view that whales were related to a carnivorous group known as mesonychids. In time it has become clear that the closest living relative to whales are in fact hippopotami. The book commemorates Flower’s bold claim with a full-page picture and an extensive quotation that is worth repeating here (in an abbreviated form):

“We may conclude by picturing to ourselves some primitive generalized, marsh-haunting animals with scanty covering of hair like the modern hippopotamus, but with broad swimming tails and short limbs, omnivorous in their mode of feeding … gradually becoming more and more adapted to fill the void place ready for them on the aquatic side of the borderland on which they dwelt, and so by degrees being modified into dolphin-like creatures inhabiting lakes and rivers and ultimately finding their way into the ocean.” (p. 93).

As I mentioned above, textbooks function within a socio-political matrix. Here in the United States that matrix is distinguished by the fact that over 50% of the population apparently believes that “the development of life was guided by intelligent design” (Zogby Poll, June 2009) and while traditionally an American problem, such anti-evolutionism has manifested itself in Europe and Australia. Chapter 18 distinguishes the “science of evolution” from the non-science of creationism and rightly identifies the modern Intelligent Design (ID) movement as a manifestation of the latter. Indeed, much of the evidence discussed in 99% Ape is precisely that dismissed by proponents of ID (such as Jonathan Wells) as flawed “icons of evolution”. Perusal of this book will show how strong the evidence for evolution (as fact, pathway & mechanism) is. Noting that there are no constitutional barriers (as there are in the US) to the teaching of creationism in British schools, the authors implicitly set their volume as a bulwark against future creationist incursions. For all of us – whether British or not – the book can serve as a primer of forceful examples to use whenever one needs to illustrate the evidence for evolution to a skeptical audience.

Jonathan Silverton, ed., “99% Ape: How Evolution Adds Up” (London, Natural History Museum, 2008; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009), 224 pp., £14.99, $26.00 (paper).

R.B. and the Volcano

June 5, 2010 4 comments

The Arizona Republic is running a story about Robert “R.B.” Trombley, head of the International Volcano Research Center (INTLVRC). Trombley has appeared in a number of media outlets as an expert on volcanos after the recent Icelandic eruption.

Now it turns out that the media were using a definite non-expert in their rush to generate opinion. Trombley’s “PhD” came from Dallas State College, a degree-mill in Texas that has been defunct since 1975. This didn’t stop Trombley claiming credentials in astronomy, expertise in volcanology, and a record of peer-review:

Trombley said his work has been peer-reviewed and told The Republic he was published in Eos, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. No work bearing Trombley’s name could be found in a search of AGU’s archives.

But my favorite bit has to be this claim by R.B.:

“I don’t have a degree in geophysics or geology, per se, but it’s like I’m so close … I’ve worked in the field so long and been to so many different volcanoes and stuff, that, you know, I haven’t found one thing I’ve said yet that hasn’t been true.”

The INTLVRC is run out of Trombley’s home – a pink trailer in Apache Junction. One look at the INTLVRC website would have indicated that a certain professionalism was missing. It seems that journalists at CNN and the WSJ need to learn how to do basic research.

A YEC take on anthropogenic global warming

June 3, 2010 5 comments

I was browsing Answers Research Journal today and noticed the following contribution by Rod J. Martin – “A Proposed Bible-Science Perspective on Global Warming.” The abstract – somewhat predictably – reads:

Media coverage of global warming has been increasing for over twenty years. Major proponents include the United Nations, politicians, environmentalists, and celebrities. Oddly, the church has had little to say on the issue and has made scant use of Scripture to evaluate the alleged problem. This paper will identify the major goals of global warming advocates, propose a biblical (young-earth creationist) framework for evaluating the issue, and highlight basic scientific data related to the alleged claims. It will be shown that the Bible provides sufficient counsel to enable Christians to evaluate the claims of global warming and arrive at a confident position that is in accord with real science. The contention that man’s activities are causing global warming, as described in the media and by its advocates, is a myth. There is no reason either biblically or scientifically to fear the exaggerated and misguided claims of catastrophe as a result of increasing levels of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2[sic]).

As an insight to the standards of ARJ, I’ll just note that that CO2 typo occurs throughout the article, as is O2, though in fairness, the PDF of the article has the correct subscripts.

Here’s the end of the paper:

Why there is no reason for alarm

  • O2 and CO2 in the atmosphere were created, they did not evolve.
  • Today’s atmosphere likely contains significantly less CO2 than before the Flood.
  • CO2 is necessary for life, and was created prior to plants and animals.
  • CO2 is not a pollutant.
  • Increasing levels of CO2 are beneficial for plants.
  • Decreasing levels of CO2 could be a serious problem.
  • Burning fossil fuels simply returns CO2 to the air, from which it originated, in the pre-Flood atmosphere. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere does not reverse a billion year old evolutionary trend and upset the delicate balance of nature.
  • The present levels of oxygen in the air are adequate without any unusual efforts to plant trees or to further limit the forestry industry.
  • Plants were created as food for humans and animals. They are not necessary for storing carbon or for generating O2.
  • Glaciers have been retreating for thousands of years since the Flood. Most of the glacial melt occurred before man began burning fossil fuels.
  • Ice age glaciers melted due to cooling seas, not warming seas.
  • Climates have been constantly changing since the Flood. Consider all the major climate changes since the Flood and initiated by the Flood.
  • Plants, animals and mankind have been adapting to climate for thousands of years.
  • Recent global temperature histories are insufficient for developing reliable conclusions about trends or impending catastrophes.
  • Increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will continue to improve crop production around the world, benefiting mankind.
  • Neither melting glaciers, increasing CO2, changing climates, nor earth’s surface temperature history are proof of global warming.
  • God is in control of history and the earth’s climates, not man.

