Thursday, August 05, 2004

Bird Braincase

Today's New York Times has this article describing recent work on fossil specimens of Archaeopteryx. Devoted evolution-philes will recall that Archaeopteryx is the fossil possessing mostly reptilian characterisitcs, with the exception of a well-developed set of wings. It is usually given as exhibit A when creationists assert that there are no transitional forms.

Scientists have determined that Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird, was definitely birdbrained, meaning no disrespect. Indeed, they consider the fossil's brain size decisive evidence that Archaeopteryx had what it took to fly.

The new research suggests, moreover, that birds probably started flying millions of years earlier than scientists previously thought. It is just that fossils of those first flying birds - predecessors of Archaeopteryx - have never been found.

The researchers, at the Natural History Museum in London, based their findings on the first X-ray examination and reconstruction of the braincase and inner ear of a 147-million-year-old Archaeopteryx specimen. They found that in size, shape and volume, its brain was similar to that of the modern eagle or sparrow.

I'm not sure if having the same size, shape and volume of a modern eagle or sparrow implies that its brain had the same capabilities as modern birds. Whatever. It sounds like interesting research though.

Anyone want to place bets on how long it takes before the creationists seize on this work as evidence that Archaeopteryx was just a bird, and in no way a transitional form?

Lynch on Uncommon Dissent

The always excellent John Lynch has weighed in with some thoughts on Dembski's Uncommon Dissent:

A book which I have been dipping into over the past month is Dembski’s recent edited volume Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (ISI, 2004). To anyone familiar with the ID movement, this is very familar territory; a collection of (largely) non-scientists bemoaning evolution and it’s percieved moral effects while rehashing arguments lifted from older anti-evolutionary sources. The tone is the usual paranoid delusion that American creationism seems to specialize in; Darwinism is an “ideology” which exhibits “overweening ambition”, it’s a theory that is held “dogmatically and even ruthlessly” by the “Darwinian thought police” who are “as insidious as any secret police at ensuring conformity and rooting out dissent” (all of this in a two page span!). There’s something comforting about the realization that there is nothing really new under the Creationist sun!

I recommend reading the whole thing.

And Another Thing...

Here, off the top of my head, are three recent right-wing books published by university presses:

In my view, the arguments of all of these books have been solidly debunked. Nonetheless, they do provide a useful counterpoint to Pipes' myopia.

Do University Presses Have Left-Wing Biases?

Daniel Pipes thinks so. He makes his case in this essay for The New York Sun:

What sorts of books, then, are being written by today's top scholars?

For a representative sample, I looked at the Spring 2004 catalogue of one of the largest and most prestigious university publishers in America, the University of California Press. The catalogue is a substantial affair, 116 pages long, lavishly designed, boasting full color illustrations and a striking cover.

The books being published by California, however, leave much to be desired. Yes, there are apolitical inquiries into mammal evolution and Mark Twain's final years, but a uniform leftist tone of hostility toward established institutions and an embrace of the radical fringe characterize the list.

It's pretty gracious of him to concede that the catalog contained “apolitical inquiries”. Actually, most of the books in the catalog fit into that category.

Pipes goes on to list a few examples of books that, in his view, promote a leftist viewpoint. He bases his assessments of the books in question on “calaogue copy and blurbs”. In other words, he has not actually read the books in question and makes no attempt to engage the arguments they contain.

Here are the first three examples Pipes gives:

American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, by Mark Dow, “tells the horrifying story of men, women and children detained indefinitely by U.S. immigration officials” and explicitly compares their circumstances to those in “Stalin's U.S.S.R.”

There's Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence, by David Cunningham, “examines the bureau's massive campaign of repression” in the 1960s.

The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border, by David Bacon, “paints a powerful portrait of poverty, repression, and struggle.”

Inicdentally, Pipes does not provide links to any of the books he considers. Doing so would ential the risk that his readers would follow the links, thereby learning that all of these books are far richer than the two sentence caricature Pipes provides.

So if you write a book critical of the U.S. prison system or examine civil rights abuses by the FBI during the 60s, you're a dangerous leftist.

