Thursday, April 08, 2004

Monkey Culture Recent research on capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica suggest that they have bona fide cultural traditions. In other words, they engage in activities that do not stem from their biology. Instead, these are behaviors that are invented by small collections of monkeys, then learned by other members of the troupe.

It's been known for some time that great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas engage in cultural behavior. There was initially some resistance to this idea, since culture was once thought to be the exclusive domain of human beings. This current research is the most impressive evidence to date that such behavior extends to monkeys as well.

The details are available in this article from Science News. Here's an excerpt:

It's not easy keeping up with pint-size monkeys in the jungle. The teams of researchers who've been doing it for the past 14 years have had to put up with a lot: barreling face-first into spider webs before sunrise, hacking through dense, bug-infested undergrowth, getting droppings in their hair, and being heckled by cantankerous little monkeys called capuchins. Still, there's no place Susan Perry would rather be than the forests of the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.

Two adults practice what researchers call hand sniffing. The capuchins stick their fingers up each other's nose and sway gently, holding the pose for several minutes at a time.

Perry is a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and she's been studying white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) at Lomas Barbudal since 1990. Each day in the field, she and her colleagues get to observe these monkeys' curious interactions, some of the quirkiest behavior in the animal kingdom.

For example, one game begins when one monkey bites a clump of hair from another monkey's face. The two monkeys use their teeth to pass the clump back and forth, dropping a little hair each time. When the hair runs out, the game begins again.

In another unusual duet, two monkeys sit together for long periods, swaying gently—with their fingers up each other's nose.

These are among the numerous social conventions that Perry and her colleagues call "traditions." The behaviors are so named because they don't appear to be an inherent part of the animals' biology; instead, the knee-high monkeys seem either to invent them or to learn them from each other.

Perry also observed that only certain individuals in certain cliques practice the behaviors. Moreover, the activities aren't necessarily perennial: They endure for various lengths of time and can be modified in the life of a monkey troop. They can become fashionable, fall out of use, and return some years later.

Innovative, learned, parochial, transient, flexible—these words describe some of the hallmarks of cultural behaviors, as set forth in numerous studies of nonhuman primates. Does this make capuchins a species with culture, as many researchers suggest that chimpanzees and other great apes are (SN: 6/19/99, p. 388)? And what do the strange high jinks mean to the capuchins?

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Never Trust an Orchid Have a look at this interesting article from The New York Times. Orchids have long been a subject of fascination for evolutionary biologists. Darwin himself wrote a lengthy book describing the various adaptations they evolved for the purpose of attracting bees. One puzzle in this regard is the prevalence of orchids that do not contain any nectar. Bees are not the brightest creatures in the world, but surely they would not waste their time on flowers that give them no nutritional value. Darwin speculated that these flowers actually did produce nectar, but that the science of his day had not detected it.

It seems that Darwin was wrong on that one. New research, described in the article, show that flowers benefit from not providing nectar to bees. The point is that if the bee is receiving nectar from a particular flower on a larger plant, the bee will subsequently visit other flowers on the same plant. This results in inbreeding, which is not good from the plant's perspective. By not delivering nectar, these plants are encouraging the bees to fly elsewhere, thereby spreading their pollen to more receptive plants.

Bees are attracted to orchids by their smell, and they are capable of remembering that certain smells lead to plants with nectar while other smells do not. Why, then, do they continue to visit flowers that smell like they have nectar but actually do not? The answer, it seems, is that the individual flowers of a deceptive plant do not all have the same smell. This keeps the bee sufficiently confused, apparently.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Dr. Schiestl notes, however, that while an individual orchid benefits when an insect is unsatisfied enough to fly off, somehow another plant of the same species has to be able to lure that insect in, or else the pollen it carries will never lead to fertilization and its ultimate evolutionary goal: a seed.

"Bees can learn and memorize the odor of an individual flower to decide what it will visit next," he said. "So if it encounters a deceptive flower, it will avoid flowers that smell similarly." So how have green-winged orchids, which any right-thinking pollinator would avoid after the first pointless visit, managed to persist?

The answer appears to be further deceptions still.

