Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bosnian Psuedo-Pyramids Just Won't Die

Afarensis reports that Bosnian pyramid pseudo-archaeologist Sesmir Osmanagic has re-emerged, hawking his snake-oil archaeology to none other than a willingly duped ABC. The network obligingly reports, Afarensis notes, "...the worst piece of dreck passed off as science reporting that I have seen in quite a while".

Osmanagic uses the same logic as Noah's Ark enthusiasts to suggest that any geologic pecularity that he can't personally explain must be the result of human manufacture. (Come to think of it, this is the same logic used by Intelligent Design advocates...I wonder if Osmanagic's "pyramid" meets Dembski's definition of "specified complexity"?). Hot Cup of Joe further devastates Osmanagic's logic as well as ABC's credibility when it comes to reporting science:

Osmanagic's main contention seems to be that the hill is pyramid shaped and the orthogonal jointing present in the bedrock are both evidence of man-made. There are a lot of reasons why it should be obvious to major media outlets like ABC's Nightline that Osmanagic is decidedly not an archaeologist and not a scientist. Of them, failing to recognize orthogonal jointing in bedrock is one. This is a process that is fairly well understood in geology and can form a "ladder-like" feature in sedimentary strata with systematic joints that occurs at 90 degree angles and form during uplift and erosion. The very systematic, "ladder-like" pattern that I've seen depicted in some of the Osmanagic photos may be evidence of 90 degree rotation of tectonic stresses. The primary joints are created first by tectonic force, then the tectonic stresses over time are applied in a new vector creating a new set of joints at 90 degrees from the original.

I reported an interesting blog piece on this back in September, where a geologist reports that the Osmanagic "pyramid" is nothing more than natural sandstone features, just as Hot Cup of Joe suggests. ABC should learn to do a bit more research.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Charlie Brown Surpasses Doolittle in Funding

Some more political news (then I'll get back to science and archaeology!)....From the Friday Sacramento Bee:

Brown fundraising surges past Doolittle's for month of October

From the article:

New reports filed by the campaigns with the Federal Election Commission show that Doolittle raised about $207,000 during the first 18 days of October, and since then has reported large late contributions totaling about $48,000.
During the same period, the Brown campaign reported more than $416,000 during the first 18 days, and $84,500 in large late contributions.

But there's an interesting tidbit...apparently Doolittle's campaign has some debts. This one in particular is curious:

The debts also included $39,595 in fundraising fees owed to Sierra Dominion Financial Services, the company owned by Doolittle's wife, Julie, and operated out of their home in Oakton, Va.
When that bill is paid, it would bring to almost $107,000 the amount Julie Doolittle's company has been paid for fundraising for her husband's re-election during the 2005-2006 campaign.

Doolittle said he pays his wife a flat commission of 15 percent on what she raises. At that rate, she would have been paid commissions for raising about $700,000 -- or roughly a third of her husband's total receipts.

So is it no wonder there's a follow-up story in today's Sacramento Bee on a potential Doolittle indictment?:

Doolittle legal fate uncertain
Voters go to polls not knowing if he'll face Abramoff case charges.

Voters in the 4th Congressional District will go to the polls Nov. 7 to decide whether Rep. John Doolittle deserves an eighth term without knowing whether he will face federal prosecution in connection with the ongoing investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

And further on in the article:

Additionally, the company of Doolittle's wife, Julie, was hired by Abramoff's law firm from September 2002 to February 2004, receiving more than $66,600.

Her company was initially hired to raise money for a fundraiser for an Abramoff charity; she stayed on the payroll for months after that event was canceled.

A federal grand jury investigating Abramoff subpoenaed records related to her work for Doolittle. But John Doolittle said in February that federal investigators later asked for information about his wife's other clients, which would have included him since his campaign pays her a commission for fundraising work.

Doolittle may have been trying to get his wife on Abramoff's payroll as early as 2000, according to a recently disclosed e-mail written by Kevin Ring, a former Doolittle staffer who later was hired by Abramoff.

