Thursday, May 20, 2004

Brief Blog Break Next week I will be leaving the cozy confines of Harrisonburg, VA to spend ten days or so in the untamed wilderness that is central New Jersey. EvolutionBlog will be on hiatus until I return.

Home News According to the good people at Site Meter, EvolutionBlog currently averages 142 hits a day. Many thanks to everyone who stops by!

Anyone Know This One? Lunatic right-winger D. James Kennedy publishes a monthly newsletter called Impact. The current edition has several articles dealing with evolutoin-related issues. Most of it is the usual deranged litany of creationist flapdoodle, but there was one line that caught my eye, from this article:

I almost fell out of my chair. A public television interviewer had just asked Sir Julian Huxley, a leading defender of evolution until his death in 1975, why he thought Darwin’s idea caught on so quickly. His answer astonished me.

“[I suppose the reason] we all jumped at the Origin [Darwin’s On the Origin of Species],” Huxley said, “was because the idea of God interfered with our sexual mores.” “Mores,” of course, is a secular term for morals.

Kennedy frequently uses this quote from Huxley. Does anyone know anything about it? Did Huxley actually say this? Is there more to the context than what Kennedy is describing?

This Just In You know, just the other day I was thinking that, merely by being born in America, I am endowed with a superlative sense of morality that sets me above the people from other countries. Fortunatly, I now have Town Hall columnist Cliff May to disabuse me of that notion.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, President Bush said, do not represent the America he knows. Sen. Joe Lieberman called what took place there “un-American.”

They're right, of course. But there's something else that needs to be candidly acknowledged: Americans are as likely as anyone else to do terrible things

Holding American citizenship provides no immunity against corruption, the temptation to delight in cruelty and the impulse to misuse power. Those who carry American passports are not necessarily better than people with other travel documents.

This revelation will probably come as news to large percentage of Town Hall readers.

Colson on Theistic Evolution I once heard Hank “The Bible Answer Man” Hanegraaf, author of The F.A.C.E. that Demonstrates the F.A.R.C.E. of Evolution, argue that theistic evolution was even worse than the atheistic variety. According to theistic evolution, you see, we still have evolution but now we're blaming God for it.

Many Christians view theistic evolution as a dangerous compromise with the forces of secularism. One such Christian is Charles Colson, whose semi-literate delusions appear frequently at this blog. Here's his latest commentary on the subject, aimed at those spineless, weak-kneed, sell-outs who think evolution does not preclude a belief in God:

The idea that perhaps evolution was directed by God appears to be an attractive solution and one frequently embraced by Christian students trying to reconcile their faith with the teachings of their science teachers.

Evolution’s basic premise makes this approach inherently flawed, however. Imagining that evolutionary theory allows for a Creator—that evolution could be a God-guided process—is exactly what establishment scientists do not allow.

Prominent Darwinists from Stephen Gould to Richard Dawkins to John Maynard Smith insist that evolution is unguided and purposeless. As Phillip Johnson puts it in Defeating Darwinism, “The Darwinian theory doesn’t just say that God created slowly [over millions of years]. It says that naturalistic evolution is the creator—and God had nothing to do with it.”

Evolution in the Darwinian sense is both mindless and godless. As the famous evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson put it, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

Of course, like all scientific theories, Darwinian theory says nothing at all about God one way or the other.

Colson fundamentally misunderstands the sense in which evolution is unguided and purposeless. Given our current understanding of genetics, the variation that arises in natural populations seems to be random with respect to the needs of the organism. This element of chance ensures that the evolutionary paths taken by natural populations can not be predicted ahead of time. Any species alive today is the end result of many unpredictable events, and would almost certainly not evolve again were we to “rewind the tape”. This is what scientists have in mind when they describe evolution as unguided or purposeless.

But arguing that species Homo sapiens would not evolve again is different from saying that a species with the cognitive abilities of human beings would not evolve again. For example, eyes have evolved over forty times independently. This suggests that if we could replay evolution over again, we would still end up with creatures that had eyes. This phenomenon is known as convergent evolution. Perhaps higher intelligence is such a feature as well. This view has been defended with some eloquence by theologian John Haught, paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, and science writer Robert Wright, among others. This view is controversial among scientists (and I am among those who dissent from it) but it is entirely within the bounds of scientific orthodoxy. There is also nothing inherently religious about it.

