« June 2011 | Main | August 2011 »

Friday, July 29, 2011

Is Archaeopteryx Still a Bird?

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenAround a year ago, I read Peter Wellnhofer's book, Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. I learned quite a bit, but a new paper on Xiaotingia zhengi throws a kink into archaeopteryx's relative importance in understanding bird evolution.

Here are some typical examples of the coverage the paper has received:

Okay, first thing is to clear up some misconceptions. Paleontologists have not been suggesting that archaeopteryx was the first bird - only that it was the oldest known bird. In fact, if you go look at that review I wrote and look at the family tree from Wellnhofer's book, archaeopteryx is clearly shown on a side branch that went extinct, so nobody's even been arguing that archaeopteryx was a direct ancestor of modern birds. In fact, I'll just copy that family tree here:

Avian Family Tree

What the new paper does call into question is how closely related archaeopteryx is to modern birds. First of all, it's clear that birds are a type of dinosaur, and archaeopteryx was obviously a fairly closely related dinosaur. But new fossils have been found of other closely related dinosaurs - some that could probably fly, and some that probably couldn't. Whereas previously it was assumed that flight probably only evolved once, and therefore archaeopteryx was a bird, all these new fossils are calling that into question.

The new paper suggests that archaeopteryx was more closely related to deinonychosaurs* than to modern birds. The problem is that deinonychosaurs can't fly. So, there are basically two possibilites:

  1. Flight evolved multiple times in the maniraptorans. The common ancestor of archaeopteryx and modern birds was flightless, and each lineage evolved flight on its own. It's possible that powered or gliding flight evolved in other closely related lineages (such as Microraptor)
  2. Flight evolved once in the maniraptorans. The common ancestor of archaeopteryx and modern birds could fly, but then some lineages, such as the deinonychosaurs, lost that ability (like ostriches with teeth).
  3. Okay, I guess there's a third possibility. It's possible that the common ancestor of archaeopteryx and modern birds could fly, but that flight also evolved in another lineage of maniraptorans.
  4. Well, I suppose there's a fourth possibility, as well - that the proposed phylogeny by Xing Xu et al is incorrect, and that archaeopteryx should still be considered a member of avialae.
  5. I can't actually think of a fifth possibility, but I'm sure thre are some more possibilities I haven't thought of.

Here's the cladogram from the paper with the new proposed phylogeny:

(Click for larger image)

(Source: Pharyngula)

Paraves is the group that contains both archaeopteryx and modern birds. It also includes the deinonychosaurs, which couldn't fly. But in the avialae branch, it includes epidexipteryx, which also couldn't fly. We know from modern birds that losing the ability to fly has occured multiple times (ostriches, penguins, kiwis, dodos, etc.), so it's possible that the common ancestor for Paraves could fly and the deinonychosaurs and epidexipteryx both lost that ability. But it's also possible, like I wrote above, that flight evolved independently in the archaeopterygidae and the avialae.

So why doe this matter? Aside from trying to sort out the evolutionary relationships, I would think that this is relevant to the trees down vs. ground up debate on the origins of flight. As Wellnhofer pointed out, archaeopteryx was a terrestrial animal, not adapted for life in the trees. And it looked like its terrestrial characteristics were primitive, not secondarily derived from an arboreal ancestor. That was strong evidence in favor of the ground up hypothesis. But if flight evolved independently in archaeopteryx and modern birds, then archaeopteryx doesn't really tell us much about that evolution in birds. The trees down vs. ground up debate is back on.

So, what we have now are a bunch of fossils of very closely related dinosaurs, but it's not quite clear how they all fit together, and especially how the origin of flight fits in. I know what I would like for the truth to be, but reality doesn't care about my feelings. It's just going to take finding more fossils to fill in the family tree and make the picture more clear. Get to work on it paleontologists.**

For more information, here's a very good blog entry describing the new paper:
Pharyngula - Xiaotingia zhengi

*Okay, my nomenclature's not exactly right, but rather than re-type the whole thing, I'm just going to add this note. When I wrote 'deinonychosaurs' in this article, I was mostly referring to the dromeosaurs and troodontids, since this new analysis places archaeopteryx and related animals in with the deinonychosaurs.

**Actually, a comment from Tom Holtz in that Pharyngula thread (Holtz is a paleontologist at the University of Maryland) indicates that there are some new fossils that were recently discovered that should be coming to light fairly soon.

Updated 2011-07-31 - Added the fourth and fifth possibilities in the list, and added the note on my misuse of the nomenclature.

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Appendices, Part I

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers the first appendix, Note on the Word "Day".

McCann has made it clear that he accepts the Bible as accurate, but he's also an old Earth creationists. So, how does he reconcile an old Earth with the 6 day creation story from the first chapter of Genesis? Well, he doesn't think that 'day' means an actual 24 hour period. He thinks it means something else.

According to the Bible itself, the first three "days" of Genesis could not have been solar days in the strict sense of the term, because the sun itself was not created until the "fourth day."(McCann 333)

Well, I'm glad he's acknowledged this. Let's see how he continues.

How can the rationalists insist that the biblical word for "day," as used in Genesis, means a period of twenty-four hours, when in the second chapter, fourth verse, the entire period of "six days" is referred to as "one day"? (McCann 333)

I've already mentioned the discrepancy between the first and second chapters of Genesis. If I were McCann, I wouldn't be focusing on 'day'. I'd try to explain the chronological discrepancies. In fact, I think that 'rationalists' would say that there isn't a discrepancy in the use of the word 'day', but rather that they're two completely separate creation myths, that were both included in the Hebrew scripture.

McCann does make a point about non-literal uses of words.

The word "day" is obviously here a synonym for "time," in which sense it is frequently employed in scriptural phrases; as the "day of vanity," the "day of tribulation," etc. (McCann 333)

Here's a case where McCann's preconception that everything in the Bible must be accurate is biasing his reading of the book.

But to show the rationalists that the word "day," as used in Genesis, cannot be limited to a term of twenty-four hours it is only necessary to refer to chapter two, verse seventeen: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."

Now, according to the genealogy, age and death of the patriarchs from Adam unto Noah, as narrated in chapter five, verses three and four, Adam lived 930 years.

Here is proof, in the Bible itself, and in the very book of Genesis quoted by the rationalists, that "a day" consisted of the hundreds of years between the fall of Adam and his death. (McCann 333-334)

Why can't it simply be a mistake? The Bible was not written as a whole, set in stone tablets, unchanging throughout history. It's a kludge. There are many books in it, and pretty good evidence that even individual books have multiple sources (such as the separate creation stories in Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis). The books we have now are copies of copies of copies, subjected to translation errors, to boot.

McCann once again makes a case for 'day' being used in a non-literal sense.

Entirely apart from its significance of time, secular historians who deal neither with religion nor science often refer to something done as a "day." They speak of the "day of Waterloo." The Bible employs the word "day" in the same fashion - the "day of the Lord," the "day of great wrath." As the "day of Waterloo" means the same thing, the act, operation, work or performance, regardless of duration, so the analogous terms "evening" and "morning" may signify the completion of one act and the beginning of another, just as moderns speak of the "dawn of prosperity" or the "evening of life." (McCann 334)

My biggest problem with this, is the larger context of how 'day' is used in the first chapter of Genesis. It's not simply, 'on the first day, Elohim created these things, and on the second day he created these other things, etc.' The bible actually says, "And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day." It really is presented in a way that makes it seem as if the writers intended 'day' to be understood as a 24 hour period.