The only reference to “Stalin's USSR” in the catalog copy and blurbs for the first book are found in an endorsement from Anthony Lewis. Here's what he actually said:

Prisoners who have had no trial, guards who humiliate and assault them: It sounds like a scene from Stalin's U.S.S.R., but it is a reality in the United States today. American Gulag tells the horrifying story of men, women and children detained indefinitely by U.S. immigration officials as it has never been told before. It sounds an alarm for us all.

Gives rather a different impression, doncha think?

Reading the full list of Pipes' examples makes it clear that he has an awfully expansive view of what constitutes left-wingery:

Other anti-government books expose the Three-Mile-Island “nuclear crisis” in 1979 (it was just a partial meltdown) and the first Bush administration's alleged “assault on the constitutional freedoms of the American media.”

Business gets its comeuppance in a “gripping exposé” claiming that systematic overcharging by the pharmaceutical industry makes drug costs “so needlessly high.” The Catholic Church is mauled in two studies, one denigrating the Roman Curia, another comparing Jesuit and Nazi art.

He doesn't even provide the titles and authors of these books!

But let's grant Pipes' premise that the U of C Press publishes more left-leaning books than right-leaning books. Does that prove bias? Of course not. This point is obvious to right-wingers when they are arguing against affirmative action or Title Nine, but Pipes seems to have forgotten that here.

There are many plausible reasons other than bias for why a university press would put out more left-leaning books than right-leaning books. Dare I suggest that in univeristies, unlike the wing-nut think-tanks Pipes prefers to frequent, getting your facts right actually matters? Maybe few professors are willing to endorse right-wing arguments because the facts do not support them.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Colson on Uncommon Dissent

Charles Colson has weighed in with a review of sorts about William Dembski's anthology Uncommon Dissent. He thinks it's pretty nifty:

And so in the Scopes trial, scientists managed to present their case for evolution without any challenge. In fact, the Scopes trial is a metaphor for the whole debate over evolutionary theory. It has continually evaded critical scrutiny and proper cross-examination. But no longer. Scientists and scholars in the intelligent design movement are mounting a concerted effort to force Darwinists to open up and discuss the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

In this regard, Dr. William Dembski has edited a fascinating new book titled Uncommon Dissent. This book features fourteen essays by intellectuals who find Darwinism unconvincing. Their dissent is “uncommon” because the majority of intellectuals in the West have completely bought into Darwinian evolution. But with books like this, we can expect to see that majority erode, and quickly.

Of course, no evidence for or against evolution was presented at the Scopes trial. Darrow wanted to put scientific experts on the stand to testify, but the judge ruled that any such testimony would be irrelevant. What Colson means is that Darrown was allowed to question (and humiliate) William Jennings Bryan, but that Bryan was not allowed to subsequently question Darrow. To people like Colson, challenging creationism is the equivalent of endorsing evolution.

Colson singles out Edward Sisson's essay for favorable mention. Why am I not suprised? He also mentions David Berlinski's contribution, though he neglects to point out that it is a reprint of his 1996 article from Commentary.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Hunter, Part One

Moving right along, the next essay in Uncommon Dissent that I read was “Why Evolution Fails the Test of Science” by Cornelius Hunter. Hunter holds a PhD in biophysics from the University of Illinois, making him the only contributor among those I have read so far to actually have some scientific credentials.

And it shows! Hunter's essay is very bad, as I shall show, but it is nonetheless a considerable improvement over the ones by Koons and Sisson that I have already considered. Hunter's tone is far more measured and respectful. His main goal is to persuade the reader not that evolution is demonstrably false, but that the evidence for it is not as strong as its defenders suggest.

Sadly, most of the essay is given over to arguments that are embarrassingly bad. One area where that is the case is his discussion of the fossil record, and I will address that here.