The specifics of the evolutionary process can not be predicted ahead of time, but perhaps the broad patterns can be. This is what theistic evolutionists are arguing.

Colson continues:

Darwinists cannot afford to abandon this claim, Johnson says, because their whole approach is founded on naturalism, the doctrine that nature is all there is. Darwinian evolution tries to explain how nature did this without any assistance from a supernatural entity. Thus, an attempt to reconcile Darwinian evolution theories with creation “is an evasion of the conflict, not a resolution to it,” Johnson warns.

People are kidding themselves when they think they can believe in both creation and evolution. What’s at stake is not merely the details of evolution versus the details of Genesis in the Bible. Rather, the issue is the stark, fundamental claim that life is the product of impersonal forces versus the claim that it is the creation of an intelligent Designer.

I can not imagine what Johnson means in describing reconciliations of evolution and creation as “an evasion of the conflict”. What is being evaded by arguing that God creates by a process that allows for an element of chance?

As for Colson's last line, evolution only says that a relatively simple sort of life can evolve into a relatively complicated sort of life, given sufficient time and a hereditary mechanism that satisfies certain properties. It has nothing to do with the origin of life, nor does it have anything to do with why there is a universe having the properties necessary for evolution to occur.

In my view, there is no need to invoke the supernatural to explain any of these facts either. But at least theistic evolutionists are willing to engage the facts that science has uncovered. Colson and his ilk are far more interested in keeping their readers ignorant and fearful.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Mooney on The Day After Tomorrow Chirs Mooney has weighed in on the upcoming disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. You can find his column here. This film has come under attack for producing sicence fiction that is mostly fiction and almost no science. Mooney's analysis is characteristically insightful:

On the one hand, physicist Robert Frosch, a former administrator of NASA during the Carter administration and now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, wasn't so psyched about the film. “Even some of the guys who figured out what the big disasters might be are getting very impatient with the disaster merchants,” said Frosch, who has contributed to several National Academy of Sciences reports concerning climate change. “I think the whole community is annoyed with whoever the producers of the new Hollywood thing are.”

But James McCarthy, the Alexander Agassiz professor of biological oceanography at Harvard and a lead contributor to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saw things somewhat differently. “In the actual production of the movie, some people have said, 'Are we creating such a farcical image of future climate that it will serve to distract people from the real climate news?',” said McCarthy, an expert on climate change impacts. “Others have said, 'No, anything you can do to get people's attention on climate is worth doing.'”

It's not hard to see the strength of this argument. The fact is, climate change, like many science issues, only rarely rises to the top of the media or political agenda, and usually at times of clear drama or conflict. Thus, for example, over the past four years there have been several occasions when the Bush administration has been more or less broadsided by expert reports showing that climate change is happening--and when that happens, the press has seized upon the gaffe, at least for a little while.

Sustained attention to the issue, however, has been unjustifiably rare, given the potential ramifications. And that's why, unlike climate change contrarian Patrick Michaels, I'm not inclined to slam the science of The Day After Tomorrow and simply leave it at that. It seems to me that while climate scientists have a responsibility to explain that the film rests on bad climate science, they should also explain that there's good climate science out there that's very worrisome. Al Gore himself may have put it best when he stated, with respect to The Day After Tomorrow, that “there are two sets of fiction to deal with. One is the movie, the other is the Bush administration's presentation of global warming.”

It is unfortunate that we can't have a movie that gets people interested in the realities of global warming, but also presents science that is tolerably accurate.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

God Hates the Public Schools Speaking of the religious right, here's AgapePress columnist Rev. Mark Creech encouraging the destruction of the public school system:

I, for one, believe that Pickney and Shortt's leadership in this matter is not only heroic and courageous, but also a call from God. I see it as a breath of fresh air and something that actually gives hope for the restoration of education in America. Between 12 and 15 million evangelical Christian children attend public schools. If the mass majority of these students were to leave public education, it would cripple the one system that is doing more harm to our nation than any single thing except perhaps the popular media. Marshall Fritz, a Libertarian Party organizer and former computer programmer who started the Fresno, California-based Alliance for the Separation of School and State contends that should the public school system crumble, citizens would realize a $300 billion tax cut, which means two thirds of the population would be able to afford private school tuition. Fritz expects churches and charities might help pick up the tab for the rest. What is more, an exodus of the children of Christian parents from public schools would seriously diminish, if not destroy, the power that secularism now holds over our culture.