I haven’t encountered Martin (an “independent researcher” in Santa Clarita CA) before and the googles are doing nothing. Any reader know anything about him?

[Review] The Evolution-Creation Struggle

June 3, 2010 Comments off

51J86J7T0DL._SL160_.jpg[The following appeared in Nature Reviews Genetics in 2005 under the title "The Secular Religion of Evolution(ism)". As such it appeared before the tendency of New Atheists to throw out the epithet  "appeaser" or "accomodationist" (and their general vehement detestation of Ruse). While in a different venue (or indeed five years later), I may have written a different review of the book, here is what I wrote back then.]

As an undergraduate in Ireland in the mid-80’s I ran across a copy of Ashley Montagu’s book Science and Creationism. Frankly, I felt that I was reading some kind of parody – could there actually be people in a technologically literate country like the United States who denied both the fact of evolution and the hypothesis that natural selection was a mechanism for such change? Such opposition was not an issue in Ireland and I could not see why it should be in America. Subsequent experience has taught me that this is sadly the case, and indeed that anti-evolutionists often have understandable reasons for their opposition to Darwinian evolution.

The Montagu volume contained an article by the philosopher and historian Michael Ruse describing his experiences during the 1981 Arkansas “Scopes II” trial in which he provided Judge William Overton with a somewhat controversial definition of “science” and thus the basis of the decision to ban “creation science” from Arkansas public schools. This decision, along with the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v Aguilard, marked a sea-change for the anti-evolution movement in America. As a result, creationism itself was forced to evolve and indeed, the resurgence of intelligent design (ID) is a clear indication that anti-evolutionism has not died in the United States. With ongoing creationist action at the state and local level in many states in America, the struggle between supporters of evolution and creation is not likely to disappear soon, and indeed ID appears to be making some inroads into Europe.

In this relatively short and readable book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Ruse sets out his vision of this ongoing struggle between evolution and creation. Following a broad historical narrative beginning with the Enlightenment and discussing the development of evolutionary biology as a fully-fledged professional science, Ruse is careful to distinguish between evolution and evolutionism. The former is a professionalized field within biology that deals with facts and observations, the latter, a secular religion of evolutionary philosophical naturalism that smuggles values into evolution. Ruse notes that evolutionism is practiced – if not preached – by many of the most skillful popularizers of evolutionary biology; Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, William D. Hamilton, Jerry Coyne, and William Provine are all offered as exemplars. These supporters of evolutionism, Ruse claims, exhibit a worldview that is ultimately optimistic and supports progress. In fact, he sees such individuals as essentially post-millennial, that is believing that humans can work towards a better future. This is in opposition to pre-millennialists (including advocates of creationism and intelligent design) who, believing in Christian providentialism, hold that human action alone cannot and will not make the world a better place. Ruse thus shifts the “struggle” from (the traditionally accepted) one of evolution versus creation to one of differing visions of the future of humanity.

It would be tempting – and easy – to misread Ruse as saying that evolution is a religion, and I expect creationists will, if past history is any guide, misquote portions of this work. Ruse clearly states that evolution is a mature, professional science exhibiting “[p]rediction, consilience, consistency, and fertility”. Indeed, Ruse denies these very characteristics to intelligent design, stating “we find no empirical or conceptual reason whatsoever to think of intelligent design theory as genuine science … [T]here are no results. And there are no new predictions leading to new and unexpected discoveries”. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Ruse.

He also believes that Darwinism – or any other form of evolution – does not entail the secular theology of evolutionism, and that Christianity itself does not entail any form of anti-evolutionism. In short, one can be a Darwinian and a Christian – an observation backed up in the writings of theologian John F. Haught or biologist Kenneth R. Miller. Thus, Ruse sees it as a fatal flaw for supporters of evolution not to realize that there are deeply religious individuals who support evolution yet dismiss evolutionism, and he states that evolutionists need to “start thinking about working together … rather than apart” with such individuals .

Ruse’s point is clear; “Those of us who love science must do more than simply restate our positions or criticize the opposition. We must understand our own assumptions and, equally, find out why others have (often) legitimate concerns. This is not a plea for weak-kneed compromise but a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues. First understanding, and then some strategic moves”. The evolution-creation struggle has generated more heat than light in the quarter century since the Arkansas trial, and it shows no sign of letting up. Whether Ruse’s analysis is ultimately accurate or not, he is correct in claiming that, as educators and evolutionists, we need to be aware of the potential perils of evolutionism.

Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Harvard University Press, 2005

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