Hunter begins by providing a decent discussion of the reptile to mammal transition, and bear-like mammal to whale transition, both amply documented in the fossil record. Then comes this:

It is evidences such as these that give evolutionists their confidence. Evolution, they say, must be a fact. But how exactly does the proof proceed? A critical premise, it seems, is that similar species must be related via common descent. If we find similar desgins from the same time period, then they must share an evolutionary relationship. But in fact, this premise cannot be true, for there are many cases of similar species that evolutionsts do not believe serve as such strong proof. In the supposed reptile-mammal sequence and others, there are many similar fossil species that nonetheless do not fall into the reconstructed evolutionary sequence. It is, as one evolutionist put it, “notoriously difficult to decipher true ancestral-descendant relationships” amongst the boxes of fossil finds. Or as Douglas Futuyma put it: “The graudal transition from therapsid reptiles to mammals is so abundantly documented by scores of species in every stage of transition that it is impossible to tell which therapsid species were the actual ancestors of modern mammals.”(P. 206)

The idea that large numbers of transitional forms damages the case for evolution is a bit of intellectual perversity pioneered by Phillip Johnson. It's an argument reminiscent of the old Young-Earth claim that when fossil C is inserted in the gap between fossils A and B, the result is not progress, but merely two gaps.

Hunter is completely confused on this point. Let's consider the copious fossils cited by Futuyma as evidence of the reptile to mammal transition. The primary skeletal difference between reptiles and mammals is found in the strucutre of their jaws. Reptiles have three bones that connect their lower jaw to their upper jaw, while mammals have only one such bone. Two of the bones found in the reptilian jaw are nearly identical to two of the bones in the mammalian inner ear. If our hypothesis is that mammals evolved from reptiles, then there must at one time have been animals whose jaw structure was transitional between reptiles and mammals. There was a time when this hypothesis was considered so absurd that it was treated as prima facie evidence for the impossibility of evolution (I mean, if jaw bones became ear bones then the intermediates would have disfunctional jaws and disfunctional ears, right?)
Yet the fossil record documents that animals having the required features actually existed.

Similarly, if we are going to argue that whales evolved from bear-like ancestors or that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors, then there must have been a time when animals showing features transitional between these animals existed. The fossil record documents that such animals existed as well.

Evolution also implies that there should be a definite order to the first appearances of various species in the fossil record, an implication that is impressively borne out.

There is no reason outside of evolution to expect to find such fossils. There is no rival theory that makes the same predictions about the fossil record that evolution does. That is why the fossil record provides such good evidence for evolution. Hunter seems to have overlooked that point.

Instead he discusses the far thornier problem of inferring specific lines of descent among such fossils as we have. That is an intereting question, but one that has nothing to do with whether fossils provide strong evidence for common descent. Neither of the quotes he cites is helpful to his case.

That Hunter is confused on this point can also be seen from other comments he makes on this subject. For example, he writes:

With evolution we must believe that across the reptile-mammal transition, organisms evolved so rapidly that they appear fully formed and diverse in the fossil record, that there are large gaps between the reptiles and mammals, and that convergent evolution must have occurred many times. So too, the horse sequence turned out to be more problematic than evolutionists thought. It turned out that the species that were supposed to align in an evolutionary lineage actually persist unchanged and co-exist in the fossil record. As Niles Eldredge admitted:

“There have been an awful lot of stories, some more imaginative than others, about what the nature of that history [of life] really is. The most famous example, still on exhibit downstairs, is the exhibit on horse evolution prepared perhaps fifty years ago. That has been presented as the literal truth in textbook after textbook. Now I think that that is lamentable, particularly when the people who propose those kinds of stories may themselves be aware of the speculative nature of that stuff.” (P. 206-207)

Let's begin with the quote from Eldredge. It's taken from a 1985 article from Harper's magazine by Tom Bethell, a creationist. Rather lazy of Hunter not to go to Eldredge's own writings to learn his thoughts about fossil horses.

Ordinarily this is the point where I would accuse Hunter of removing Eldredge's quote from its proper context. In this case, though, I think Eldredge's intention is perfectly clear, it's just not the point Hunter attributes to him.