The 4th District Congressional race is, like many across the country, very close. Doolittle may still retain his seat at the end of the day on November 7. But if he does so, it will be at the voting fingertips of those who lack moral judgement and moral character.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Aspiring To The Knowledge of Gods

In perusing the internet this morning, several times I came across Jacob Bronowski's 1970s documentary The Ascent of Man and reference to one particular scene. In referring to a piece he wrote on the need to recognize doubt and uncertainty, Andrew Sullivan, following advice from a reader, linked to this superb video piece of Bronowski commenting on the ultimate cause of the Nazi death camps. PZ Meyers, in answering the question of what was the all time greatest science show, also comes up with the same Bronowski episode. The video is powerful and I recommend you watch it and think about it. But here are Bronowski's words in the shadow of Auschwitz:

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

But I offer it a second time, with the request that the reader reflect on the nature of the links provided in context of Bronowski's words. The image provided is mine, but I believe it reflects a coming era unless politics change.

"It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods".

What more can be said?

Support Charlie Brown for Congress

Ok, I know I've gone astray on the congressional races this year, but it IS an election year, it IS an important mid-term election, and I DO want Brown to beat out Doolittle....So, just to prove I'm doing what I can around town:

Also wanted to let NiteSwimming know that I really did put the bumper sticker she gave me to good use:

Why Should Anyone Vote For John Doolittle? No, I'm Serious, Really...Tell Me Again...

To suggest Doolittle supports our troops in Iraq and elsewhere with anything other than a dollar bumper sticker on his car is an immoral statement to make. Doolittle and the Republicans have already started to "swiftboat" Democratic and Independent veterans who actually bothered to join the service and, well...serve. (Which makes it clear to me that it's not about supporting the military, it's all about supporting the Republican Party). Just compare Doolittle's actions on supporting the military with Lt. Colonel Charlie Brown's:

A career military officer-- so expect the Republicans to swiftboat him and disparage his service like they do with all American fighting men and women who challenge them-- Charlie was flying rescue helicopters in hostile fire while in Vietnam while Doolittle was seeking 3 consecutive deferments. "He talks the 'support the troops' line, but he always votes against benefits for veterans and troops when it comes to spending dollars on medical care, education and equipment for active duty servicemen... He votes no on a bill that would have given $430 million to the V.A. for hospitals but turns around and votes to approve $700 million for a train track to benefit casinos in Mississippi." (from Down With Tyranny!)

So how many deferments did Doolittle get? And why? And why would anyone think that someone who went to all the trouble to get deferments would now be accurately touted as "supporting the troops" (yeah, from a distance!)...

Here's another one I found, although somewhat dated, written by an Iraqi War veteran:

Doolittle suggests that if you do not agree with the political decision to go to war, then you do not support the troops. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve traveled all over this country, and met people both for and against the war. Regardless of which side they fall on, everyone I meet supports the warriors. Many send care packages, body armor and helmets. Others advocate for veterans rights or volunteer to help homeless veterans and families coping with the absence of a loved one. Actions speak louder than words.

Career politicians like Doolittle say they support us, because that’s all they can do. Yet their voting records, official actions, and appalling misuse of taxpayer dollars tell a very different story. Veterans, both past and present, are not fooled by the empty rhetoric.

Finally, this take from ActBlue sums it up nicely:

Before you look into who Charlie Brown is, you might already know something about the incumbent he’s running against. John Doolittle is one of the most venal and corrupt Republicans to ever walk the halls of Congress. The people of CA-04 would actually be better off with no representative at all instead of this brazen political prostitute they have now, someone who is readily available for all Big Business interests—as long as the money is right.

So tell me again, why should anyone vote for John Doolittle????????

Doolittle: ACLU Membership = Supporting Pedophilia

Congressman John Doolittle has nothing of substance to offer the people of the Fourth District here in California, so in order to get you to vote for him, he's forced to has to go through extreme twists of logic to claim that his opponent, Lt. Colonel Charlie Brown, is in favor of protecting pedophiles. Here's the logic: Brown is a member of the ACLU; the ACLU defends rights of the citizens of the US to constitutional protection; the US Constitution grants freedom of speech, freedom of speech allows you to say things that are not correct, moral, valuable or true, but that's a right you have that's guaranteed; organizations like NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) put out a magazine that is for most of us, quite vile, but that's a right they have under the Constitution; two members of NAMBLA once raped and killed a boy (not a "right" under the constitution in anyone's book, even the ACLU); the right of NAMBLA to put out vile material was defended by the ACLU;

....hence, Doolittle's logic that everyone who supports the ACLU also supports pedophilia.