As Creech explains elsewhere in the column, Pickney and Shortt are planning to introduce a resolution at the summer meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention encouraging Baptist parents to remove their kids from “government-run schools”.

I've been staring at my screen for five minutes now trying to come up with some pithy comment on this.

Bush vs. Science Here's the latest salvo in the Bush administration's war on science, from The New York Times:

The administration is using pseudoscience to justify its decisions. Randall Tobias, its AIDS coordinator, has said numerous times that condoms are not effective at preventing the spread of AIDS in the general population. He repeated this assertion while testifying in the House of Representatives in March, citing the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Mr. Tobias is wrong. The dean of the London School wrote to him to say that the school had never produced any such report, and that its research shows that condoms do work.

Mr. Tobias and others in the administration often cite Uganda as a place where AIDS transmission was reduced by teaching youth to be abstinent. But Ugandans — and more neutral researchers — say that condom use plays a big role. In Zambia and Brazil, condom use has also reduced AIDS transmission, but administration officials do not talk about these countries.

The willingness of the Bush administration to promote abstinence-only programs for AIDS prevention, despite the unambiguous evidence against their efficacy, is entirely a sop to the religious right. It seems they prefer death and suffering to contraception. These are the same folks who lecture the rest of us about creating a culture of life. Lovely.

Monday, May 17, 2004

What Killed the Neanderthals? And from Discover comes this short article describing a novel theory about the demise of the Neanderthals:

The detective story began at Cambridge University seven years ago, when Tjeerd van Andel and a team of paleoclimatologists started combing through environmental and archaeological data to try to solve an old mystery: Why did Neanderthals vanish from Europe 28,000 years ago? Researchers had assumed they died out because they weren’t as smart or as good at manipulating tools as modern humans. Van Andel came up with a different explanation: bad weather. The animals Neanderthals hunted—mostly bison and giant deer—died off from extreme climate change.

Between 60,000 and 20,000 years ago, Europe became drier and experienced rapid phases of warming and cooling. “If you have very quick changes, that wipes out the trees,” Van Andel says. With less vegetation to eat, large herd animals could not survive. Suddenly, the Neanderthals' hunting method—running after prey animals and stabbing them with a spear—no longer worked. The smaller game taking over the continent simply outran them.

Incidentally, that's pronounced Neander-tal not Neander-thal.

What caused the Permian Extinction? Here's an interesting news brief from Scientific American:

The world was not a great place to be 250 million years ago. That’s because some 90 percent of the planet’s marine life and 80 percent of life on land had gone extinct at the end of the Permian period. Exactly what caused the mass extinction is a matter of debate, with the two leading theories positing massive volcanism in Siberia or a collision with a meteor much like the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. New findings published online today by the journal Science bolster the impact hypothesis and argue that the resulting crater lies buried off the coast of northwest Australia.

Luann Becker of the University of California at Santa Barbara and her colleagues studied two cores drilled by oil companies in the 1970s and 1980s into a geologic structure off the Australian coast known as the Bedout High. “The moment we saw the cores we thought it looked like an impact breccia,” Becker says. Specifically, the team found what they say is evidence of a telltale melt layer that formed when a meteor crashed into the earth and created the 125-mile-wide Bedout. Additional support for their contention that Bedout is an impact crater comes from the fact that material from the cores dates to 250 million years ago, give or take 4.5 million years. Together with earlier evidence that Becker and her team collected in Antarctica and Australia--including shocked quartz and molecules called fullerenes containing extraterrestrial helium and argon--the new results provide further evidence that a massive impact brought about the Great Dying, the scientists say. “We think that mass extinctions may be defined by catastrophes like impact and volcanism occurring synchronously in time,” Becker remarks. “This is what happened 65 million years ago at Chicxulub but was largely dismissed by scientists as merely a coincidence. With the discovery of Bedout I don't think we can call such catastrophes occurring together a coincidence anymore.&rdquo

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Who Owns the Bones? Have a look at this article from today's New York Times (you might have to register before viewing it). It describes a forthcoming auction of Tyrannosaurus Rex bones:

When Japheth Boyce was a tyke in South Dakota, he liked to scrabble around in the barren, rocky ground of the Badlands, hunting for fossils of saber-toothed tigers, rhinoceroses and three-toed horses the size of golden retrievers.