Eldredge is not objecting to the idea that the extensive collection of fossil horses provides strong evidence of common descent. He is not even objecting to the horse exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (where Eldredge works). His objection is to the misleading impression that some people get from viewing such exhibits. The horse exhibit, which lines up four distinct fossil horses from four different time periods, suggests that there was a simple, linear progression from some ancient proto-horse to modern horses. Eldredge is merely pointing out that the processes of evolution are more complicated than what is suggested by the exhibit.

Don't believe me? Here's Eldredge from his book The Triumph of Evolution, and the Failure of Creationism, commenting on a similar abuse of his ideas presented by creationist Luther Sunderland:

The dead horse that Sunderland and all other creationists beat is, of course, not stasis versus gradualsim, but the existence of anatomical intermediates, especially if they exist in perfect stratigraphic order. I am here to tell you that my predecessors had indeed unearthed and mounted a wonderful series of skeletons, beginning with the Eocene Hyracotherium (the so-called dawn horse), with its small size, four toes on the front feet, five on the back feet, shortened face, and generalized perisodactyl teeth suitable for browsing, not grazing. Climbing up the Tertiary stratigraphic column of the American West, we find the horses becoming progressively bigger, with fewer toes (modern horses have but one on each foot) and more comlicated teeth. The horses of the Pliocene are essentially modern,

This is not a made-up story. The fossils are real. They are in the proper order, and they are a spectacular example of anatomical intermediates found in the exact predicted sequence in the rock record. They are every creationist's nightmare.

No, horse evolution was not in the straight-line, gradualistic mode. But to state or imply that the horse evolution exhibit was somehow arranged to support an evolutionary story - to imply that the old museum curators deliberately misled the public by arranging the order of these horse fossils as they saw fit - is a damn lie. (Emphasis in Original) (P. 133).

The rest of Hunter's paragraph is no better. In writing about the reptile-mammal transition he asserts that convergent evolution must have happened many times. I can't imagine what he's talking about. The fossils show us there were many reptile species existing at the time when the transition was taking place. No doubt they all inherited their common features from common ancestors. Where's the convergence there? Does he mean that since more than one species possessed the bizarre amalgam of reptilian and mammalian jaw features indicative of the reptile-mammal transition that these species must have converged on that particular jaw structure? Surely not, for that would just be too stupid. Yet I can't see any other way to infer that convergent evolution happened many times.

And what's the alternative to fossils appearing fully formed? Partially formed fossils? Every fossil represents an animal that was making a living at some earlier time and in some earlier environment. Partially formed animals are not usually successful in that regard. What does that have to do with the interesting melange of anatomical features possessed by the fossils under discussion?

Hunter has written two books on the subject of evolution. It is something he has evidently thought about and read about for some time. And yet he's making arguments based on elementary misunderstandings of paleontology.

The usbtitle of Dembski's book is “Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing”. Apparently intellectual and smart are two different things.

Monday, August 02, 2004

New Record Set

As I write this, EvolutionBlog has received 576 hits today, easily setting a new record. Thank you to everyone who stopped by!

Two Fine Columns

Two of my favorite columnists have been in fine form recently. Here's Michael Kinsley, in the Washington Post, proving what should be obvious to anyone who thinks seriously about these things: that Democrats do a better job of running the country than Republicans do:

It turns out that Democratic presidents have a much better record than Republicans. They win a head-to-head comparison in almost every category. Real growth averaged 4.09 percent in Democratic years, 2.75 percent in Republican years. Unemployment was 6.44 percent on average under Republican presidents and 5.33 percent under Democrats. The federal government spent more under Republicans than Democrats (20.87 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 19.58 percent), and that remains true even if you exclude defense (13.76 for the Democrats; 14.97 for the Republicans).

What else? Inflation was lower under Democratic presidents (3.81 percent on average, compared with 4.85 percent). And annual deficits took more than twice as much of GDP under Republicans as under Democrats (2.74 percent versus 1.21 percent). Republicans won by a nose on government revenue (i.e., taxes), taking 18.12 percent of GDP compared with 18.39 percent. That, of course, is why they lost on the size of the deficit. Personal income per capita was also a bit higher in Republican years ($16,061) than in Democratic ones ($15,565). But that is because more of the Republican years came later, when the country was more prosperous already.