Doolittle is a mental midget and the only people who buy into his kind of "logic" are equally dereft of any intellectual ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Unfortunately, Doolittle depends on the intellectually vacuous to get votes. He can't win with thoughtful people - people who actually stop to think of why they pick a candidate, as opposed to those who vote based on whose name happens to be on the last yard sign they passed on the way to the election precinct.

Only a stupid person actually believes Charlie Brown (or any of us card-carrying members of the ACLU) actually supports pedophiles.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Defend the Constitution

A local reader sent me this about Defend The Constitution's battle against the growing tyranny of the religious right. I was actually already a member (I see that Red State Rabble is also posting it). There are a lot of grassroots organizations springing forth to combat fundamentalism in all its form (and of course all ask for donations!). At some point, one has to limit how many organizations of which he or she can be a part. I'm personally interested in those organizations that defend science (and science education) first and foremost, but also those that combat the growing threat of religious fundamentalism. Here's my list:

Tops is the National Center for Science Education. They have always been in the forefront of defending science education and I have always supported their efforts.

I've also recently joined (and would recommend):
Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA)
Defend Science

And one of my new personal favorites:
Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason

For fighting fundamentalism I recommend the following:
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (probably the best)
Center for Progressive Christianity
Christian Alliance for Progress

I'm sure there are others....the issue at stake is the ability for Americans to choose their own religious convictions (or lack of) without fear or intimidation from others and to recognize that religious organizations should not be allowed to dictate policy.

Dick Cheney and Ken Ham Have The Same Audience

We all know that Ken Ham from Answers In Genesis is most effective getting his message out when the audience is comprised of six-year olds...

Apparently the same goes for Dick Cheney...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Doolittle Is Simply Bizarre

Congressman Doolittle is simply a bizarre individual. From an editorial in the Sacramento Bee today:

In style and substance Doolittle was much like his mentor, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay: shrill, mean-spirited and divisive. Doolittle is no consensus builder on the great issues of the day. Watching him, voters could see why the atmosphere in Congress is so poisonous.

Doolittle seems not to have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable. For every question, whether on Iraq, infrastructure, tax policy, health care or ethics, he turned the issue to his opponent's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. It's an odd point to focus on.

No kidding, especially since the ACLU spends a lot of time defending conservative viewpoints, contrary to what conservatives say about the ACLU. They simply try to defend this little thing called the Constitution. But there's more on Doolittle's biblical views as well:

Doolittle's views on the Iraq war are simply bizarre. The conflict, he said, "leads to what the Bible ultimately says": Armageddon will take place in the Middle East. The Bible mentions the Euphrates River in Iraq as the place of prelude to the final battle of Armageddon that will bring about the world's end.

Again, this is simply ludicrous...and very dangerous. Basing public policy on your personal interpretation of biblical passages, especially when it's someone else's life being affected and not your own, is in a word, sick. I'm not sure at this point what distinguishes Doolittle from members of the Taliban. Both rely on faith, not reason, to guide their actions.

The Bee closes out the editorial with this:

Listening to Doolittle, it's hard to imagine him contributing to creative solutions and good-faith negotiations on any of the country's difficult issues. Is this really the kind of congressman the people of the 4th District want representing them in Washington?

Of course it isn't. Hopefully the good folks in Lassen County will vote for someone with moral integrity for a change.

The Intelligent Design Six-Step Method for Providing Equal Weight in Classroom Presentations

In reading Tara Smith's post on the Iowa Repbulican Party platform regarding science education, it is not surprising that they call for equal time teaching "alternative" theories to evolution:

3.4 We support the teaching of alternative theories on the origins of life including Darwinian Evolution, Creation Science or Intelligent Design, and that each should be given equal weight in presentation.