Proceed to Appendices, Part II

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dinosaur World's Dishonesty

Dinosaur WorldThis has already made it around the skeptical blogosphere, but it's interesting for the people that might not have heard it, yet.

The company, Dinosaur World, runs three roadside attractions - one in Plant City, Florida, one in Cave City, Kentucky, and one in Glen Rose, Texas. Just this past weekend, I saw the billboards for the Glen Rose one on a trip to drop my daughter off at a Girl Scout camp down the road, so this story has some personal interest to me. The attractions are life size dinosaur replicas, with a bit of information about the dinosaurs, a small museum, and a gift shop. Here's a picture from their website to give you an idea of what the place is like.

Theropod Dinosaur on Grounds of Dinosaur World

Now, there's nothing particularly noteworthy about any of that. It's the type of campy road side attraction that people have come to expect in America, and there are similar attractions all over the nation. What makes this story interesting is the blog post that appeared on their website this past Monday.

Educational information at Dinosaur World

At Dinosaur World, we present interesting facts about each dinosaur. Examples include, what they ate and unique charactaristics of each. However, we do have many books in the giftshop including information on creationism. Below is an example.

Why is so little known about dinosaurs? Despite all the new dinosaur discoveries, little is known about the dinosaurs because all information comes from fossils and a lot of "educated guesses" have to be made.

Where did dinosaurs come from? God created the entire universe and everything in it including all animals (Gen 1:20-25; Exodus 20:11; Genesis 1; John 1:3).

Are dinosaurs in the Bible? Dinosaur-like creatures are mentioned in the Bible including "behemoth" and "tannin". Perhaps the best example is in Job 40.

What were the dinosaurs like? Man and dinosaurs lived together and man were masters over all God's wonderful creatures. (Gen 1:26, 28) In the first early days, all animals were friendly and under man's control. None of the animals ate meat or killed. God provided for all. There was no sin, no death, no evil and no disease. It was after the flood that things changed.

What happened to the dinosaurs? The Bible says that a great flood covered the entire earth. All but those on Noah's ark were killed, including dinosaurs.

Were dinosaurs on the ark? The Bible says one set of every air breathing land animal was on the ark. (Gen 6:12-20; 7:15-16). Young dinosaurs would be small and easier to care for than the full grown ones.

What happened after the flood? After the flood, the earth was very different and temperatures had changed. Some places were very hot and some very cold. Many parts of the world were too harsh for the dinosaurs to live and much harder to find food to feed their enormous bodies. It is not just dinosaurs that have become extinct. In the last 350 years alone, almost 400 species have disappeared. After the flood man also was responsible for killing many animals. The wooly mammoths and mastodons where wiped out by humans.

What about "millions of years old"? Just because something is fossilized does not mean it is millions or even thousands of years old. When conditions are right, a bone can become filled with minerals quickly. The main ingredients are quick burial, water and minerals. Conditions during the flood were ideal for creating fossils.

So, the attractions are a kind of stealth creationist museum. They're not overtly creationist, but they tone down on actual information that might contradict a literal reading of Genesis, and they sell creationist information in their gift shop.

What makes the story perhaps even more interesting is how they've handled the attention they've received over that particular blog post - they deleted it. I guess they don't like people knowing their true motivation.

You may be asking yourself if the attractions really are creationist, or if maybe there's some other reason that that blog post showed up. I think it's pretty likely that the company really is creationist. Had it been a hacker or a rogue employee, with all the attention that this has received, you'd think the company would have replaced the blog post in question with a bit of an explanation, or at least a disclaimer that their attraction follows mainstream views of the history of the Earth. Their silence speaks volumes.

There's also the fact that they haven't yet disappeared the creationist language from the end of their Teachers Guide (pdf):

Creation Science

Dinosaur World hosts field trips for groups of homeschoolers and students from church schools that teach a literal interpretation of the biblical account of creation. The informative plaques in the park present general facts about the dinosaurs. There are very few “millions of years ago” references.

For more information about creation science, see Science Partners (consultants for home-school and other education programs)

especially their links page -


This whole affair is rather disappointing. For one, I was kind of hoping to go to the attraction in Glen Rose, even if I wasn't expecting a whole lot. Now, I'm not so sure I want to support creationists (and if I was, I'd go to the more entertaining Creation Evidence Museum). It's also just one more example of the dishonesty of creationists. Dinosaur World should just come out and admit their creationist sympathies. They'd still get ridiculed for it, but at least they'd have their integrity. Or better yet, they could go to the library and learn about the actual history of life on this planet.

(Hat tip to Pharyngula)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoWow. I think this might be my first blog entry about the Texas Board of Education where I'm not complaining about them (at least, not much).

I wrote a few days ago about the vote taking place today for the final adoption of supplemental science instructional materials. The worry was that given the past behavior of certain board members, there might be some last minute dealings that affected the adoption process. Of particular concern was the material submitted by International Databases, which explicitly supported Intelligent Design.

Well, the debating took place yesterday and the final vote today is now done. The end result was almost entirely good for our state's kids. The ID material was rejected outright, and most of the panel's recommendations were accepted.

The one snafu in the whole process was the recommendations of a particular member of the review panel, David Shormann, described by Steven Schafersman as "an aggressive and dogmatic Young Earth Creationist." Shormann suggested numerous changes to the biology materials from the publisher, Holt McDougal. TFN Insider has a copy of his recommendations, along with challenges to those recommendations from the publisher. As an example of the quality of Shormann's suggestions, here's one of them:

Whale evolution- 4 fossils is hardly a "transition". 400 intermediates would work. Also, research has shown that there is no reason to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal. Also, no complete skeletons have been found, but the picture shows a full skeleton, which a major factual error. It is erroneous to include it in this example. Ambulocetus also shows a full skeleton, which is another major factual error, since no complete Ambulocetus skeletons have been found.

Here's how the publisher responded to that one:

There is no scientific basis to the assertion that hundreds of intermediates would be required to establish a transition in the fossil record. Four forms are shown here as a representative sample to illustrate the transition. There are, in fact, many more species in the fossil record linking the earliest forms in the lineage to modern cetaceans.

The text in this figure explicitly states that Pakicetus was a land-dwelling mammal. However, the panel's comment that "research has shown that there is no reaon to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal" is not quite accurate. Research suggests that it was mainly a land animal living in seasonally flooded marshes and likely feeding in aquatic systems by wading and possibly paddling. The ear structure shows it as a taxa near the base of the lineage leading to modern whales. It should be no surprise that basal members of the group would not be aquatic animals, since cetacenas are derived from terrestrial ancestors.

It is true that no complete skeletons have been found of Pakicetus and Ambulocetus, but extensive sets of fossil evidence do exist. See the attached photo of fossil bones for a single specimen of Ambulocetus, which shows a nearly complete reconstruction of the skeleton (Source: website of Dr. Hans Thewissen, leading expert in cetacean evolution) In fact, complete skeletons are rarely found for any species in the fossil record, but it is not necessary to have a complete skeleton to make strong deductions about the form of an animanl, how it lived, and its evolutionary relationships.