Dr. Schiestl said that in a new study, he and colleagues found that a closely related orchid that produced nectar had flowers that all smelled enticingly like one another. The smells of individual flowers of the deceptive Anacamptis morio species, however, differ widely, providing a moving target to the hapless bees trying to avoid being tricked yet again and ensuring confusion, along with a healthy crop of green-winged orchids next year.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Dumping on Dembski I just completed a lengthy post over at The Panda's Thumb about some rhetorical sleight of hand going on in William Dembski's latest book, The Design Revolution. You can find the whole article here.

Evolution Lawsuit in Georgia Last year the school board of Cobb County, Georgia voted to place warning labels about evolution in their biology textbooks. Those warning label's read:

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

Now, according to this short article from, a judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of six Cobb County parents challenging the constitutionality of the labels. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Other school districts, not to mention the entire state of Alabama, already use such labels. If the lawsuit is successful, it is likely to encourage other suits of the same nature.

There are two main things I find objectionable about this label. The first is the childish distinction it draws between “theory” and “fact”. In everyday usage, the word “theory” is often used to suggest something that is little better than a guess, but that is not generally what scientists have in mind. To them a theory is something that explains a large collection of facts. Scientists will talk about Einstein's theory of relativity or the germ theory of disease, but both of these have been established to a level of certainty that justifies calling them facts as well. Evolution is in a similar situation. Sure, it's a theory. But it's a theory supported by so much data that it is mere stubbornness not to call it a fact. The school board is clearly trying to imply that evolution should be treated as less secure than other parts of science.

This leads to the second problem: Why is evolution being singled out for consideration? Is the implication that students should not critically analyze scientific theories other than evolution?

Of course, everyone knows the reason evolution is being singled out. It is because evolution is considered threatening to people's religious beliefs in ways that other theories are not threatening. The school board is trying to sow doubt about evolution to prop up people's religious beliefs. The only real question is whether they have been sufficiently subtle about it to pass constitutional muster.

Monday, April 05, 2004

As Does Seebach Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News has called my attention to this column she has written on ReligionGate. She is kind enough to cite this blog, and quote some of my writing, in her column. Here's a sample:

The Discovery Institute should probably avoid sending out press releases on April Fool's Day.

The one I got Thursday was headlined “Evolution Group Uses Federal Tax Money to Promote Religion, According to Critics,” and at first I thought it was a spoof, though it did occur to me to wonder how anybody could tell, given the source.

The Discovery Institute (discovery. org on the Web) is a Seattle-based think tank which is in fact quite sound on a number of issues. I think I've even quoted them on occasion. Not any more, though, because its section on science and culture is largely devoted to promoting the idea of intelligent design, and that is a sufficiently odd preoccupation as to cast doubt on everything else they do.

According to an earlier e-mail from the same source, intelligent design theory “holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection” (the quotation marks are in the original e-mail, which does not say who is being quoted).

John West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture, declares in an online article that intelligent design is not creationism. That's true, if the word is used to refer only to the "young earth" creationism based on a more-or-less literal meaning of Genesis. Young-earth creationism is so incompatible with all modern science, not just evolutionary theory, that essentially nobody would believe it except out of religious necessity.

I can't say I have ever found anything useful emanating from any of Discovery's many orifices, but I certainly endorse the rest of this excerpt.

Ms. Seebach goes on to include one small criticism of the NCSE/Berkley website:

That said, if this is a half-million-dollar project, I don't think the taxpayers got their money's worth. The page with the paragraphs about religion features a cutesy cartoon of two men holding hands, one a scientist in a white lab coat holding a fossil and the other a man in a clerical collar holding a Bible. Awww, how sweet.

For middle school students, maybe. But I'd be worried to learn that there were actually people teaching science in school who needed instruction at this level. Perhaps I should be worried.

Actually, I had the same reaction to certain parts of the cite. It is, at times, a bit too cute. On the other hand, the site is intended as a place to go for quick information. It is not a replacement for a graduate seminar.