What amuses me is the "given equal weight in presentation" part. How can anyone possibly provide "equal weight" to presentations on ID (which has no data) and evolution (for which data are too numerous to fathom)? There is only one way that equal weight can be given to ID: you need to use the ID Six-Step Method of Instruction:

1) don't even discuss the data that supports evolution;
2) falsify the data that supports evolution to make it look like there are problems with evolutionary theory;
2) take evolutionary data out of context to make it look like there are problems with evolutionary theory;
3) make the claim that many scientists (you know, mathematicians, physicists, lawyers, people from the 16th century...) have questions about the validity of evolutionary theory;
4) falsify the data to make it appear to support Intelligent Design;
5) claim that Intelligent Design has lots of independently verified data to support it (but don't discuss the data, just claim it needs to be kept secret because the Darwinists control the government and will jail all who disagree);
6) claim that since you have just demonstrated No's 1-5, the only logical conclusion left is that the world was intelligently designed!

Comment on a Comment

I just noticed a comment left on one of my previous posts regarding our local paper, the Lassen County Times, and its staff. Like most bloggers, I wouldn't normally bring this up to a new post, but there were a couple of points in the message I wanted to address up front. In addition, this is someone clearly local and since more northstate residents are reading Northstate Science I thought I would answer this person's comments. Someone using the name "Prayforjes" posted the following comment:

my. my. my even the good professor has resorted to Eileen Spencer tactics to get his anti God opinion across. The managing editor may well no agree with anything you wrote but she may not agree with anyone else either.Did she not run you tripe in full and unedited. I saw it and was ashamed to be part of the education community.Are public schools the best place to educate children? Where is the proof. Why not teach the Bible as historic? Why not pray silently? Free speech is for everyone but Christians/I have talked to Ms. France when she was news editor about her coverage of the Israel story. I too was concerned but why do you not mention that the Susanville team and Dr. Baugh did help uncover the Pool of Siloam?As for covering religion, she told me that the paper will cover any religious group Christian or otherwise. Open your eyes O'Brien the fundamentalists tell the paper their story. Ms. Ashmore did a story on Muslims a few years back with the prison chaplain.People who are afraid of Christian thougt and who are almost fearful of the conservative right are also afraid of God.At least now we know where you stand and can make sure our sons and daughters who attend university can be forwarned.Thank you for adding one more nutcase to the Lassen County peanut barrell

Ok, not sure what the "Eileen Spencer tactics" are (for those not from Susanville, Eileen is a local resident who is frequently outspoken at public meetings - apparently Prayforjes doesn't think people should be outspoken???). So, once again, I'm accused of getting my "anti-God" opinion across. This person has no idea what I really believe - they know only that any version of spiritual conviction I might hold is not in line with theirs (and theirs can be the only ONE TRUE belief to have - not counting, of course, the millions of other ONE TRUE belief systems out there). Yes, the managing editor ran my "tripe" (she's referring to my editorial discussed here) in full and unedited - only after I requested that the piece be run in full or not at all. The Times has a habit of strategically editing some things.

There are two things I find interesting about this comment. The first is that the local fundamentalists are still smarting over the piece I wrote almost two years ago challenging comments made about archaeology and the Bible as presented in an article about two residents who went to Israel with Carl Baugh and the Creation Science Museum to excavate at the Pool of Siloam. The two published negative responses to my editorial on teachers also couldn't help but refer to my supposed "anti-God" position and the two year old Pool of Siloam issue (the anti-God comments are clearly in response to the two year old Pool of Siloam piece and not the piece in defense of teachers - I'm not sure how defending teachers can be interpreted as being anti-God, but remember we ARE dealing with fundamentalists, so logic isn't necessarily at play here). As for the Carl Baugh comment: if people would bother to read and not jump to conclusions they will find that I in fact did give Baugh and his team (including the two local residents) credit for being there and helping to uncover the Pool of Siloam site. I even suggested that they were probably a great help and had a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, our paper could not let it go at that and had to nuance the language of the articles (there were three) to suggest that: 1) Carl Baugh is a legitimate archaeologist (he's not - he does not have an accredited degree, he has done no professional archaeological work, his "discoveries" have been faked, and he has published nothing of any archaeological or paleontological value); 2) Carl Baugh's team directed the excavation and were responsible for discovering the Pool of Siloam (they weren't - the Israeli Department of Antiquities has no record of there involvement in a professional capacity - there were nothing more than glorified volunteers; the actual discoverers of the Pool of Siloam were not mentioned in the original articles, even in their capacity as the actual directors of the excavation) and 3) archaeology is proving the Bible correct (most of the information presented was flat false or taken out of context - typical strategy for creationists). The fact that there still appears to be local angst over that editorial is amusing. I can't help but find it gratifying that this particular burr is still chafing at the local fundamentalist horse.

