Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Discovery Institute on Cobb County

The Discovery Institute apparently agrees with the idea that the Cobb County trial, mentioned in the previous post, is going well for the evolution side. DI has posted two articles at their website, available here and here, lamenting what they describe as the lackluster performance of the Cobb County attorney. Here is one of their complaints:

“Either this attorney threw the case on purpose,” says legal analyst Seth Cooper, an expert on the legal aspects of teaching evolution, “or he simply doesn't know what he was doing. This was a textbook case. Literally. And he blew it.”

The defense mounted this week by the Cobb Co. School District’s attorney Linwood Gunn is being criticized for not calling expert witnesses to rebut those of the plaintiff. While the plaintiff's attorneys called multiple witnesses including a scientist, Gunn only called one witness, who was not a scientist.

“On Wednesday, Gunn called the defense's only witness to testify, and even that testimony appears to be unhelpful,” says Cooper. “A strong defense requires a strong factual record for the judge to base his decision on. The defense appears to have dropped the ball in this regard.”

There's only one problem with this. No expert witnesses were called for either side. As explained by Reed Cartwright:

Now Seth Cooper, the DI lawyer who prepared an amicus brief supporting the disclaimer, is upset at the way the lawyer for CCSD is handling the case. Cooper’s main complaint is that the defense never called any expert witnesses to cast doubt on evolution. Apparently Cooper is unaware that no expert witness testimony was presented at the trial. Last Friday the judge used a procedural technicality to disqualify all expert testimony. It is suspected that this was done to streamline the trial. Ken Miller, a well known biologist from Brown University, did not testify as an expert witness, but as coauthor of the most popular biology textbook used in Cobb schools. Carlos Moreno, a pathologist from Emory University, testified as a Cobb resident. Although scientists did testify for the plaintiffs, none did so as an expert.

Just one more example of the Discovery Institute being completely unable to say anything that's true.

Another interesting aspect of this trial is how much it shares with past trials in this area. For example, the issue of whether expert witnesses could testify also came up at the Scopes trial. The issue there revolved around some vagueness in the wording of the Butler Act (the law Scopes was accused of violating). Specifically, it wasn't clear whether the law specifically outlawed teaching evolution (in which case experts would have nothing relevant to say regarding Scopes' guilt) or whether the law made it illegal to teach scientific ideas that contradicted the Bible, with evolution being one example of such a theory (in which case experts could testify as to whether evolution really does contradict the Bible). Anyway, in that case the judge also ruled that expert witnesses were not allowed.

There is also a parallel with the 1982 creationism trial in Arkansas. In that case, the creationist side barely showed up for the trial, and were soundly trounced by the ACLU. Prominent creationist groups of the day were angered by what they perceived as the lackluster performance of the district attorney who was supposed to be representing their interests. The criticisms made then were very similar to the ones quoted above.

Stephen Jay Gould (who testified in the 1982 trial) had a more plausible explanation for why the creationist side comes off looking so bad in the courtroom. He pointed out that creationism survives not because they have any arguments worth taking seriously, but because they put on great theater for people who know little about science. But trials are nontheatrical to the point of being boring. In such an environment, the emptiness of creationism becomes obvious.

In the end what matters is what the judge thinks, so the creationists might yet get the last laugh. But it sounds like so far the ACLU has presented its arguments well.

The Cobb County Affair

Two years ago the school board of Cobb County, GA, an affluent suburb of Atlanta, voted to put the following warning label in their high school biology textbooks:

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.

Of course, this is a boneheaded label for many reasons (the juvenile distinction between theory and fact, the oversimplification of describing evolution as addressing the origins of living things as opposed to their change over time, etc.) But is it unconstitutional? That's a harder question.

The ACLU has filed suit arguing that these labels are unconstitutional. The trial got underway this week. Reed Cartwright has an excellent summary of the trial so far.

Here's something interesting from Cartwright's summary

The superintendent did not want a disclaimer, but proposed an alternate wording in which students were encouraged to critically examine all ideas. The board overruled it and went with the above language, which they developed themselves.

I don't know if this counts as evidence in the legal sense, but it certainly shows that the disclaimers are not intended to serve the legitimate secular purpose of encouraging students to critically analyze scientific theories. Instead, their purpose is to get students to question evolution.

