Thursday, June 24, 2004

Vestigial Organs Colson's oversimplification in describing junk DNA as meaningless reminds me of another common creationists error: describing vestigial organs as having no function. That is why creationists sometimes write books with titles like Vestigial Organs are Fully Functional.

Scientists often point to vestigial structures such as the eyes of cave-dwelling rodents or the pelvic bones of snakes as being strong evidence for common descent. If snakes evolved from reptiles that had legs, then it makes sense that we would still find pelvic bones in their skeleton. But if they never had legs, it is not clear why they have these bones. But that does not mean the pelvic bones perform no function at all. They do, for example, connect the upper part of their skeleton to their lower part.

The point is not that vestigial organs have no function whatsoever. It is that they no longer perform the function we expect them to perform when we see similar structures in other animals. Or they perform a function out of all proportion to their complexity. For creationists to find some function for a particular vestigial structure and pretend that such structures do not augur well for evolution misses the point.

For more than you ever wanted to know about vesitgial strucutres, have a look at this article by biologist Douglas Theobald. He provides the following useful example:

For example, wings are very complex anatomical structures specifically adapted for powered flight, yet ostriches have flightless wings. The vestigial wings of ostriches may be used for relatively simple functions, such as balance during running and courtship displays—a situation akin to hammering tacks with a computer keyboard. The specific complexity of the ostrich wing indicates a function which it does not perform, and it performs functions incommensurate with its complexity. Ostrich wings are not vestigial because they are useless structures per se, nor are they vestigial simply because they have different functions compared to wings in other birds. Rather, what defines ostrich wings as vestigial is that they are rudimentary wings which are useless as wings.

Colson, Again It seems I can always count on Charles Colson to supply me with blog fodder:

Does any of the scientific evidence support the view that God had to be involved? To answer this question, let’s delve deeper into the issue of creation and design. At the core of life is the DNA molecule. Geneticists tell us the structure of DNA is identical to a language. It acts like a code, a molecular communication system within the cell. . . .

The average DNA molecule contains as much information as a city library! Think about that. . . .

Some of the newer discoveries about DNA offer even more powerful evidence for God’s role in creation. Since the 1960s, scientists have known that the DNA molecule is like a written message containing instructions for every living structure, from fish to flowers. But in higher organisms, the DNA code is broken up by sections of what looks like sheer nonsense—long DNA sequences that don’t seem to mean anything. Scientists have dubbed these sequences “junk” DNA.

Apparently the mere fact that an organism's genome can be said to contain large quantities of information is evidence all by itself of divine action.

I'm not sure what it means to say, “...the structure of DNA is identical to a language”.

And junk DNA is not composed of “...sections of what looks like sheer nonsense-long DNA sequences that don't seem to mean anything.” The term `junk DNA' simply refers to stretches of DNA that do not code for proteins. Roughly 98% of the human genome consists of such junk DNA. But “noncoding” is not synonymous with “meaningless” (leaving aside for the moment the question of what it means for a bit of DNA to have or not have meaning). Much of the junk is composed of disabled duplicates of live genes. Most scienitsts argue that patterns observed in the junk DNA provide compelling evidence for common descent. Before explaining that point, let's get Colson's view of the matter:

Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University, uses junk DNA to criticize the idea of divine creation. How can we believe God directly created us, Miller argues, if the human genome is littered with genetic trash? An intelligent Creator wouldn’t write nonsense into our genes.

But one researcher’s junk can be another’s jewels. Other scientists have discovered that junk DNA does important work after all. It functions to correct errors and regulate genes, turning them on and off at appropriate times. In short, what once appeared to be nonsense DNA actually makes very good sense.

It seems that the foes of the creation view spoke too soon—and put their feet squarely in their mouths. DNA actually provides remarkable evidence for creation, giving a new twist to the classic design argument presented nearly two hundred years ago by the English clergyman William Paley. He talked in terms of finding a watch on a beach. Anyone finding such a complex gadget would assume that an intelligent being designed it.

It would have been nice for Colson to provide some citations so we could read Miller's argument for ourselves, or verify what, exactly, scientists are saying about the functionality of junk DNA. There has been recent work that has discovered a function for tiny percentages of the junk DNA found in animal genomes. But most of this DNA is believed to perform no essential function whatsoever. To learn more about junk DNA and its relevance to evolution, click here or here.