Mooney Weighs In... The always excellent Chris Mooney has weighed in with some thoughts at his blog: The Intersection. Check his entries for Thrusday, April 1. Here's a sample:

West also states that “teachers are directed to statements by a variety of religious groups giving their theological endorsement of evolution.” And indeed, the page in question links to this page on NCSE's website, containing a list of statements from religious organizations supportive of evolution. But there's clearly no specific endorsement of any of these religious views by the Museum of Paleontology. This is just information showing that a lot of religious groups actually don't oppose evolution. How on earth does that violate the separation of church and state?

Chris is also kind enough to include a link to this blog, for which I am grateful.

More on ReligionGate Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly has weighed in with some further thoughts concerning the allegation that the NCSE/Berkeley evolution website is using taxpayer money to promote religion. He is responding to a comment made on his earlier post that the religious right has no real power in our society, and that bashing them is just a form of sport for mean old lefties like Drum. Drum's reply:

I am really, really tired of hearing this. It's true that Republicans often pander to the religious right with purely symbolic actions, such as constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage that everyone knows will never get adopted. But at levels ranging from school boards all the way to the presidency the religious right has tremendous influence on a wide variety of policy issues in the Republican party, from abortion and gay rights to welfare policy and stem cells.

Evolution in public schools is perhaps the most chilling example of this. It is a big issue, the same as teaching kids that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor rather than the other way around is. And while it's true that creationism and its bastard cousin Intelligent Design haven't gotten far in our public school system, the only reason for that is the unceasing efforts of liberals and scientists to keep them out. It has nothing to do with a lack of influence, but rather to the fact that groups like NCSE fight them hammer and tongs every time they pop up.

Exactly right. This is something the “ignore them and they will go away crowd” need to wake up to.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

The Parrots at WorldNet Meanwhile, the arch-conservative website WorldNet Daily has piled on with their own brief article on this subject. Here's the link, but you will find nothing here that wasn't already in the NRO article. One quotation bears looking at:

One part of the website explicitly uses religion to promote evolution. In that section, teachers are told that nearly all religious people, theologians and scientists who hold religious beliefs endorse modern evolutionary theory, and that such a view "actually enriches their faith." Teachers also are directed to a page on the NCSE's own website containing statements by religious groups endorsing evolution.

Of course, this is almost word for word from the NRO article, but the charge does not magically become true merely by being repeated over and over again. If you follow the link WorldNet provides, you find this:

The misconception that one has to choose between science and religion is divisive. Most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.

You will search in vain for any reference to what ``nearly all religious people, theologians and scientists who hold religious beliefs'' actually believe. Also notice that what ``actually enriches their faith'' is not evolution per se, but rather it is a ``deeper understanding of nature'' that does that.

In the past week we have had World magazine publish a series of error-filled ``future histories'' about a time when ID has replaced evolution, and now we have NRO and WorldNet Daily printing absurd and false charges about the NCSE abusing tax money to promote religion.

Why isn't it obvious to everyone that the media outlets of the Religious Right are staffed mainly by creepy, lying hacks?

More on the NCSE and Religion Kevin Drum, who edits the in-house blog of The Washington Monthly has weighed in with this post about the National Review Online article I reported on in Thursday's posting. Here's a sample:

National Review, on the other hand, provides over 700 words to one of the cretins from the Discovery Institute to wave his hands hysterically and smirk about the supposed "irony" of the whole thing. "Where's the ACLU when you really need it?" he asks, like a too-clever teenager pestering his Sunday School teacher about who Cain and Abel married.

Now, juvenile antics like this aside, West makes it clear that his real problem is with teaching evolution at all. Not proven, he says. Lots of scientists disagree.

So then, my question to National Review is this: putting aside the obvious red herring of the 101 words on the museum's website, do you agree with this? Is evolution truly not a proven commodity, merely one among many vague hypotheses about how humans developed that should all be presented equally in high school biology classes?

Disagreeing about supply side economics and the invasion of Iraq is one thing. But are they really willing to be on wrong side of the Scopes trial in the year 2004? And if not, why are they using this transparently specious argument about federal grants and religion as an excuse to provide space to a group like the Discovery Institute to peddle its pernicious nonsense?