These sorts of trials are frustrating for several reasons. One is the obvious one: It's really pathetic that eighty years after the Scopes trial we're still fighting these battles. Another involves the difference between what you can prove in court and what everyone knows to be true. Of course these labels are not intended to serve any secular purpose. Does anyone really believe the issue here is between those who want students to think critically about scientific theories and those who do not? The labels exist solely because a large number of people just hate the idea that humans evolved from nonhuman ancestors.

Which brings me to my third frustration: The sheer desperation of the people who support this label is hard to believe. Basically, we are talking about people who would love to have evolution either removed entirely from classrooms, or presented in a way that makes it clear no sensible person would believe such nonsense. Barring that they want some form of creationism taught alongside evolution. But the courts have consistently ruled against such things. So, as a last ditch attempt to do something, anything, to protect their children from evolution they came up with these dopey warning labels. And now the courts might throw that out as well.

As I have mentioned previously in this blog, I used to live in central Kansas, and while I was there I frequently listened to the local Christian radio station. What quickly became clear was that the greatest fear people had was that their children would lose their faith. One example: I was listening to a call-in show in which listeners could ask the host for advice on certain parenting issues. One obviously distraught mother called in and said something like “My family recently suffered a devastating tragedy. My child wasn't killed, like the previous caller, but to me it feels just as permanent. My son called home from college and told me he had become an atheist.”

It's hard for me to describe my reaction to that. As an atheist I was insulted, of course. Putting that aside, the grief this woman felt was obviously sincere but utterly incomprehensible to me. I don't understand how people can hold their religious convictions with such fervor that their child becoming an atheist is equivalent to their child being killed.

I think a lot of the people who support this label feel the same way. Their faith is very delicate; it can only survive within a large community of believers. The secular public schools are an intrusion into that community. The mere fact that the schools are not operated from a Christian perspective makes them dangerous enough. But then you add in things like evolution and it becomes an all out assault on their child's soul. And now here comes the government to tell them that evolution is so sacrosanct they can't even have a stinking little warning label?

Don't get me wrong, I hope the ACLU wins this case. From Reed's description it sounds like the trial is going well.

But I remain frustrated. It's all well an good to rail at the irrationality of many aspects of religious belief. I can fume at the lies and distortions about science that appear in their books and are preached by their ministers. I can snicker at how those red state rubes want to take us back to the seventeenth century. But in the end I just don't understand how these people view the world, and how they have arrived at the conclusions they have. I don't understand people who think the proper way to learn about science is to read the Bible or listen to their local preacher. I don't understand people who are happy to let proven liars like Hank Hanegraaf, Ken Ham or Phillip Johnson tell them about Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins, but never think of walking down to the local public library and reading Gould and Dawkins for themselves.

And yet, in the wake of the last election, it seems that it is their values that are carrying the day. As I said, I don't understand it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

H. L. Mencken on the Presidency

I found this H. L. Mencken quote at Andrew Sullivan's blog. Mencken could be a bit vicious, but no one ever accused him of lacking eloquence. The quote is from 1920:

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental--men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... [A]ll the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre--the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

This from a time when Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson were the three most recent Presidents! I can only imagine what Mencken would say today.

Kondracke's Lecture

Here's Fox News pundit Morton Kondracke lecturing us mean ol' liberals about the glories of Evangelical Christianity:

If fair-minded secular Democrats went to church - they are open to the public, by the way - here's some of what they'd learn: Lesson No. 1: Far more than abortion, evolution or homosexuality, Evangelical Christianity is about love, redemption, forgiveness, charity, humility, hope and self-sacrifice.

Oh really? Here's Fox News reporting on Jerry Falwell's recent activities:

Seeking to take advantage of the momentum from an election where moral values proved important to voters, the Rev. Jerry Falwell announced Tuesday he has formed a new coalition to guide an “evangelical revolution.”

Falwell, a religious broadcaster based in Lynchburg, Va., said the Faith and Values Coalition will be a “21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority,” the organization he founded in 1979.

Falwell said he would serve as the coalition's national chairman for four years.

He added that the new group's mission would be to lobby for anti-abortion conservatives to fill openings on the Supreme Court and lower courts, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and the election of another “George Bush-type” conservative in 2008.