Secondly, Prayforjes continues the same old whining about Christians not being allowed to voice their opinions. This is a ridiculously stupid statement to make. No one has ever denied free speech rights to Christians. Most of my editorials written locally specifically refer to the fact that not only should they have the right to speak their minds but that those ideas should be welcomed (largely because they need to be slain in public so that others can the true nature of fundamentalist propaganda). What Prayforjes and others are really objecting to is the fact that others have the ability to respond to fundamentalist opinion and question their motives. What they mean by "free speech" is that their opinions should be free from critique or comment. Their opinions should as revered in public as they are at private church services. Sorry, that's not the way free speech works. All of us believe fundamentalists are certainly free to express themselves and their ideas in public, and we appropriately defend even their freedom of expression when it is challenged. If you don't like the responses, keep it in the church and at home; when it's public, it's grist for the mill. You have every right to express your beliefs - you don't have a right to feel comfortable with them in public.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Doolittle Believes Iraq War is Biblically Based

This is precisely why I am beginning to side with Dawkins on the idea that faith may not only be unreasoned, but possibly evil. Our congressman John Doolittle, who never saw a fundamentalist idea he didn't like, apparently has no qualms with linking his own personal faith with sending our men and women into harm's way:

Doolittle rolled religious beliefs into Iraq, noting that the Bible tells him Armageddon will take place the Middle East.

So John Doolittle feels sacrificing young lives is OK because in his view, it's predicted in the Bible. And how would this chickenhawk feel if HE were on the front lines? This is where faith becomes evil and justifies ANYTHING.

Dawkins on Faith and Reason

Via PZ, I have just finished reading an interview with Richard Dawkins in Salon magazine. Dawkins has always been one of my favorite authors, on a par with the late Steven Jay Gould. Dawkins is very forthright about his atheism, for which he is highly criticized, not just by creation fundamentalists like William Dembski, but also by Darwinian evolutionists like Michael Ruse. One of the things that I admire most about Dawkins is his brutal honesty:

Well, yes. I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die -- anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed -- that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that.

To suggest, in the face of a large proportion of the world's population who express faith in something supernatural, that faith is evil in and of itself, takes guts. And I have to wonder if he is not on the right track. If faith is a legitimate reason to justify anything, then it is a legitimate reason to justify everything. Ultimately, there is no distinction between those who fly planes into buildings because of their faith and those who do not accept the scientific evidence for evolution because of their faith. Yes, one groups doesn't typically kill people (at least not yet!), but neither position is founded in any kind of reason, therefore both are legitimate outcomes of a system based on faith. I have often told my relatives in discussing matters of religion, that "all faith is equivalent". What I mean, is that faiths cannot be compared in any logical sense; to accept one and not the other is entirely a matter of personal choice. You cannot say the Koran is incorrect and the Bible is correct on the basis of anything tangible. Well, but the Bible is the word of God...no, you believe the Bible is the word of God. You believe it is not the construct of different stories by people trying to explain the world around them without the benefit of scientific knowledge; you believe it was actually translated correctly; you believe its writers were inspired by God and did not have nefarious political ambitions of their own.

I think Dawkins also gets to the heart of a matter that is troubling for many of us evolutionists, although we won't admit it. I was always enamored by Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" between science and religion. I still point my students to Gould and Ken Miller when I see they are struggling with their own ideas on this intersection of faith and reason. Most of us are decent people and it would be nice for there to be a truce between science and religion - if only everyone could just get along. But Dawkins comes along and dashes our hopes:

And I believe that actually is the political reason for Steve Gould to put forward the non-overlapping magisteria in the first place. I think it's nonsense. And I'll continue to say that I think it's nonsense. But I can easily see, politically, why he said that and why other scientists follow it. The politics is very straightforward. The science lobby, which is very important in the United States, wants those sensible religious people -- the theologians, the bishops, the clergymen who believe in evolution -- on their side. And the way to get those sensible religious people on your side is to say there is no conflict between science and religion. We all believe in evolution, whether we're religious or not. Therefore, because we need to get the mainstream orthodox religious people on our side, we've got to concede to them their fundamental belief in God, thereby -- in my view -- losing the war in order to win the battle for evolution. If you're prepared to compromise the war for the sake of the battle, then it's a sensible political strategy.