Now, years later, as a paleontologist with a penchant for cowboy hats and homespun philosophy, his favorite prey is Tyrannosaurus rex, the carnivorous dinosaur he calls “the biggest and baddest boy on the block.”

On Sunday, hundreds of fossilized bones from a 68-million-year-old T. rex that Mr. Boyce and his team spent two years digging up in eastern Wyoming will be sold here in what is being billed as the largest auction of natural history items to date. The bones, which are about 20 percent of the skeleton of the animal, nicknamed Barnum, are expected to fetch at least $900,000.

Actually, the part of the article I found most interesting came later. In this quote, &dquo;Barnum” is the particulae T-Rex whose bones are about to be sold. “Sue” refers to an earlier skeleton.

The satisfaction of unearthing the remains was dampened for Mr. Boyce and his team by a dispute over ownership of the bones. A similar clash had roiled the disposition of Sue.

“There were several years of federal litigation,” said Joe Reece, a lawyer in Denver who represented a group of investors who had sought to buy the Barnum bones from Mr. Boyce and his business partners. “This has generated many, many boxes of documents in three states.”

One of the investors, Jeff Miller, an art and antiques dealer in Denver, said he and his partners had been assured that there was clear title to the remains. Instead, among other problems, they became an issue in the divorce of one of Mr. Boyce's partners, whose wife claimed the bones in the disposition of their assets.

Eventually, a court ordered Barnum be sold at auction and the proceeds distributed among the various parties.

I guess Mr. Boyce's partner needed a better pre-nup.

Where Was I... On Thursday I started fisking this article posted at the site Canadian Christianity. I would like to pick up now where I left off.

While ID has had its greatest impact in the U.S., Canadian evangelicals are becoming increasingly aware of its significance.

Ed Neeland, associate professor of chemistry at Okanagan University in Kelowna, expresses exasperation toward die-hard evolutionists who refuse to consider the design alternative. He compares them to detectives whose preconceived notions blind them to clear evidence. Even as they view a body that has been tied up and shot in the back, they are already convinced that the gunshot somehow caused itself.

“They will say that we don't understand how ropes can self-cut to length and self-knot . . . or how a bullet could be created without intelligent design and fired... But if you give us enough time, we will solve these problems.” At what point, Neeland asks, “do you face the obvious and admit that the death was designed?”

Evolutionists are sometimes accused of being too dismissive of ID claims. I find it far more common that ID folks refuse to take seriously the criticisms leveled at them. I think it's fair to say that Dr. Neeland could not produce even a single evolutionist who holds the view he describes. Design, not evolution, is the preconceived notion here. Considering the manifest falseness of ID arguments, it's incredible that scientists are willing to engage them to the extent that they are.

“I think there's an increasing skepticism that's got the Darwinist community thoroughly alarmed,” says Mark Hartwig, editor of Focus on the Family's Teachers in Focus magazine. “The reaction to the ID movement's success has been shrill, and marked by denial, intimidation and ad hominem [attacks].”

More of the same. Mostly, the response to ID theory by scientists has been to show, in meticulous detail, that ID's present a caricatured view of modern science. For example, in response to Behe's claims that evolution can not account for so-called “irreducibly complex” biological systems, scientists have shown both that the logic of his argument is wrong and that the technical literature contains numerous papers of precisely the sort he says does not exist. Behe has replied by folding his arms and shaking his head. Of course, Hartwig does not get paid to care about such things. He gets paid to parrot religious propaganda.