“We all, for the first time, began to realize the potential of religious conservatives, particularly evangelicals, when something over 30 million of them went to the polls,” he said, noting most supported the president and anti-abortion candidates, and voted to approve 11 initiatives across the country banning gay marriage.

I see a lot about abortion and homosexuality here; not so much about love, forgiveness and charity.

Here's Agape Press columnist David Sisler discussing the role of evangelicals in the election:

As I said, I have a theory about why George W. Bush was re-elected. The homosexual community gave him a huge assist.

Statistics indicate that 25 percent of the voters in Tuesday's election were evangelical Christians. The reason many of them they went to the polls, so the exit pollers say, was to vote for a single issue: the marriage issue – one woman plus one man equals marriage.

Eleven states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah -- had the issue on the ballot. It was defeated in all 11 states. It was close only in Oregon, 56 percent to 44 percent, and even there, the folks who allow physician-assisted suicide, agreed -- this time -- with what the Lord God Almighty said in the Book of Genesis.

The homosexual community has an “in your face” attitude about almost everything connected with their lifestyle, a lifestyle which the Word of God condemns. In their militancy they forced the “one man - one woman” measure onto 11 state ballots.

In 11 states evangelical Christians voted in unprecedented numbers, and they helped carry nine of those crucial states for President Bush (in Oregon, John Kerry won the popular vote by the slim margin of three percent, and in Michigan by only one percent).

While evangelical Christians were in the voting booths, loudly affirming the traditional definition of marriage, three out of four of them also voted to re-elect George W. Bush. And President Bush received more votes for president than any candidate in the history of our nation.

If it were not for the militancy of the homosexual community, insisting that they be allowed to marry, insisting that the state sanction their violation of God's Word, those evangelical Christians would have stayed home like many -- far too many -- did last year.

It doesn't get much clearer than that. Many evangelical voters went to the polls solely because of the gay marriage issue. They would not have left home otherwise.

It would not be difficult to find dozens of other quotes from prominent evangelicals along these lines.

I'm fully prepared to be persuaded that people like Falwell and Sisler are actually fringe figures in the Evangelical community, but I see no evidence that this is so.

I know many fine people who are serious about their Christian faith but have no urge to use the government to enforce their moral views. For those people I have nothing but respect. But it sure looks to me like they are a minority of relgious voters in this country. And they are definitely in the minority of politically active Christians.

Kondracke's entire, silly column deserves a proper fisking, but that will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Maher Sums it Up

Here's Bill Maher's flawless summation of the recent election, and what Democrats have to do to be more successful next time. This is a transcript from his show. I've highlighted my particular favorites in bold:

And finally, New Rule: Stop saying that blue state people are out of touch with the values and morals of the red states. [applause] I’m not out of touch with them. I just don’t share them. In fact, and I know this is about 140 years late, but to the Southern States, I would say, “Upon further consideration, you CAN go.” [laughter] [applause] [cheers] “I know that’s what you’ve always wanted, and we’ve reconsidered. So go ahead.” [laughter] “And take Texas with you.” [applause] [cheers]

You know what they say. If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. [laughter] And give my regards to President Charlie Daniels. [laughter]

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I almost forgot, this is the time of healing. [laughter] The time when blue states and red states come together because we have so much to offer each other. “Spice Rack” meet “Gun Rack.” [laughter] “Picky about bottled water,” say hello to “Drinks from a garden hose.” [laughter] “Bought an antique nightstand at an estate sale,” meet “Uses a giant wooden spool he stole from the phone company as a coffee table.” [laughter] [applause]

Sorry, there I go again, kidding when I should be healing. [laughter] Hey, say what you will about the Republicans, they do stand for something: Armageddon, but it’s something. [laughter] [applause] Democrats, on the other hand, have been coasting for years on Tom Daschle’s charisma. [laughter] But that’s not enough anymore. Democrats will never win another election if they keep trying to siphon off votes from the Republicans. They will only win by creating a lot more Democrats. And you don’t do that by trying to leach onto issues that you should be denouncing. [applause] [cheers]

You wind up – you wind up in a goose-hunting outfit a week before the election—[laughter]—trying to appeal to guys who would sooner vote for the goose. [laughter] Guys who even in down-to-earth, economically-ailing Ohio, thought blowjobs more important than job-jobs. [laughter] [applause]

Hey, these folks aren’t “undecideds.” They’re not in play. No, what the Democrats need are fresh, new ideas that are dumb and hateful enough to win these people over. [applause]

You know, stuff like, “No drinking on Christmas.” [laughter] Or how about a Constitutional Amendment protecting the song, “God Bless America”? [laughter] I say, let’s put a fetus on the dollar bill! [laughter] With Reagan! [applause]

And you know what country has been asking for an ass-kicking in the worst way? Finland. [laughter] Yes, Democrats need a really, really stupid, meaningless and utterly symbolic issue. And by issue, of course, I mean, thing to hate.