As an indication of how some members of the board operate, the publisher was denied the opportunity to defend themselves against Shormann's comments. It also came out that Shormann's recommendations were never agreed to by the other members of the panel, even though one of the ultra-right wing SBOE members had claimed that all members of the panel had signed them off. So, one crank on the review panel had somehow gotten his recommendations to the publisher and into the SBOE debate about the educational materials.

Anyway, after a bit of discussion about what to do with Shormann's recommendations, a compromise was reached, whereby, in the words of Schafersman, "the biology materials can be adopted with the provision that Commissioner Robert Scott examine the eight passages and rewrite them in a way that is scientifically-accurate and satisfactory to the publisher." Schafersman wrote that he's talked with the commissioner, and that the commissioner intends to talk to appropriately qualified experts when resolving this issue.

So, it looks like the recent changes to the SBOE makeup due to the last elections have been good. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, and we can hope for better results for our children in the future.

More Info:

Updated 2011-07-27 - Added the links to the NCSE articles.

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 26

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 26, The Evolution of Evolutions, which is also the last chapter of the book.

This bit reminds me of the 'documentary', Expelled.

Charles Darwin, a youth of twenty-three years, embarking, 1831, as a naturalist on a surveying vessel, the H.M.S. Beagle, and looking forward to a voyage of five years in the South Sea Islands and Brazil, did not realize, as he became more and more interested in the ideas of Sir Charles Lyell, concerning the geological evidences of the "antiquity of man," what a tremendous impetus he was to give to the forces of war. (McCann 314)

Even back in McCann's time, people were trying to tarnish Darwin's reputation by associating him with war. Of course, this is an argument from consequences, which has no bearing on whether or not evolution is true.

I thought this passage was a bit humorous, just because it reminded me of that mindset where the world's 'going to Hell in a handbasket', or how things were so much better in the good old days.

Owen died, 1858, as Darwin's work was about to be given to the world, and with it a new conception of "conscience" destined to corrupt such morals as civilization could still boast of. (McCann 318)

Because morality was so much better prior to 1861, when slavery was still legal in the South, or prior to 1954, when school segregation was still legal. Or you could go further back to the Spanish Inquisition, or even further to the Romans, and consider how they fought wars. I've never quite understood the people who think modern society is so immoral compared to previous societies. From my point of view, it's been a slow progression.

I'm guessing McCann meant for this passage to make Darwin look bad, but it certainly seems reasonable to me.

Darwin's argument was that conscience proceeded from the dissatisfaction instead of the dissatisfaction proceeding from conscience. This argument was necessary if biology and evolution were to take the place of conscience and God. (McCann 319)

It's the old argument - are there any truly selfless acts? Do we do good deeds to help others, or do we do them to avoid guilt and/or get some pleasure from pride.

This is getting a little outside what most of what I've discussed in this series, but this complaint against Huxley certainly reminds me of the modern complaints against New Atheists. It almost makes it seem that there's really nothing all that 'new' to the New Atheism.

Like Herbert Spencer, he [Huxley -jrl] championed "The New Darwinism," and set out with the avowed purpose of attacking the foundation of revealed religion, declaring that "there is no evidence of the existence of such a being as the God of the theologians," rejecting Christianity with no appreciation of its historical effect as a socializing and civilizing force. (McCann 320)

But just to reiterate what I've been saying about arguments from consequences - whether or not Christianity has been 'a socializing and civilizing force' does not speak to the truth of Christianity's claims.

Once again, McCann has conflated abiogenesis with evolution.

Haeckel realized that this demonstration of Spallanzani completely shattered the evolutionist's theory of spontaneous generation. There was nothing to do but face the fact and to describe sympathetically what Haeckel himself must, therefore, characterize as "the famous experiments of Pasteur," which ended in the maxim, "Spontaneous generation is a myth." (McCann 324)

There's a big difference, though, between the concept of spontaneous generation that Pasteur, Spallanzani, and others disproved, and the start of life on the planet. Prior to Pasteur and others, it was thought that complex life would spontaneously arise out of certain non-living materials. For example, it was thought that maggots simply arose out of rotting meat. Notes from chemist Jean-Baptiste van Helmont even had recipes - a piece of soiled cloth plus wheat for 21 days for a mouse, and basil, placed between two bricks and left in sunlight for a scorpion. This is not nearly the same concept as abiogenesis, where very simple life would have gotten started given just the right circumstances.

Also, as I wrote before when reviewing Chapter 14, "There is... a very good reason why we don't see new life springing up any more - advanced life is already here. When life was first getting started on this planet, it had no living competition. There were no hungry critters to gobble up organic molecules floating about, or to gobble up any incipient life. Now, bacteria are everywhere. There's practically no nook or cranny with the conditions where new life could get started that isn't already inhabited by bacteria."

Here's another passage that would have fit right in in Expelled.

Marx insisted that society as we now know it has been evolved gradually out of many class struggles of the past; that the course of history has always been determined by economic factors, and that the present capitalistic society will inevitably be evolved into socialism. Thus Marxism became to social science what Darwinism became to natural science. (McCann 326-327)

I've said this over and over, but it still bears repeating. Consequences of an argument have no impact on the truth of the argument. Nobody would think to use the awful consequences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to say that nuclear physics was erroneous.

Besides, 'Darwinism' only describes what is, not what ought to be. Nobody thinks you should go around pushing people off buildings because Newton's theory of gravity says that things will fall.

McCann discussed several military types praising Darwin, but made the same mistake as above.

Carrying "the survival of the fittest" idea into its most brutal but none the less inevitable conclusions he says, page 35: "The state (which realizes the highest form of the culture of the race) can realize itself only by the destruction of other states which, logically, can only be brought about by violence." (McCann 329-330)

How is this an 'inevitable' conclusion of a theory that describes how things came to be?

Finally, here's the closing paragraph of the main body of the book.

That there should be no weakening of the fascination of "Darwinism," as the theory of man's ape-origin, is, to the writer, the most disquieting and at the same time most inexplicable phenomenon of the twentieth century, for the simple reason that the preponderance of scientific evidence, including all the established data and all the opinions based on truth as it has been stripped of error, have come into court solidly against the ape, whereas, on the other hand, there remains on the side of the ape nothing but the old inferences and assumptions, nothing but the old hypotheses and unsupported theories based on erroneous or deliberately fabricated premises, nothing but the old conflicts and contradictions, nothing but the old falsifications and exposures. In their choice the nations have the alternative of chaos or Christ. (McCann 331-332)

Although he's stated it before, by making this the closing paragraph, McCann certainly emphasizes why he rejects evolution. He thinks it goes against Christianity, and he doesn't want to be an ape. It really all comes down to his emotions, since anyone looking at the evidence objectively can't help but accept evolution.

However, McCann's not done with us yet. There are still the appendices, which I'll tackle in the next installment.

Proceed to Appendices, Part I

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Texas Education - Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoThe Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is in the news again, this time for science education. For a bit of background on the SBOE, one of my previous posts, Texas Education in the Budget Crisis, has a quick run down of the shenanigans the board has pulled in recent years, mostly on less than honest means of passing new standards for various subjects.