ID proponents believe they have struck a nerve in the body of evolutionary theory. Indeed, some observers believe that ID concepts have done more to discredit Darwinism -- and provide an alternative to it -- than most traditional creationist arguments.

Some creationists forcefully disagree. “The average Canadian has never heard of ID,” says David Herbert, chairman of the London, Ontario-based Citizens Concerned about Education and Origins. He believes it is more effective to challenge the thinking of high school teachers by offering presentations that examine the underlying philosophical assumptions of both evolution and creationism. ID, he maintains, “is seen as an elitist, ivory tower thing. How much of it is filtering down into school boards and textbooks? I don't think it's made any impact in Canada. And I don't think it will.”

While I would hate to agree with a creationist about anything, I hope Mr. Herbert is right about this. On the other hand, it seems to me that ID's spend an inordinate amount of time discussing underlying philosophical assumptions. It's not clear what Herbert wants to do differently.

“ID is just plain bad science,” asserts Denis Lamoureux, an assistant professor of science and religion at St. Joseph's College in Alberta, who considers himself an “evolutionary creationist.” An evangelical Christian, he has debated proponents of ID, such as Phillip Johnson. “I have known -- and have been friends with -- the main leaders since 1994, and I have yet to see a theory of origins outlined. If they are going to inspire a scientific revolution and usher in 'theistic science,' then they need to present a theory . . . ID anti-evolutionism is theologically motivated.”

I met Lamoureux at the Darwin, Design and Democracy III conference held in Kansas City two years ago. This was a pro-ID conference. Lamoureux served as one-fourth of a debate panel defending evolution. He was excellent. His discussions of science were very good. But even more impressive was his eloquence when discussing his faith. Any time I find myself buying the line that Christians have to water down their faith to accept evolution, I just think about him. His faith is far more sincere and far more deserving of respect than the brain-dead know-nothingism of the fundamentalists.

Ken Ham, president of Answers In Genesis, an organization which promotes the idea that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old, believes that ID proponents are only “adding some kind of intelligence to evolution, but it's still a secular viewpoint. They're not giving evidence of who the designer is. Speaking philosophically, their creator has to be an ogre, whose creation is full of mistakes, death and disease.” ID advocates, he concludes, are ”doomed to failure because they have no biblical perspective.“

I also met Ham once at a young-Earth creationism conference in Wichita, Kansas. I parked near the door for that one, just in case I needed to make a quick escape. After his barn-burner of a talk, a number of people ran up on stage to ask him questions (except for me, all were Ham supporters). When it got to be my turn, I launched into an explanation of basic information theory that was so lucid and engaging I even impressed myself. I explained, firmly but politely, why every major point he had just made was laughably wrong. Ham, mustering all of his scientific ammunition, called me arrogant and moved on to the next person. I guess I didn't reach him. On the other hand, as I walked away I ended up having a small crowd form around me, asking me to explain further some of the things I had just said. So maybe I did some good.

Only a lunatic like Ham could think ID is a secular viewpoint. He doesn't seem to understand that the superficial modesty of ID proponents is strictly a tactic for having ID pass constitutional muster. He can rest assured that the primary ID defenders (Johnson, Wells, and Dembski come to mind) are just as insane as he is.

Ham's assertion “is a gross misrepresentation of ID,” contends Kirk Durston, national director of the Ontario-based New Scholars Society, a Campus Crusade for Christ ministry made up of faculty members from Canadian universities. “I know many people involved in the ID movement who are young-earth creationists.”

Glad we got that straightened out.

Not all creationists dislike ID, and some welcome its contribution to the battle against evolution. Ian Taylor is a Kingston, Ontario-based author who produces the internationally broadcast Creation Moments radio series. He believes ID “has had great impact in stirring the minds of people towards alternatives to godless evolution.”

ID appeals to Christians who are uncomfortable with a literalist reading of Genesis. Believers who have stood in the middle ground of the debate, uncomfortable with both traditional creationism and the claims of Darwinism may feel that they can finally be a part of the creation/evolution debate, specifically because of the Intelligent Design movement.

I think this is a good summary of what ID is really all about. It's a way of making evolution-denial seem intellectually respectable, and that is all.

The article goes on from here. I will address the remainder of it in a future post.