How about this? An amendment that says people with gerbils are threatening the sanctity of pet ownership—[laughter]—and that from now on, pet owning will be defined only as the relationship between a person and his cat or dog. [laughter] [applause]

Now, my opponent may disagree. That’s because he’s a fag. [laughter] [applause]

So, Democrats – Democrats and liberals, stop saying you’re going to move because Bush won. Real liberals should be pledging to stay because Bush won. [applause] [cheers] Trust me, you can’t get away from Bush by moving to France. Because that’s where we’re invading next. [laughter]

Monday, November 08, 2004

Homo floresiensis

Scholars of human evolution have been all abuzz recently about the discovery of Homo floresiensis, a new hominid species. Apparently the bones are sufficiently recent that they had not even fossilized. A quick run-down of the facts is available here:

In addition to a small body size, H. floresiensis had a remarkably small brain. The type specimen, at 380 cm³(23 in³), is at the lower range of chimpanzees or the ancient Australopithecines. The brain is reduced considerably relative to this species' presumed immediate ancestor H. erectus, which at 980 cm³ (60 in³) had more than double the brain volume of its descendant species. Nonetheless, the brain to body mass ratio of H. floresiensis is comparable to that of H. erectus, indicating the species were unlikely to differ in intelligence. Indeed, the discoverers have associated H. floresiensis with advanced behaviors.

And later:

The other remarkable aspect of the find is that this species is thought to have survived on Flores until at least as recently as 12,000 years ago. This makes it the longest-lasting non-modern human, long outsurviving the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) who went extinct about 30,000 years ago. H. floresiensis certainly coexisted with modern humans, who arrived in the region 35,000-55,000 years ago, for a long time, but it is unknown how they may have interacted.

The essay also points out that there is clear evidence of the use of fire and the use of sophisticated stone tools.

A Headache for Paleoanthropologists?

Today's New York Times provides this follow-up article suggesting that various bits of palontological wisdom will have to be rethought in light of the discovery:

The miniature people found to have lived on the Indonesian island of Flores until 13,000 years ago may well appeal to the imagination. Even their Australian discoverers refer to them with fanciful names. But the little Floresians have created something of a headache for paleoanthropologists.

The Floresians, whose existence was reported late last month, have shaken up existing views of the human past for three reasons: they are so recent, so small and apparently so smart. None of these findings fits easily into current accounts of human evolution.

The article is interesting, but a bit too sensational for my taste. For example, it goes on to explain:

The textbooks describe an increase in human brain size that parallels an increasing sophistication in stone tools. Our close cousins the chimpanzees have brains one third the size of ours, as do the Australopithecines, the apelike human ancestors who evolved after the split from the joint human-chimp ancestor six or seven million years ago. But the Australopithecines left no stone tools, and chimps, though they use natural stones to smash things, have no comprehension of fashioning a stone for a specific task.

The little Floresians seem to have made sophisticated stone tools yet did so with brains of 380 cubic centimeters, about the same size as the chimp and Australopithecine brains. This is a thumb in the eye for the tidy textbook explanations that link sophisticated technology with increasing human brain size.

Perhaps. On the other hand, while H. floresiensis may have had brains the size of chmipanzees they apparently had bodies that were much smaller. (Roughly 25 kg according to the article cited in the previous post as compared with 35-70 kg, according to this interesting site about chimpanzees). As everyone knows, brain size by itself is not a reliable indicator of intelligence. The ratio of brain size to body size is a far better measure, and on that scale our little friends fare reasonably well.