The latest controversy is over the adoption of new science instructional materials for our public schools. A one day hearing on the materials will be held this Thursday, July 21st, followed by a final debate and vote on Friday. Unfortunately, not all of the materials submitted for consideration are particularly good, and some are downright harmful.

Consider the material submitted by International Databases. Here are some of the passages quoted in that article.

…at the end of the instructional unit on the Origins of Life, students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life’s origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. This new way of thinking is predicated upon the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life’s origins.
Many scientists have adopted an unproven hypothesis upon which to build their theories regarding the origin of life and its’ diversification. This ‘foundation’ is called scientific materialism, naturalism, and so forth… There are other scientists who have adopted the unproven hypothesis that an intelligence is necessary to explain both the origin, and diversification of life on Earth. This view follows from the human experience that teaches order (complexity) results from intelligent action.

The article has more, along with screen captures to see these quotes in context.

While you might suspect that a sensible board would reject such materials that weren't based on mainstream science, not all of the board members have demonstrated themselves to be sensible. Given their past behavior and their actions leading up to this vote, there's some reason to worry.

For example, when nominating members for the review panel to evaluate these materials, several of the board members appointed creationists (including my own representative, Gail Lowe, who appointed a man who likened evolution to religious dogma).

The new head of the Board, Barbara Cargill (appointed by Perry to replace Don McLeroy, after his first choice, Gail Lowe, didn't even receive a confirmation hearing from the state Senate), has made some rather divisive comments. In a speech to the Eagle Forum, she stated:

Right now there are six true conservative Christians on the board, so we have to fight for two votes. In previous years, we had to fight for one vote to get a majority.

Not only is this counter to what should be the secular goals of our public education system (secular as in non-religious, not anti-religious), it's insulting to the other Christians on the Board who don't agree with Cargill.

So, if you live in Texas, send a letter to the Board member that represents you, demanding that they uphold sound science standards and only approve appropriate, evidence based materials (here's an example of what I sent back when it was the science standards up for debate, which obviously needs to be updated appropriately). If you don't know who your representative is, you can find out at Who Represents Me?. You can follow the links from there to get their contact information, though it appears that all board members seem to have the same e-mail address, sboesupport@tea.state.tx.us.

Hopefully, with the recent losses of the ultra-right wing bloc in the last election, there's some hope that underhanded dealings similar to previous occurrences won't take place, and that our students will end up with good educational materials.

Additional Links:

Added 2011-07-27 - The debate and vote are over, and our children came out the winners. You can read more in a new entry, Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate

Added 2011-07-21 & 22 - The debates are being live blogged by the TFN and by Steven Schafersman. So, here links to their live blogs, along with a bit more information.

Added 2011-07-19 - I've completed my letter to Mrs. Lowe, for anyone interested in reading it.

Attn: Gail Lowe - Science Instructional Materials

Mrs. Lowe,

I am a resident of Wichita Falls, and so you are my representative on the Board of Education. I have been disappointed in some of your past actions and votes that have weakened our children’s science education, but you have a chance to vote in support of sound science this Friday when it comes time to approve the new science instructional materials. It’s no secret that some of the submitted resources are sympathetic to creationism and Intelligent Design. Such resources do not accurately reflect mainstream scientific views, and would do our children a disservice by miseducating them.

I have written you before on science education, but considering your actions since that time, I feel obliged to repeat myself on certain issues.

First of all, evolution is accepted as true by the vast majority of mainstream biologists. Consider the following statement from the summary of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2008 report, Science, Evolution and Creationism (available online at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876):

"Scientists no longer question the basic facts of evolution as a process. The concept has withstood extensive testing by tens of thousands of specialists in biology, medicine, anthropology, geology, chemistry, and other fields. Discoveries in different fields have reinforced one another, and evidence for evolution has continued to accumulate for 150 years."

Rather than go on at length listing scientific organizations and agencies that have issued similar statements endorsing evolution, I'll direct you to the following page on the website of the National Center for Science Education, which does list such statements:

Similarly, I could go on at length describing all the evidence supporting evolution - both the fact of common descent with modification, and the various theories describing how evolution happens. Instead, I'll point out few very informative websites where you can find this information:

I hesitate to bring up the legal issues involved with the teaching of creationism, because we should simply be concerned with teaching our children the best science that we can, which evolution most certainly is, and raising other points seems a bit of a distraction. However, it cannot be ignored that when other states have provided openings to allow the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, it has resulted in costly court battles. Consider the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover trial in Pennsylvania, the Selman et al. v. Cobb County School District et al. trial in Georgia, or the Rodney LeVake v. Independent School District 656, et al. trial in Minnesota (which is relevant to the "strengths and limitations" tactic). These types of battles are completely unnecessary, as they could be avoided entirely simply by keeping science classes limited to well founded science.

I think it hardly needs to be said that I will not vote for a representative who puts their own biases above the recommendations of experts in the appropriate field. I urge you to vote in favor of the evidence based resources, and to reject the resources that would miseducate our children.

Jeffrey R. Lewis

Friday, July 15, 2011

Website Update - Website Facelift

Face LiftIf you happen to go visit my homepage, you may have noticed a change (here's the latest archived version on the Wayback Machine). I've decided that the static portion of my website is in need of a facelift, and that's where I started. I'll begin updating other pages as time permits, and make no promises on when the process will be completed.

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapters 24 & 25

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 24, Those "Six Days" of Creation and Chapter 25, The Evidence of Man.

Chapter 24

Chapter 24 is titled 'Those "Six Days" of Creation', and focuses more on the Bible than any other part of the book except for one of the appendices. I have to admit that I was especially interested in this chapter, since it relates to an essay I've written previously, Problems With a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis. I was curious to see how McCann would explain some of the language that just doesn't seem to make sense to me.

This following passage might seem to indicate that at least McCann wasn't a young earth creationist.

It has been the fashion among certain higher critics to focus an intense emphasis upon the Six Days of creation as recorded by the Mosaic narrative. They insist that each day shall be fixed literally, mathematically and astronomically as a period of twenty-four hours by the clock, notwithstanding the fact that the Mosaic word for "day" means an indefinite cosmic period of time, a while.

The scriptural use of the word "day" may mean just as much or just as little as any arbitrary chronology may demand, yet the parallel between the chronological order of the Mosaic narrative of creation and the most advanced discoveries of natural science is so marvelous that it inspired the great Ampere to observe: "Either Moses knew as much about science as we, or else he was inspired." (McCann 286)

However, just a few pages later, he shows that he might be.

Certain it is that instead of the hundreds of thousands of years [of human existence] demanded by the materialist the scientific probability approaches ever closer to 10,000 years, thus showing a tendency to return to the chronology of the Bible, according to which the Jews reckon that 5,682 years have elapsed (1921) since the creation of Adam. (McCann 291)

This type of inconsistency (some might call it dishonesty) from some creationists has always bothered me. I mentioned it in the beginning of another entry on problems with a day age interpretation of Genesis. Granted, not all creationists use this tactic, but it's infuriating with the ones that do. They'll insist that the Bible is meant to be taken literally, and that the plain sense of words should be used - right up until you use it to point out an absurdity, at which point they say that that particular passage was meant to be figurative or a parable or due to a translation error. So, sometimes the Earth really was created in six 24 hour days, and sometimes the lengths of the days are arbitrary. It all depends on what hour of the day you talk to them.