Yeah, I wonder if we are all just kidding ourselves and just using the NOMA princple to buy political time. I certainly have nothing against people who hold their own personal faith (I have a serious problem when that faith is used to direct public policy). But where in history has faith not been forced to retreat from the progress of science? In every instance of scientific discovery, there have been theological casualties. The reverse has never occurred. There are only two possible theological outcomes: God exists, but is so far outside any descriptive ability of humans at this stage of their evolution as to be practically non-existent...or God doesn't exist at all.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Olbermann Does It Again

Olbermann hits another one out of the park....

(From Crooks and Liars - an excellent place to get information filtered out by the Republican propagandists...)

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Luskin Goes Ape Again

I see that Casey Luskin is once again "going ape"...now, over the new issue of Time magazine, which shows a clever chimp/human hybrid face and which contains a very good article on the nature of the similarities (and differences) between humans and chimpanzees. However, once again, Luskin takes a very complex issue, picks a couple of pieces out of context, throws in a couple of quotes (also out of context) and then proceeds to explain away the silly notions of those anthropologists who don't know near as much about anthropology as Luskin the lawyer does. Luskin starts with the following:

Though the cover graphic (below) shows half-human, half-chimp iconography, University of North Carolina, Charlotte anthropologist Jonathan Marks warns us against "exhibit[ing] the same old fallacies: ... humanizing apes and ape-ifying humans" (What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, pg. xv [2002]). The cover-graphic commits both fallacies

What Luskin is implying to the casual, uninitiated reader (in excellent lawyer obfuscation, by the way) is that a professional molecular anthropologist, Jonathan Marks, does not accept that humans are related to chimpanzees, particularly evolutionarily. I happen to have had the pleasure of talking with Jonathan Marks on a number of occasions at both UC Davis and UW Madison (casual conversations, granted) and read his wonderful book. Marks is indeed concerned, and justifiably so, that too many scientists and science popularizers use this figure to draw unwarranted conclusions about behavior and variation between Homo and Pan. There are immense differences between the two genera. In a great review of Marks' book, Andrew Petto gets to the heart of Marks' thesis:

However, in another sense, the widespread use of this figure is misleading, Marks argues, because its apparent precision generates a false sense of scientific certainty - not so much in the great genetic similarity that it confirms between closely related species, but in the inference that this figure somehow "explains" things. What things could it explain? Suggestions range from promiscuity to aggression to homosexuality to any of a wide variety of interesting conditions that have so far only the most tenuous connection to specific sequences of DNA contained in the individuals who express them. There is a long, long chain of inference here, and for years Marks has consistently been calling scientists and science popularisers to task for their overgeneralizations of genetics research to address a wide variety of interesting social, legal, and technical issues: everything from racial studies, to animal rights, to creationism, to cultural hegemony and colonialism.

But make no mistake. There is a pattern of genetic relationships between humans and the great apes, chimpanzees in particular, that indicates not only that we are part and parcel of the non-human animal world, but that we are closer, genetically, to the chimpanzee than any other species on earth. Yes, humans are not like chimps in ways that are legion, and we must put this fact into context when discussing the implications of genetic information. And this is Marks' concern. Fair enough. But at the end of the argument, the facts still remain: humans are genetically more like chimps than any other species; humans are anatomically more like chimps than any other species, and despite the gulf, humans are still behaviorally more like chimps than any other species. And whether you like it or not there is a really important pattern that is consistent (and needs to be explained): among living organisms today the further distant you travel genetically from humans, the less anatomically similar to humans organisms become, and the less behaviorally similar to humans organisms become. And all of that can be quantified. There is only ONE idea that can account for that pattern: EVOLUTION.