The most interesting part of the article deals with speculations about whether H. floresiensis is more closely related to H. erectus or H. sapiens (that's us!) Personally, I'm rooting for the H. sapiens just because I like the idea of human beings speciating. Here's what the article has to say about it:

There has been little evidence until now that Homo erectus long survived its younger cousins' arrival in the region. Modern humans probably exterminated the world's other archaic humans, the Neanderthals in Europe. Yet the little Floresians survived some 30,000 years into modern times, the only archaic human species known to have done so.

All these surprises raise an alternative explanation. What if the Floresians are descended from modern humans, not from Homo erectus?

“I think the issue of whether it derives from H. erectus or H. sapiens is difficult or impossible to answer on the morphology,” says Dr. Richard Klein, an archaeologist at Stanford. And if the individual described in the Nature articles indeed made the sophisticated tools found in the same cave, “then it is more likely to be H. sapiens,” he says.

The same possibility has been raised by two anthropologists at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Marta Mirazón Lahr and Dr. Robert Foley. Commenting on the sophisticated stone implements found in the cave with the Floresians, they write that “their contrast with tools found anywhere with H. erectus is very striking.”

There is the basis here for a fierce dispute. Given what is on the record so far, the argument that the Floresians are descended from Homo sapiens, not erectus, has a certain parsimony. Moderns are known to have been around in the general area, and no Homo erectus is known to have made such sophisticated tools.

The article goes on to provide some possible counters to these arguments.

One of the great frustrations of paleontology is that nature only provides us with so many fossils and there is only so much information that can be extracted from them. This is precisely why theories regarding the specific trajectory of human evolution seem to change more frequently than theories in other branches of science. The article concludes with this observation:

“I always tell my students that I've taught for 30 years and I've never given the same lecture twice. Hardly a year goes by when something new isn't found,” says Dr. Leslie Aiello, a paleoanthropologist at University College London. Of the Floresian discovery she says, “It's a total knockout.”

Ham Weighs In

Somehow you just knew that this new fossil find was actually evidence for creationism, right? Here's uber-creationist Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, weighing in, as reported by Agape Press:

Answers in Genesis founder Dr. Ken Ham says he is always amazed by the reactions of evolutionists whenever a new, so-called “humanoid” bone is found. Inevitably, he says, the evolution proponents say with the finding of a new fossil that creationists have lost their age-old argument with Darwinists.

We ought to point out that we are not talking about a single bone, but several, impressively complete, skeletons.

But Ham says this is not so. “The interesting thing is that, really, from a creationist perspective, we have no trouble at all explaining variation within human kind like this,” he explains. “I like to help people understand that by saying, 'Look -- eight people got off Noah's ark, and as they increased in number, and then you have the Tower of Babel, and you split up the human gene pool.'”

When this happens, the science expert continues, the result is “different combinations of genes moving in different directions. You can get certain features in a particular group that might be unique to that particular group.” Thus, he concludes, are the so-called “evolutionary” differences in the features of human skeletons explained.

We really must begin by snickering at the description of Ken Ham as a “science expert”. Aside from the fact that Ham's writings on evolution are notoriously filled with errors, we should point out that anyone with genuine scientific credentials would not describe himself with a term as juvenile as “science expert”.

Now that we are done snickering, let's consider the argument Ham is making here. He seems to be saying that the variations observed in the known hominid fossils are explained as the normal sort of genetic variation we find within any, er, kind. As Ham tells it, we are all ultimately descended from the survivors of Noah's flood. Local variations in each of these lines accumulated to the point that they appear as diffrent species in the fossil record.

This is a classic example of a professional creationist tossing out science jargon to impress his followers while avoiding the real question. The numerous hominid fossils known to date show a clear progression through time from those with small brains and non-erect gait through increasingly more human-like forms. From the evolutionary standpoint not a single one, including H. floresiensis, is out of place (in the sense that an erectus fossil appearing before the oldest Australopithecines would be out of place). The variations that we find in the fossils are far too great to be dismissed as trivial genetic variations accruing in the course of a few thouand years, and the sequence they form is too suggestive to be ignored.

There is also the fact that every known hominid except modern humans are currently extinct (as far as anyone knows). If the hominid fossil record only records trivial variations in the great human family, why do we not find the same variations in modern humans?

The known hominid fossils strongly suggest evolution. Ham knows this. That is why the best counter-argument he can offer is almost incoherent.

Ham blathers on for a few more paragraphs after this. Enjoy!