McCann did bring up a good point about reading ancient texts.

Jerome, one of the foremost of scripture scholars, laid down a principle that must ever guide the student. Be stressed the point that certain things in the sacral writings may be said "according to the ideas of time or according to the appearance of things rather than according to the actual truth." Even today we speak of "the rising and the setting of the sun." (McCann 293)

First of all, poetic license was in use thousands of years ago, just like today. The Song of Solomon is an obvious example of this. And, as McCann pointed out, there were probably phrases in common use that weren't meant to be interpreted so naively literally.

However, McCann's point is a double edged sword. When he quotes Jerome as saying "according to the ideas of time", we have to keep in mind what those ideas might have been, and avoid reading them through the filter of modern understanding. Just consider the world as described in Genesis. Through science, we've learned pretty much what our world is like and how it fits into the universe. We live on a ball of rock with a molten core, orbiting a giant ball of fusing gas, which is itself orbiting the center of our own galaxy, which is part of the local galactic cluster. When many people read the Bible, especially if they start with the preconception that the Bible is accurate, they interpret it to match our modern cosmology. But, many have argued that if you read the Bible looking for the authors' original intent, then it describes a world very different from reality. The ancient authors probably believed in a flat disc world, floating on an ocean, with a rigid dome (the firmament) that contained all of the stars above it.

McCann's general argument for Genesis, is that it is true, but that the meaning may not be exactly clear. It's somewhere between a figurative and a literal interpretation. It does at least appear to be an attempt to incorporate knowledge learned through science into his understanding of the Bible. To start off, consider this passage, discussing the initial creation of Earth.

Both the earth and its now dead moon had passed through fire, and though cooling, the earth's crust was still hot and there were fires in its heart. The moon had no "atmosphere" but science tells us that on the surface of the earth were great masses of steaming, hissing, boiling vapor, turbulent vortices of clouds miles in depth. No light could penetrate this stormy curtain. Such is the record of science. See how it agrees with the Bibleâ€" AND THE EARTH WAS VOID AND EMPTY, AND DARKNESS WAS UPON" THE FACE OF THE DEEP; AND THE SPIRIT OF GOD MOVED OVER THE WATERS. The surface of the earth was indeed a waste of waters. (McCann 293)

Moving on to the next page, here's how he explains the 'Let there be light' scripture.

Now, and now only could there be question of light on the face of the earth. The condensation of the great zone of vapor that had encompassed this watery world made possible at last the first admission of light. At this same point, too, the Scripture makes its first mention of light : AND GOD SAID : BE LIGHT MADE. AND LIGHT WAS MADE." (McCann 294)

Of course, the story in Genesis still hasn't said that the Sun was created, so the light mentioned above couldn't be coming from the Sun. Here's how McCann explained where the light came from.

According to the Bible the sun had not been created when the first light appeared. Science, with no thought of supporting the Bible, but with many demands that the Bible should be broken down, tells us that the first light consisted of the faint, luminous glow of the nebular masses which were in no sense fiery planets or suns. (McCann 294)

He still hasn't explained how there could be day and night without a sun, but he'll get to that in a couple pages.

Here's a sentiment that is very common to hear even today from people who interpret Genesis rather liberally.

Why did Moses speak of "light" before he spoke of the sun, unless he had some vision of the pre-solar globe which so many centuries later was advanced by so many nebular hypotheses? One would assume that Moses anticipated the criticism that "science and religion are out of harmony with each other," by providing this profoundly subtle chronology of the principal events of creation. (McCann 295)

I guess this is a good a place as any to say that the Earth wasn't formed before the Sun. Wikipedia has a decent summary of the history of our Solar System. A cloud of gas and dust began to collapse under its own gravity. Most of the matter collected in a hot ball of gas in the center - our nascent Sun. As this system continued to evolve (obviously, this isn't biological evolution), the cloud collapsed into a disc (this is just a simple consequence of the physics involved), and the pressure in the central ball became high enough that it began to fuse elements, becoming a true star. The matter in the disc began coalescing under gravity, forming the planets. So obviously, the Earth is younger than the Sun, making McCann's 'profoundly subtle chronology' just plain wrong.

McCann finally gets around to explaining 'day' and 'night' in Genesis, but his argument seems to contradict the story.

The probability is that this light, distinguishing day from night, even though faintly diffused through the mists, originated not with the solar nebula, but in the sun itself, for the reason that the glow by this time was more pronounced upon one side of the revolving earth than upon the other, so that the contrast of night was sufficiently denned to draw a line between the two. Had the light not come from the sun the nebular glow doubtless would have been equal in both hemispheres and there could have been no division between day and night. (McCann 296)

If day and night had to come from the sun itself, then what was the story referring to as day and night in the first three days of creation?

I've also made an issue previously about the language in Genesis referring to, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." Here's how McCann rationalized it.

Between the canopy of the clouds through which the light was diffused with increasing brightness, and the ocean that hitherto had covered the earth, there henceforth existed what the translator has rendered by the English word 'the firmament. ' It was the atmospheric space between the two worlds of water. " (McCann 297 - quoting Husslein)

Here, McCann tries to justify plants existing before the Sun.

Professor Lorande Loss Woodruff, referring to the appearance of plant life upon the earth before the sun could shine through the mists, mentions the existence of life elements upon the earth " before the atmospheric vapors admitted a regular supply of sunlight."

There seems to be no doubt in the minds of scientific men that plants and trees flourished upon the earth under such conditions. Not only is Woodruff of this opinion ("The Evolution of the Earth," p. 105) but John Smyth ("Genesis and Science," p. 40) says: "The plants and trees composing the carboniferous strata may have flourished luxuriously on the margin of shallow seas long before the sun deserved the name of a great light." (McCann 298)

This is ludicrous. Plants obtain their energy from photosynthesis - the Sun. It's possible that some life forms could exist on more feeble energy sources (such as at hydrothermal vents), but there is no way that there would have been luxurious forests, particularly on the scale of those that existed during the Carboniferous.

Here's another example of McCann spinning off into absurd statements based on a false base.

How did Moses know what the scientists now admit? How did Moses know light existed in the universe before the sun, moon and stars beamed upon the earth from the heavens? Why did Moses do the very thing that he never could have been expected to do had he received no divine revelation of the truth, when he reported the creation of plant life before mentioning, even remotely, the sun, the moon and the stars? Why did he begin with the creation of light and then go on in a humanly inexplicable line of scientific sequence, arriving at plants and trees before making any reference to the celestial bodies? (McCann 298-299)

What does this say about Moses considering that plants definitely came into existence long after the Sun?

Now here's a passage that Ken Hamm could be proud of.

" 'Now here we have another agreement between the Scriptural and scientific accounts, for the evolutionists will certainly not deny that zoological life seems first of all to have originated in the sea ; that it was preceded by the appearance of vegetable life ; that fishes did come before birds and that the gigantic saurians - which it is suggested may have been intended by the Hebrew word commonly but probably incorrectly translated "whales" - were a very remarkable feature of the period of geological time at which we have now arrived, since some of them attained a length of at least fifty feet. It has also been pointed out that it is somewhat remarkable that the writer, of course unfamiliar with science, should have grouped birds with fishes and not with mammals, which would have seemed more natural. Yet in doing so he is acting quite correctly.' " ("The Church and Science," pp. 181, 182). (McCann 300 - quoting Windle)

McCann is trying to put dinosaurs into the Bible, saying that the writers used a word that's been translated as 'whale'. It's about like modern creationists claiming that the 'leviathan' was a dinosaur.