If you believe that God personally crafted each of the major groups of animals, then you might find it troubling that so much of an organism's genome is given over to nonfunctional DNA. But this is not the main way that junk DNA provides strong evidence for evolution. Since junk DNA does not code for proteins, mutations can accumulate within it without natural selection weeding them out. As a result, when the junk DNA of two different species show massive similarities, the only plausible explanation is common descent. When similarities in the junk DNA of organisms are used to craft a phylogenetic tree, the result is the same as the trees obtained by other methods. It is in this way that junk DNA provides strong evidence for common descent.

Also interesting is Colson's implication that if junk DNA were genuinely non-functional, that would constitute evidence against divine creation. More generally, Colson seems to be saying that genuine instances of poor design do indeed mitigate against creationism. This is a point ID proponents usually deny. This denial usually comes with a lecture about the inscrutibility of God's motives. They argue in this way because they know that whatever else animals are, they are also machines that must make a living in often rugged environments. And viewed in this way, there seem to be many instances of poor design indeed.

The remainder of Colson's piece is just the usual creationist chest-pounding about those dastardly public schools teaching impressionable youths about evolution.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute Dembski's book was published by The Intercollegiate Studies Institute. This is an unabashedly right-wing outfit, as can be seen from a quick perusal of their website. They are a member of, which publishes some of the most comically extreme right-wing commentary on the Web. In publishing this volume, the ISI joins a long list of conservative outfits willing to embrace creationism.

This is further evidence, if more were needed, that conservative thought in this country has been effectively taken over by the religious right. Their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, right-wing objections to Darwinism are entirely cultural. It is conservatives, not scientists, who see Darwinism as some all-encompassing worldview that overturns established religion and destroys morality. They challenge evolution not because they have any legitimate scientific point to make, but because they know that is a safe way of gaining a foothold for discussing their broader social agenda.

ID's scientific claims are window-dressing, pure and simple. Creationism in all its forms is about politics and power.

Uncommon Dissent That's the title of William Dembski's latest book. It is an anthology of mostly original essays by people who take exception to this or that aspect of “Darwinism”. I only just obtained a copy yesterday, and I will be going through it over the next few weeks. If I come across anything that merits a response, I will blog about it.

The book's subtitle is: “Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing”. This subtitle was chosen carefully. There's a reason it does not say “Scientists Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing”. Very few of the contributors hold PhD's in any field related to biology. That is highly significant. The ID folks are constantly telling us that evolution is failing as a scientific paradigm, and that scientists are jumping ship in droves. But when they have a chance to put together an anthology of testimonials authored by people who dissent from modern evolutionary theory, they have to resort to philosophers, lawyers or scientists who do not work in any field related to biology.

The contributors to the volume are: Robert Koons, Phillip Johnson, Marcel-Paul Schutzenberger, Nancy Pearcey, Edward Sisson, J. Budziszewski, Frank Tipler, Michael Behe, Michael Denton, James Barham, Cornelius Hunter, Roland Hirsch, Christopher Langan and David Berlinski. Dembski wrote the introduction but does not contribute a chapter.

Koons and Budziszewski are philosophers. Johnson and Sisson are lawyers. Barham, Langan and Pearcey have no particular academic credentials.

Berlinski, Dembski and Schutzenberger are mathematicians. Dembski makes his living hawking ID, while Berlinski is a science writer who seems to make his living as a gadfly. Neither carries out research in any branch of math or science. Schutzenberger, who died a few years ago, was a very good mathematician. His contribution to this volume is a reprint of an interview he gave shortly before his death in which he says some dispargaing things about Darwinism. Sadly, his criticisms here are so vague as to be difficult to respond to.

Tipler is a physicist with some genuinely good work to his credit. He also has some crackpot work to his credit, most notably his book The Physics of Immortality. His contribution to the volume is mostly an argument that peer-review stifles new ideas. He says almost nothing about ID until the end of the essay. He does not endorse ID, but does parrot the idea that there are grave problems with Darwinism. Like Schutzenberger's, his criticisms are too vague too respond to.

That leaves Behe, Denton, Hunter and Hirsch as the only contributors with credentials in biology. I will pay particular attention to their essays as I work my way through the book.