Luskin would like Intelligent Design to serve as an alternative:

The article predictably touts the 98-99% genetic similarity statistic between humans and chimps, assuming that the similarity demonstrates common ancestry. Can common ancestry explain shared functional genetic similarities between humans and chimps? Sure, of course. But so can common design: designers regularly re-use parts that work when making similar blueprints. The article ignores that shared functional similarities between two organisms do not rule out design in favor of descent.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Luskin has identified a valid hypothesis: shared functional genetic similarities are the result of design, not descent. How would you empirically test that assertion? What data specifically point to design and not descent. More importantly, would those data be useful in explaining issues as wide ranging as Hox genes, hominid skulls with varied cranial capacities, and pregnancy loss in wild babbons? Evolutionary theory is not just about hominid cranial capacity or the fact that we share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees. In fact, the revelation of that genetic relationship, for as much play as it gets in the media, really just confirmed what evolutionary biologists already knew. Again, from Petto's review of Marks:

This book is more than a long argument about the technical precision of various genetic and biochemical methods, however. It is about what we make of them. Long before the 98% figure burst forth into the public discourse, scientists and nonscientists alike were convinced that the African apes were our closest biological relatives. Every relevant discipline - comparative anatomy, palaeontology, embryology, psychology, behavioural ecology, comparative physiology, and so on - produced the same conclusion. In one sense, the molecular studies only confirmed what we already knew, as they should.

Luskin cites Marks in such a way to disparage the strength of this relationship. Since he apparently believes Marks makes his case, he should also feel comfortable heeding Marks' warnings about research. Once more from Petto's review:

Despite the apparent precision of scientific studies and the authority with which their results are reported, most violate what Marks calls "a simple rule of molecular anthropology: Genetic conclusions require genetic data" (p. 114, emphasis in the original).

Let me re-phrase that for Luskin and the Intelligent Design proponents:

Intelligent Design conclusions require Intelligent Design data.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Cutting and Running In Lassen County

Local Kurt Bonham at FlyAtNight operates (as far as I can tell) the only other Northeastern California blog that is regularly updated (I'm thinking here about the towns on the east side of the Sierra Nevada and not blogs from the larger cities on the west side like Chico and Redding). Runner up is the Lassen County Blog, which sees periodic updates (again, as far as I can tell for the moment). Niether has addressed science issues; both appear to concentrate on local, state and national politics. I'm getting more local readers, so I'lll even put links to both of these (and any others people might alert me to) on Northstate Science.

Unfortunately, I doubt Kurt and I are going to agree on much (although, stranger things happen). After my response to his personal onslaught against Keith Olbermann's brilliant comments on the Clinton interview, I posted a comment on Kurt's site asking what, specifically, he disagreed with in Olbermann's comment - of course, I was trying to wade throught the typical "I don't like what he says, therefore he's wrong" kind of argument conservatives throw out these days and get to something tangible (like "Olbermann said X, but he's wrong because of Y"). Here's my specific question:

Just curious, but what, precisely, did you not like about Olbermann’s editorial and why?

You know, I was looking for actual data to refute specific arguments Olbermann had made. (He may actually have been wrong, but I certainly wasn't going to take Kurt's word for it...). Instead Kurt posts the following:

Professor O’Brien asked a question in the comments section. The answer is:
Professor, I am sure that you could formulate a better question. I often use open ended innocuous questions, similar to yours, in my classes. They are good teaching tools but have less impact outside of the classroom.

I could be wrong, but I think Kurt is engaging in the intellectual equivalent of "cutting and running"...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Gradualism in Eye Evolution

Here's one ID proponents won't like:

Biologists at the University of California, San Diego have discovered that the presence of a key protein in the compound eyes of the fruit fly (which glow at center due to a fluorescent protein) allows the formation of distinct light gathering units in each of its 800 unit eyes, an evolutionary change to an “open system” that enabled insects to make significant improvements in visual acuity and angular sensitivity. In contrast, beetles (shown surrounding the fruit fly), bees and many mosquito species have the light-gathering units fused together into a “closed system.”