This is yet another example of McCann displaying ignorance of something that he should have known better.

It should again be understood, on the chronological hypothesis, which, as we have seen, is but one method of interpreting the narrative of the Creation, that as Genesis is not intended for a detailed scientific account, so science in its turn has only the most fragmentary records to offer. Thus it is stated that the fossils of reptiles are found before those of birds; it does not follow that reptiles actually preceded the birds in the order of direct creation or of evolution. The earliest birds, more delicate in structure, might more readily have been destroyed so that fossil traces could not be found of them. Here our knowledge is so utterly inadequate. Hence there could be no question, on such a supposition, of affirming any contradiction. We have but begun our discoveries, and we shall never be able scientifically to establish all the data for the beginnings of life. (McCann 301)

I've mentioned this previously, but archaeopteryx was definitely known in McCann's time. What better evidence does he want of birds evolving from reptiles? In the time since McCann, we've learned much more about bird evolution, particularly in the last few decades from the fossil beds of Liaoning, China. Researchers have found terrestrial dinosaurs with feathers, and early birds that were originally mistaken for terrestrial dinosaurs. There's really no longer any serious doubt that birds are just flying dinosaurs, that evolved from non-flying dinosaur ancestors.

Here are some links to more info (yes, I gave these links in a previous installment of this series).

More info on Liaoning

Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

McCann didn't call it the 'Cambrian Explosion', but this appears very similar to the argument many modern creationists use.

"One other fact must still be stated here, and that is that the rocks of the earth themselves bear no direct evidence of any evolution. The various types, even among the early invertebrates in the Cambrian formation, appear 'clearly separated into all the families and most of the classes which exist at present.' The same is true of the vertebrates. The fishes in the lower Silurian formation appear just as clearly separated from the invertebrates. ' There are numerous quite different types existing, but separate from the beginning.' " (McCann 302 - quoting someone else)

Not all phyla appeared in the Cambrian. Some predated it, and others didn't appear until later. And the Cambrian 'explosion' was only relatively rapid on a geologic scale. It still happened over millions to tens of millions of years.

Talk Origins Index to Creationist Claims, #CC300

This sounds like it could have come straight from Of Pandas and People (of Dover fame, noted for the mention of "cdesign proponentsists").

"All that we can say is that the various clearly distinct species appear abruptly in their geological layers, as definitely characterized types. Sir William Dawson quite correctly writes ("Modern Ideas of Evolution") " 'The compound eyes and filmy wings of insects the teeth, bones and scales of batrachians and fishes all are as perfectly finished, and many quite as complete and elegant as in the animals of the present day. . . . (McCann 302 - quoting somebody else)

Just for reference, here's a passage from page 22 of Of Pandas and People.

Instead, fossil types are fully formed and functional when they first appear in the fossil record. For example, we don't find creatures that are partly fish and partly something else, leading gradually, in the dozens of characteristics which they exhibit, to today's fish. Instead, fish have all the characteristics of today's fish from the earliest known fish fossils, reptiles in the record have all the characteristics of present-day reptiles, and so on.

I could point to placoderms as an example of primitive fish that didn't have true teeth and jaws, but you don't even need to rely on fossils. Just look at lampreys and hagfish for surviving animals that don't have all the hallmarks of what are normally considered vertebrates.

Once more, McCann goes off on a point based on his erroneous assumptions.

For the present it suffices to have pointed out what agreement there exists between the facts of science and the actual sequence of creative acts in the order in which we find them recorded in the Scripture. The comparison draws from Col. Turton the following striking remarks: 'The points of agreement between Genesis and science are far too many and far too unlikely to be due to accident. They are far too many; for the chances against even eight events put down in their correct order by guesswork is 40,319 to 1. And they are far too unlikely ; for what could have induced an ignorant man (i. e., ignorant of modern science) to say that light came before the sun or that the earth once existed without any dry land." (McCann 304)

In regards to this chapter as a whole, I think there's a rather interesting point it shows. McCann here was trying to reconcile the Bible with knowledge gained through science. He was trying to read Genesis figuratively to match up with what was then (supposedly) the consensus on how the Earth was formed. Many people today do the same thing, and say, just like McCann, that it demonstrates that the Bible writers must have known a thing or two about the true history of Earth, because there's no other way they would have been able to write what they did. But take a look at what McCann thought was the history of Earth, compared to our much more accurate understanding today (it's still cloudy, especially the further into the past you go, but we keep building more and more confidence). McCann's idea of the history of the Earth is clearly wrong, and very different from what actually happened. But if the true meaning of Genesis is supposedly so clear, how is it possible that he could interpret it so differently from modern day theistic evolutionists? And if it's so easy to shoe-horn Genesis to fit whatever creation story you can come up with, does it really show insight on the part of its writer? Or rather, is it just flowery verse coupled with a creative interpretation on the part of modern readers?

Chapter 25

Chapter 25 is a kind of continuation of Chapter 24, but instead focuses on humans, being titled "The Evidence of Man". To be honest, there weren't any quotes from that chapter that really caught my eye. I'm sure I could have found a few decent ones to pull out if I'd tried hard enough, but honestly, do you really think this review needs to be any longer? Besides, most of the material is very similar to material from elsewhere in the book, and I've already covered repetitious topics enough, so there's really no need to cover it yet again.

Proceed to Chapter 26

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Debt Ceiling - Frustration With Politics

MoneyI've admitted several times before on this blog that I'm not an expert in economics. So, coming to grips with the debt ceiling debate isn't the easiest thing for me to do. But, from my understanding of what I've heard the past couple years that the economy's been in a recession, it seems to me that both Republicans and Democrats are doing the wrong thing right now.

From what I've read from reputable economists, it seems that the consensus is that the best thing to do during a recession is to spend, and not worry about balancing the budget (only in the short term until recovery, of course). For example, looking to the Great Depression, Roosevelt's New Deal helped some in the recovery, but it was really the massive spending associated with WWII (the gross debt briefly reached over 100% of GDP) that pulled the economy out of the Depression. Japan was one of the least affected countries of the Depression, and also practiced some of the most aggressive Keynesian economic policies.

Looking to the current recession, back almost a year and a half ago, there was good evidence that the original stimulus spending had worked, but that it hadn't been enough, and that more spending would have helped more. I remember wondering back then why there wasn't increased spending, and if the recovery was going to stall out because of it. Well, look at where the economy stands now.

But like I said, I'm not an expert. What do actual economists think? As it turns out, they think what I would have thought based on everything I've heard over the past few years. According to a recent CNN Survey, a majority of the economists polled think that budget cuts shouldn't be implemented until next year, at the earliest, because the economy hasn't sufficiently recovered at this point.

So, we have a bunch of right wingers insisting that we make massive cuts to government spending to balance the budget, a bunch of left wingers calling for increases in taxes to balance the budget, and middle of the roaders calling for compromise to balance the budget. Where are the politicians saying that balancing the budget isn't a priority right now because the economy is still too bad off?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 23

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 23, Evolution Upside Down.