Not a very impressive line-up. In his public presentations Dembski is fond of telling people about all the underground support he has among serious scientists. His books are littered with vague encomiums, occasionally from people with actual credentials. But when Dembski sets out to produce an anthology to show that there are people who are knowledgeable, serious, and not at all motivated by religion, who dissent from Darwinism, he does not feel he can go to them for contributions.

This was Dembski's big chance to convince us that Darwinism is in trouble as a scientific enterprise. He blew it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

And Another Reason I Fear the Religious Right... From David Brooks in The New York Times:

And Clinton seems to understand, as many Democrats do not, that a politician's faith isn't just about litmus test issues like abortion or gay marriage. Many people just want to know that their leader, like them, is in the fellowship of believers. Their president doesn't have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God.

Someone who says they would never vote for a Christian would be labelled a bigot. But not voting for atheists is fine and well. Just lovely.

A New Argument in the Gay Marriage Debate From Charles Colson:

These are legitimate concerns and good reasons to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. But there is one huge problem same-sex “marriage” will cause that you may not have considered. If we legitimize same-sex unions, we will make ourselves even more of a target for terrorists. Now before you write me off as a crank, read carefully.

We have to remember the reasons that Islamic extremists are waging their terror war on the West. As Charles Krauthammer writes in Townhall, when it comes to the reasons Islam is fighting “the great jihad” against America, we “agree on the obvious answers: religion, ideology, political power, and territory. But there is one fundamental issue at stake that dares not speak its name,” Krauthammer writes. “This is also about—deeply about—sex.” In making their case against freedom, the jihadists claim that wherever freedom travels—“especially in America and Europe—it brings sexual license and corruption, decadence and depravity.”

And later:

Now, we want to be careful not to blame the victim—that is, to blame innocent Americans for murderous attacks against them. At the same time, let’s understand how America’s increasing decadence is, in a sense, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. When we tolerate increasing amounts of trash on television, when we permit pornography and gambling to invade our homes via the Internet, when we allow babies to be killed at the point of birth, we are fueling the flames of radical Islam. And when we talk about legitimizing homosexuality by granting same-sex relationships the status of marriage, we’re giving powerful ammunition to those who use America’s decadence to recruit more snipers and hijackers and suicide bombers. We’re also making it much more difficult for Christian pastors and missionaries to win the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world—one more very good reason we need to clean up our act.

Gee, and here I thought they hated us because of our freedom.

The next time someone tells me I shouldn't spend so much emotional energy worrying about the antics of the religious right, I whill whip out this column. Whenever anyone on the left suggests that maybe decades of irresponsible foriegn policy has exacerabted the problem of terrorism, they are accused of being appeasers, of supporting terrorism, or of hating America. But when people like Colson (or Falwell or Robertson before him) suggests that our decadence leads to terrorism, they are treated as heroes by large numbers of red state assholes. Lovely.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Ancient Lice Just in case you were wondering, it seems that lice are a lot older than previously thought. A recently discovered, 44 million year-old fossil louse has turned up, causing some excitement among entomologists. Discover magazine has the story.

The 44-million-year-old relic strongly resembles the modern, feather-munching version that infests ducks and other shorebirds and is a relative of the bloodsuckers that plague mammals. “Despite the age of this fossil, its close relationship to modern lice means we have to rethink the age for this group of parasites,” says Vincent Smith, a University of Glasgow entomologist studying the specimen. Previously, such lice were thought to have evolved only 10 million years ago.

Kerry on Science Funding From the AP comes this short article about John Kerry's stand on science funding. The willingness of the Bush administration to hamper scientific research to appease the religious right is well-documentd. This willingness led 48 Nobel Laureates to endorse Kerry for President. Here's an excerpt:

The Bush administration places `“politics over science to please their right-wing constituency,” the Kerry campaign said.

The administration, according to a campaign statement, removed information about global warming from a 2003 Environmental Protection Agency report; ordered changes to a report that described damage that would be caused by drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and deleted information about condoms from government Web sites.

“The administration has proposed cuts for scientific research and grossly distorted and politicized science on issues from mercury pollution to stem cell research,” the campaign said. “This approach not only limits the research that our scientists are doing today, it undermines important discoveries of tomorrow and threatens America's critical edge in innovation.”

In a letter endorsing Kerry, 48 scientists who have won the Nobel Prize said the Bush administration is undermining the nation's future by impeding medical advances, turning away scientific talent with its immigration practices, and ignoring scientific consensus on global warning and other critical issues.