But this gets to the real point:

Charles Darwin was so enamored by the intricate complexity of the eye that he wondered how it could have evolved. “These results help illustrate the beauty and power of evolution and show how ‘little steps’—like the presence of a single structural protein—can so spectacularly account for major changes in form and function,” said Charles Zuker, a professor of biology and neurosciences at UCSD and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who headed the research team.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Ken Ham's God Needs More Tragedies

Welcome to Ken Ham and the world of Answers in Genesis...

Only a man totally devoid of morality himself would blame dead children on a scientific idea and ignore anything that suggests otherwise.

Maybe kids are getting killed because Ken Ham's view of God forces them to ignore the world around them;
Maybe kids are getting killed because Ken Ham's God does it Himself on a regular basis;
Maybe kids are getting killed because Ken Ham's God only allows Ken Ham the ability to interpret religious texts;
Maybe kids are getting killed because Ken Ham is more concerned that people follow him and his God instead of allowing them to find God on their own terms;
Maybe kids are getting killed because Ken Ham's God offers them no imagination that He might be something greater than the sum of some ancient words;
Maybe kids are getting killed for lots of other reasons that Ken Ham is not concerned with because he now has an expedient weapon to yield against his perceived enemies;

Maybe Ken Ham and his God don't really care about kids...

A Really, Really Good Question

"If the teaching of evolution and not having God "in the schools" really leads to this terribly immoral society where people kill each other randomly because life has no inherent value, then how does Rohrbough explain the fact that every other Western democracy has far lower rates of murder, rape, teen pregnancy, and things like school shootings while teaching evolution far more comprehensively than we do in the US, and in far more secular societies than we have?"

(From Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Secret Squirrel Stuff

Ok, here we go...this is predictable. Intelligent Design proponents are hiding all their research for fear of being "harassed" by us Darwinists ("harassed" meaning being asked tough questions!). I suppose that's one hypothesis. Others may be:

- no ID researcher actually has data that will stand up to critical scrutiny and which will make brownie points with a scientifically illiterate public;
- no ID researcher actually has data that will stand up to critical scrutiny;
- no ID researcher actually has data;

Gone are the days of Walter Alvarez and Alfred Wegener...

Thanks to Red State Rabble for the link.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Is History Repeating Itself?

We are all too familiar with the mantra that "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it"; unfortunately, the human species is notoriously poor at learning from history and preparing for the long-term (we are, however, quite good at adapting to short-term contingencies - which fits much better with evolutionary processes than with intelligent design, but I digress). In a wonderful essay in Saturday's New York Times, Robert Harris draws a prophetic parallel between two nation-states, one two thousand years old, the other more modern, and their respective responses to dramatic events of terrorism. How far the parallels will play out remains to be seen, but thus far the similarities are striking:

IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.

The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.

Can't help wondering indeed. Harris goes on to show that, like Al Quaeda, the pirates terrorists were able to spread such fear and havoc that the Roman populace complacently allowed its leaders to assume new, unlimited power to deal with the threat. There liberties and process of law to this time were very, well...American:

Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of “Civis Romanus sum” — “I am a Roman citizen” — was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.

Terrorism, however, began to unravel the democratic process as people were willing to swap liberty for perceived safety; and there were plenty of power-hungry politicians waiting in the wings to take advantage of the fear. Pompey the Great prevailed at getting his supporters into power, who then proposed new laws that would limit citizens' rights and consolidate power among those like himself who would ostensibly use it to "fight terrorism". Harris writes:

By the oldest trick in the political book — the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as “soft” or even “traitorous” — powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.

For those of us who are citizens of the United States, the continued erosion of constitutional rights by the Bush administration, all under the guise of fighting terrorism, strkes an uncanny resemblance to Roman reactions 2074 years previous. For those of us too blinded by American patriotism, Harris (a British citizen) walks us through the connection:

Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of “serious” physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant — all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.

An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.

But the parallel does not end there; and Roman panic offers us a potential vision of our own destiny:

In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar — the only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey’s special command during the Senate debate — was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume direction of the state.

It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon — and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

It is, of course, doubtful that many Americans see the long term danger of adopting laws counter to the Constitution, instead opting to address the immediate contingency of fighting terrorism "over there". (Harris notes that the pirate threat turned out not to be nearly as real as Romans were led to believe - another striking parallel with today). One can now only hope that history does not, in fact, repeat itself.