Now here's an understatement.

Yet, when we come to man, the contradictions are baffling. If the descent of color in the cross between the negro and the white man followed the law of Mendel, the offspring of two first-cross mulattoes would be one black, two mulattoes, one white. But this is notoriously not so. The riddle is unanswerable though some day science may, with further knowledge of the chromosomes, throw light upon it. (McCann 278-279)

Science certainly has thrown a bit of light on genetics. Not all traits are as simplistic as the classic examples from Mendel's experiments. First of all, most genes don't have only two variants (known as alleles). For example, there are 70 different alleles controlling bloodtype, even though it only results in either A, B, or O types.

Many traits are also controlled by more than a single gene, and often, genes will have an effect on multiple traits, not just one. Using McCann's case of skin color, at least 4 genes are responsible for skin tone in humans, all with multiple alleles.

Immediately following the above passage was this.

Worthy of expression is the thought that an ape chromosome in the human cell would manifest even a recessive character somewhere along the line of countless millions of human creatures, yet even the most degenerate savages are singularly free from the slightest superficial resemblance to any simian trait or character which science has been able to identify. (McCann 279)

To begin with, I think there's more that a 'slight superficial resemblance' between humans and the other apes. Compare these two pictures, focusing on the anatomy from the neck down.

Bonobo body with Face Visible
Man with Face Visible

Here's another example of a photo showing just how similar chimps are to humans.

If you want to talk about other simian traits humans have, just consider atavistic tails. Why would humans have all the genetic 'programming' required to make a tail if it wasn't inherited from an ancestor that did have a tail?

Now new information!

Evolution, as the world has been taught to accept it, demands the acquisition of NEW CHARACTERS, though science now proves that if there is any evolution at all it consists in the LOSS of old characters. (McCann 279)

I've already used these examples a few times in previous installments to this series, but just to repeat, Richard Lenski's experiment, where e. coli developed mutations that gave them the ability to digest a new food source (citrate), is certainly an example of evolution producing a 'new character'. And I'll once again link to an article by Richard Dawkins, The Information Challenge, which explains the processes of how information can be added to the genome.

Now here's a good, testable idea - that foxes couldn't be bred into dogs.

On the subject of man's origin in the monkey Bateson is peculiarly silent, yet he is very positive in identical instances. Here are his words: "We see no changes in progress around us in the contemporary world which we can imagine likely to culminate in the evolution of forms distinct in the larger sense. By intercrossing dogs, jackals, and wolves new forms of these types can be made, some of which may be species, but I see no reason to think that from such material a fox could be bred in indefinite time or that dogs could be bred from foxes" - or men from monkeys! (McCann 285)

Now, a fox can't be bred into a dog exactly. They're distinct species that can't interbreed. But, could a fox be bred into a dog-like animal?

A Russian researcher, Dmitri Belyaev, performed an experiment to test this very question (he had to disguise his experiment as a test on physiology due to the Soviet Union's dogmatic rejection of natural selection). In the '50s, Belyaev started out with a population of silver foxes from a fur farm. In each generation, he picked the tamest foxes to sire the next generation. The experiment has now run for over 30 generations, and the population has changed markedly. Behaviorally, they are very friendly to humans, even whining to get attention. Physically, their development has changed, from opening their eyes earlier, to exhibiting hormonal changes later in life. More striking were changes in coat color (some having spotted coats), floppy ears, and rolled tails. In short, Belyaev bred foxes to be very similar to dogs.

As Charles Darwin pointed out 150 years ago, artificial selection is very much the same as natural selection (and thanks to advances since then, we now know even more). There's random mutation to the DNA of individuals, and some factor that causes certain individuals to be more successful than others, having more offspring and passing on their DNA, which is further changed with new mutations.

For more information, here is a brief summary of Belyaev's experiment, and here is a much more detailed summary.

Proceed to Chapters 24 & 25

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Creationism/Evolution Spam

No SpamI received an interesting spam e-mail the other day.

Hi Jeff,

We posted an article that we thought you and your readers might be interested in having a look at, "Yay or Nay: 20 Sites Debating Evolution vs Creationism" ( [link removed - jrl] ). Just thought I'd let you know that you would be interested in featuring or mentioning it in your blog.

Thanks for your time!
Sheryl Owen

It looked superficially honest enough. Only the included url (that I deleted) gave it away. It was to a site called 'change of address dot org' (with spaces removed and the dot as a '.'). They'd thrown together a handful of links on the topic, with the pretense of it being a useful resource, but it was obviously just a hook to try to bring eyes to their site so that they could sell you something.

I'm not going to link to that site, since that would reward their practices with an improved Google ranking. However, if you want to see it for yourself, just do a Google search for 'Yay or Nay: 20 Sites Debating Evolution vs Creationism', and it will pop up along with its clones.

First of all, it's set up as if there's a legitimate debate on the issue, with 8 pro-evolutionary science sites, 8 pro-creationism sites, and 4 'Middle of the Road Options'. Now, that's fine if you're trying to understand the culture of the debate, but it's not very useful for getting at the truth. There's no real scientific question over the truth of evolution - it's entirely a cultural issue, with people refusing to accept evolution for other reasons (such as religion).

But even looking at their links to pro-evolution sites is a bit odd. I've been rather caught up in the evolution/creation debate for several years now, so I know some of the better websites that deal with the issue. Their links left off some of the best. Here are the links they chose, in the order they presented them:

None of those are bad sites. In fact, if I had to make a list of the 8 best evolution sites that I knew of, I'd probably include a few they mentioned (especially The Panda's Thumb). But where is The TalkOrigins Archive? How can you possibly mention the evolution/creationism debate without including that site? In my opinion, it is the best resource for people who misunderstand evolution because of misinformation from creationist leaders. And what about Berkeley's Understanding Evolution site, PBS: Evolution, or even the National Center for Science Education?

Their pro-creationism sites were also odd. They included a link to the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and Answers in Genesis, which I fully expected, but left off links to the most prominent Intelligent Design sites, such as Uncommon Descent and The Discovery Institute.

Oh well. I get lots of spam, and I hardly ever mention it on this blog. And this entry ended up turning into something longer than the e-mail actually deserved. It's just a bit irritating to get an e-mail that initially looks like something that may be worth posting, only to discover that it's a scam. Plus, this was a decent opportunity for me to post links to some good resources on evolution.

For a post that I didn't consider terribly interesting, this one has already gotten a troll in the comments, and an e-mail from Robert Luhn of the NCSE (that's a lot of traffic for me, so back off </Billy Madison voice>). I may respond to David Buckna in the comments, but I thought I'd include up here two more evolution resources from the NCSE e-mail.

We've excerpted a ton of evolution books on our site. Check out our archive here:

Another good resource: our Antievolution Legislation Scorecard at:

Those are good resources worth taking a look at.

Update 2012-03-07 - If you happen to be reading this on one of the archive pages on this site, note that there was a rather long exchange between a reader and me in the comments section. You may want to click on the 'Read more' link to read the comments.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for June 2011

Top 10 ListJune's over, which means it's time to go looking at the server logs to see how my site did last month. Traffic is staying about the same as the past few months, but a bit lower than where it peaked back in March. (OTOH, March was anomalously high, and June was only slightly lower than the other months from this year, and still higher than any month from preceeding years.)