And here's Paul Krugman, of The New York Times, stating the obvious with his usual eloquence: that the major television news outlets are basically worthless.

Somewhere along the line, TV news stopped reporting on candidates' policies, and turned instead to trivia that supposedly reveal their personalities. We hear about Mr. Kerry's haircuts, not his health care proposals. We hear about George Bush's brush-cutting, not his environmental policies.

Even on its own terms, such reporting often gets it wrong, because journalists aren't especially good at judging character. (“He is, above all, a moralist,” wrote George Will about Jack Ryan, the Illinois Senate candidate who dropped out after embarrassing sex-club questions.) And the character issues that dominate today's reporting have historically had no bearing on leadership qualities. While planning D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower had a close, though possibly platonic, relationship with his female driver. Should that have barred him from the White House?

Around the Blogs

The blogosphere is vast indeed. Which means that on days like today, when I find myself at a loss for new material, I can simply mooch off of my fellow bloggers.

Ed Brayton has produced a fine response to this bit of anti-evolution nonsense. This particular bit of nonsense appeared at the oxymoronically named website Intellectual Conservative. Ed also has a follow-up post on this subject here.

Pharyngula has this report on his encounter with Young-Earth creationist Paul Nelson at a recent conference run by the Society for Developmental Biology. Nelson presented a poster at the event in which he argued, well, actually, it's not so clear what he was arguing exactly. Nelson is just about the only creationist who makes some effort at presenting his ideas in legitimate scientific venues, but Pharyngula does a good job of showing why creo's don't do well in such situations.

Sadly, pseudoscience isn't just confined to biology. One of the worst science writers in the business these days is The New Republic's Gregg Easterbrook. In the past he has written pro-ID articles for The Wall Street Journal and has defended Bush's record on environmental issues. Now he is bashing Stephen Hawking, the Big Bang theory, and physicists generally. Sadly, the full article is only available to subscribers, but blogger Brad DeLong provides copious quotes, with excellent rebuttals, here.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Sisson, Part Four

In my previous postings about Edward Sison's essay in William Dembski's anthology Uncommon Dissent I focussed on the numerous scientific blunders Sisson saw fit to include.

But Sisson addresses other topics as well, among them whether it is really plausible that several generations of scientists are all mixed up on the subject of evolution. To argue that it is, indeed, plausible, Sisson points out that “there are of course many precedents for the general proposition that the reigning theories of an era may be false”(P. 77). The example he chooses to focus on is continental drift.

Nowadays it is well accepted that the continents are not fixed land masses, but rather, well, drift. For a long time, however, continental drift was considered absurd, becuase no one could provide a force adequate to the task of moving such large masses.

But there was a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that at one time the continents were closer together than they are today. For example, fossils found along the coast of Africa seemed to match very well with fossils found on the coast of South America. If animals could not travel freely between these land masses in earlier times, how do we explain this matching?

A number of scientists suggested that the continents used to be connected by a series of now submerged land bridges. There was no direct evidence for the existence of such bridges, but hypothesizing them did allow scientists to make sense of all the data that is now cited as evidence for drift. Since there was no credible alternative, the land bridges were accepted as plausible.

Later, the theory of plate tectonics was developed. This provided the missing force capable of moving continents, and drift was quickly embraced.

Sisson wishes to persuade us that evolution is about to go the way of the mythical land bridges. He writes:

The parallel between the evolution debate and the continental drift debate is quite striking. In unintelligent evolution, it is assumed that there cannot be an intelligent designer since humans have never perceived one, just as it was assumed that continents can't move since humans had never seen them move. Thus, to establish the factual existence of the mechanism for change in species (the equivalent of the land bridge), it is necessary simply that a scientist imagine a non-intelligent solution. That imagined solution - sequential muttions to germ cell DNA resulting from unintelligent processes, followed by a take-over of the population by individuals possessing the mutations - necessarily becomes a fact, regardless of the astounding odds against the occurrence of those events. Only its details - the specific mutation processes by which this operates - await actual observation. This two stage presentation - the “fact” of common descent and the “theory” of the details of how common descent actually works - is exactly how biology textbooks describe the matter. (P. 79-80) (Empahsis in Original).

Every time I think I've read the silliest thing imaginable, someone like Sisson comes along to prove me wrong. Sisson has the analogy completely backward. It is the assumption of intelligent design that is playing the role of the land bridges in biological history. Let me explain.

The argument against continental drift had nothing to do with the failure of humans to see the continents move. The problem was that to move such large masses against the resistance of the surrounding air and water a massive force was required, and there was no force known at the time that was up to the task. At one point gravity was suggested as the only force capable of causing the continents to drift, but it was shown rather conclusively that this was not an adequate explanation.

The problem with drift was that it suggested something that, as far as anyone knew at the time, was in stark violation of basic principles of physics. That's a pretty sound reason for rejecting a theory. By contrast, the hypothetical land bridges contained no such violation. Once the theory of plate tectonics provided a force that was capable of causing continents to move, the land bridges were cheerfully abandoned almost overnight.

Prior to Darwin's work, there was no known natural force capable of explaining the complexity of living creatures. As a result, it was simply assumed that there must be a supernatural intelligent designer capable of producing the complexity of nature. That there was no direct evidence of such a designer was neither here nor there. All other explanations required far greater leaps of faith.

Of course, there was quite a bit of circumstanital evidence for the proposition that species were not fixed. This evidence was noted by people like Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather) and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck. But neither was able to suggest a plausible mechanism to explain how species changed over time, and they were quite rightly ignored. In the analogy, they played the role of drift boosters prior to the discovery of plate tectonics.

Darwin changed that first by showing that the sheer quantity of circumstantial evidence for common descent was far greater than previously thought. More importantly, he suggested the outline of a mechanism that could explain such descent. Minus an accurate theory of heredity, there was no way for him to flesh out his ideas in a compelling way. But it was clear to scientists what sort of research needed to be done to assess the validity of his ideas. In other words, Darwin's ideas were clearly fruitful, even if the verdict would turn out to be against him.

More than a century later we have a massive body of work in both theoretical and applied genetics that shows that natural selection is workable both in theory and practice. Genetics textbooks are loaded with well-understood mechanisms that cause genes to change over time. The hypothesis that various complex structures evolved via natural selection has led time and time again to important discoveries about biological structures. By contrast, the hypothesis of ID has never led to anything, and was never supported by anything more than the inability of scientists to come up with an alternative explanation.

Sisson, like all ID proponents, pretends that natural selection is just some abstract principle invoked by scientists to avoid dealing with the problem of biological complexity. In reality, the hypothesis that natural selection is the primary shaper of evolution continues to form the basis of countless research projects. This is a role that the hypothetical land bridges, or the equally hypothetical intelligent designer, never played.

Finally, we come to the distinction between the fact and the theory of evolution. If Sisson were correct that there was no remotely plausible natural mechanism for explaining common descent, then he would be right to protest this distinction. But the problem scientists actually face is quite different: There are many known forces capable of causing evolution, and in any given circumstance it may be hard to determine which force was actually working. Sometimes the disputes in this regard get rather heated. Consequently, scientists who write for the public are at pains to point out that such disputes as there are do not concern common descent, but rather with alternative explanations for that descent.

Sisson is surely aware that virtually every biology department in the country has a division devoted to evolutionary studies. Do you think Sisson has ever wondered for one second what goes on in all those labs? Has he ever wondered what is being reported in all those journal papers that get published every year? Or do you think he is someone who has read a few pages of people like Gould and Dawkins and has decided, in his supreme arrogance, that he actually knows something about the subject he is addresing?

Whatever the answer to that last question, one thing is clear: Sisson is a charlatan. He knows nothing about biology, but feels no shame in accusing scientists of the crassest sort of studipity and skullduggery. Small wonder he is so welcome among the ID's.