One new article made it into the top 10 - The 2010 Texas Republican Platform. It had been close a few times previously, but never quite made it.

My 2011 entries aren't doing so well. Two of them (Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 12 and Book Review - More Than a Carpenter) were ranked 11th and 12th just a month ago, but slipped down to 48th and 50th in June, and they're my highest ranked entries from this year. Oh well. I know I could get more traffic with some religious or political entries, but expect to continue to see a lot more of the God- or Gorilla? posts for a while yet, since things are still rather busy for me at work right now, and I don't have a lot of time to go researching for other in depth entries (though I'm rather proud of myself for the Directly Downwind Faster Than the Wind (DDWFTTW) post, even if it hasn't proven to be very popular).

So, here are the 10 most popular pages from this site for June 2011.

  1. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  2. Autogyro History & Theory
  3. Blog - The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican
  4. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  5. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  6. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  7. Blog - Response to Anti-Liberal Article by Gary Hubbell
  8. Blog - Creation Museum/2nd Law of Thermodynamics
  9. Blog - The 2010 Texas Republican Platform
  10. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapters 21 & 22

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 21, St. Augustine; St. Thomas and Chapter 22, Twelve Earthy Salts.

Chapter 21

A common creationist tactic these days is to ask, 'Were you there?' in regard to discussions of an ancient planet. This passage from McCann certainly reminds me of this tactic.

Professor Osborn does not know. Mr. Bryan does not know. St. Augustine did not know. Nobody ever knew. Each of us is permitted to speculate to our heart's content but none of us may ask another to accept an inference as a FACT. St. Augustine himself has no power to command acceptance of his suggested theory of evolution. (McCann 268)

Just for reference, here's the Talk Origins response to these types of arguments. I've also covered it in detail in my essay, Confidence in Historical Knowledge. Basically, we infer the truth through evidence, no matter where the evidence comes from. This is how we determine the truth of anything, not just past events. After all, it's not as if anybody has seen the Earth orbiting the Sun, but all the evidence certainly indicates that it does. Direct observation is certainly not a requirement for considering something true (and given the cognitive biases we're prone to, direct observation isn't always even a suitable condition for considering something true).

Chapter 22

I'd be rather hesitant to cite Arthur Conan Doyle in discussions on superstition.

Even H. G. Wells limits his bold assurances concerning man's origin to man's body. He avoids discussion of the origin of man's soul, as if the soul might not be mentioned among intellectuals for fear of incurring the charge of superstition, yet A. Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge, and a host of others classified as intellectuals suffer no timidity when, as spiritists, they proceed to their demonstrations of the survival of the soul after the body and the persistence of life beyond the here into the hereafter. (McCann 269)

The Cottingley Fairy incident certainly hasn't helped Doyle's reputation in these matters. I also wouldn't be including seances as evidence for an afterlife, when so many mediums have been shown to be frauds taking money from people in distress (or, at the very least, convinced of what they were doing based on very poor evidence).

McCann even had an early version of the tornado in a junkyard creating a 747.

If the living body, after death, is reduced to these twelve earthy salts, it certainly does follow that it was composed of them, but it does not follow that it came into existence out of them spontaneously. Otherwise a ship which is wrecked and broken up into firewood should have no orderly design or efficient workmanship behind it, but rather should have sprung into existence automatically out of a lumber pile. (McCann 269-270)

These arguments are just silly. Nobody suspects that the first life was very complex at all - just complex enough to self replicate. And there are plenty of hypotheses as to how it could have come about. I'll just direct readers to Talk Origins on this one.

Ah - an argument from consequences.

The Soulless THING!

Confronting the phenomenon of free will, they are obliged either to admit the existence of the soul or to deny free will entirely. They argue that: psychical energy is merely mechanical energy and thoughts are nothing more than the movement of atoms. It is futile, therefore, to struggle against crime on the ground that the exercise of free will, which doesn't exist, can make choice between good and evil. There is no good or evil, they say, but whatever they say there is much evidence to prove that the idea of the futility of struggle against crime flows naturally out of contempt for the soul and free will.

If man regards himself as nothing more than a highly developed ape and is convinced that he must inevitably yield to the impulses inherited from the ape, however gross, it is not difficult for him to find comfortable justification for any act or any crime that he can commit without discovery. (McCann 270-271)

First of all, consequences have no bearing on the truth of an idea. For example, nuclear weapons may be terrible, and the suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been horrible, but nobody would ever think those bad consequences are an indication that nuclear physics is wrong.

Second, I've never understood this line of argument. As far as morality, it doesn't matter where we came from, but what we are. We know our actions have an effect on the others around us, and we know that others experience feelings just like us, so that's why we try to behave in a way that doesn't harm others.

McCann also underestimates the morality of our fellow apes. This time, I'll link readers to a different article from Frans de Wall, Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior.

The issue of free will, though, is an interesting question, as is how our understanding of it should affect laws and how to treat criminals. But first, people have to define what they actually mean by free will. Surprisingly, I seldom see people present a cogent definition that doesn't rely on intuition.

Definitions aside, we have to ask ourselves if the purpose of courts and jails is strictly for punishment and vengeance, or if the ultimate goal is a safe society. I would go with the latter, which makes the justification for jails clear even if free will is only an illusion. If people behave violently, you must isolate them from the rest of the population to keep society safe. If the threat of being jailed acts as a deterrent, then that's an additional method by which they safeguard society.

There's actually a very interesting discussion of this issue at the website* Why Evolution Is True, in the entry titled Free will, the brain, and the law.

There's not much significance to this quote, except that I think 'monkeyfied' is pretty funny.

Of course if there is no God, and no soul, and no free will, and nothing but a monkeyfied descent from the lemur, then it follows that conscience itself is a mere movement of atoms; that it cannot hold in check man's greed or his lust, his passions or his nameless instincts. (McCann 271)

This doesn't make logical sense. Even if free will were necessary, you have to jump from free will to a soul, and then even worse, from free will to a god. How does McCann make a god a necessary precondition for the existence of souls?

The following reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA - non-overlapping magisteria.

Science admits that it can find no cause of life existing upon this earth. Philosophy interrupts to remind science that the cause of life is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one, and that the cause of life must be looked for outside the earth. The creation of matter, the creation of life and the creation of the mind of man, of his intelligent soul, are not zoological problems. (McCann 274)

This stance has always bothered me. Practically nothing is outside of scientific investigation, especially those questions that have objectively true answers (for subjective answers, science can at least give us statistics on how many people feel a certain way about something, or inform our decisions with the full facts). If we threw up our hands in the air every time something seemed too mysterious and left it up to the philosophers, we wouldn't know a thing about quantum physics or dark matter. (I've covered this issue of science being the best method of answering objective questions in the entry, 'Scientific' Facts.)

The origin of life definitely happened somehow. There's an objectively true answer to how it happened, meaning that it's open to scientific investigation. Philosophers can still ponder what the significance of the origin of life might be, but their ponderings are baseless if they're not grounded in evidence.

*According to practically everyone else, Why Evolution Is True would be called a blog. But its author, Jerry Coyne, insists on calling it a website.


Proceed to Chapter 23

« June 2011 | Main | August 2011 »