Field of Science

Watching multicellularity evolve before our eyes

ResearchBlogging.orgChlorella vulgaris is an asexual, unicellular green alga. It has been observed in the laboratory to maintain unicellularity for thousands of generations. Boraas and his collaborators (1998) kept Chlorella for two decades in this way. Then they decided to add a predator, Ochromonas vallescia, also a unicellular organism. It has a flagellum (a tail with which it can swim about), and it eats Chlorella. This is bad news for the Chlorella population, which thus experiences a shift in selective pressure. While it was previously adapted to maximize growth by uptake of nutrients, with Ochromonas around it is suddenly more advantageous to have some sort of defense, even if that should come at a cost of the rate at which it can reproduce.

While we could imagine other mechanisms of defense, size is an obvious choice. Very soon (about 10 days) after the introduction of the flagellate predator, Chlorella colonies started to form. These initially consisted of aggregates of tens to hundreds on Chlorella cells, adhering to each other. Their sheer size prevented the predator from eating them, and thus the multicellular Chlorella was fitter than the unicellular ones, and as a result the unicellular Chlorella all but disappeared. Multicellularity had evolved right before the lucky scientists' eyes.

Single Chlorella cell (FC), Chlorella colony (CC), and the flagellate predator, Ochromonas (Oc) with its flagellum (Fl).

Recall that Chlorella is better able to utilize the nutrients in the environment when they are single cells. Thus, the colonies of tens to hundreds of cells soon disappeared, replaced by colonies of of only eight cells. This seems to be the optimal size for uptake of nutrients and defense against Ochromonas. When Boraas et al. removed the predator from the environment, Chlorella colonies continued to make multicellular offspring. However, with the selection pressure to be large gone, the unicellular Chlorella took over again.

The significance of this experiment is that it lends support to the hypothesis that a predator-prey arms race could provide the needed environmental change to enable multicellular organisms to evolve. It also is an outstanding example of observed evolution in the laboratory. It can be argued that the unicellular and multicellular Chlorella are different species, and this is then also an example of speciation observed.

Now contrast this Chlorella with the famous E. coli experiment by Blount et al. reported in PNAS this year. In short, after years of culturing E. coli bacteria in the lab, they one day evolved the capacity to metabolize a new nutrient, citrate. Scientists use E. coli's inability to metabolize citrate to distinguish it from other bacteria, so the fact that they suddenly evolved the ability to eat it can also be argued to be an instance of speciation.

However, there is a clear difference from Boraas' experiment, namely that Chlorella evolved almost instantly when the selection pressure changed. It thus responded to the change on the basis of standing genetic variation: different genotypes present in the population. There were already some Chlorella cells that were able to adhere to their daughter cells, but it was unfavorable to do so until the appearance of predators. In Blount's experiment it was always favorable to consume citrate. There was plenty of it, and E. coli was deliberately starved on its usual nutrient. Yet they had to wait 30 years to observe E. coli evolving to eat citrate, because the genetic components enabling them to do so had to evolve first. A yet unknown sequence of necessary mutations was required, and once it appeared, E. coli speciated.

Martin E. Boraas, Dianne B. Seale, Joseph E. Boxhorn (1998). Phagotrophy by a flagellate selects for colonial prey: A possible origin of multicellularity Evolutionary Ecology, 12 (2), 153-164 DOI: 10.1023/A:1006527528063

Z. D. Blount, C. Z. Borland, R. E. Lenski (2008). Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (23), 7899-7906 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803151105

The Chlorella experiment is referenced in chapter 7 of Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin.

Danes are crazy like the rest of them

Two stories from my favorite Danish newspaper today about asinine credulity:

Priest warns against Satan's offspring, nisser. They are pretty much the same thing as Santa's helpers, the elves. The priest reminds us that displaying nisser during Christmas is devil worship, and is contrary to the Christian Christmas. And he is right, of course, because they originate from non-christian folklore, and are as imaginary as the little baby Jesus, so they are in a constant battle over who rules Christmas.

Twelve cancer-patients are going to be in a research-project about faith healing. That people believe in such inanity is borderline depressing. But common enough that it isn't a surprise, unfortunately. The good news is that it looks like it will be a properly conducted experiment, though only with twelve patients, which is probably not going to show anything with statistic significance, just because of both normal regenerative healing and placebo effects. But with some luck it will show that faith healing is as effective as praying for lower gas prices ¿? ...

Four out of ten

Four out of ten Americans have close friends or relatives who are gay.
Four out of ten Englishmen think science classes should include Intelligent Design.
Four out of ten managers sap the will to work.
Four out of ten Danes don't believe the greenhouse effect is man made.

Avoid the crowd at all costs

Here's another reason I loathe crowds: Wal-Mart worker dies in stampede. So, he went to Pamplona, or what? No, it was at Wal-Mart and the poor guy was overrun by shoppers. Now I know why it's called Black Friday. (Danish.)

"The thief was a 34 C"

A woman steals with her breasts(dk) in Denmark. She corners the victim, asks for directions to the hospital, and the opens her coat to reveal her naked breasts. While the victim is flustered, a conspirator steals the victim's valuables.

She's is still at large. Unsurprisingly, none of the three victims have been able to describe or identify her, except of course to say that she was a 34 C.

Ignore the science, pay the price

Yet another example of how dire the consequences of being dismissive of science can be is in South Africa*, whose President, Thabo Mbeki, didn't believe that HIV causes AIDS, and as a result is responsible for 365,000 deaths in the first five years of this century. (English, Danish.)

It's always painful to watch when pseudoscience wins over psolid science. As when Intelligent Design or creationism is taken seriously by school boards, or when global warming deniers have a shot at the presidency.

If I were President I would have two, nay, three science advisors. I'll even volunteer to be one of Obama's advisors. I'm just that generous and eager to please.

* Note to Sarah Palin: South Africa actually is a country. I know it's very confusing, but do try to remember.

Greenland wants independence from Denmark

Greenland got some sort of independence from Denmark in 1978. They're a self-governing Danish province, whatever that means exactly. There are about 58,000 Greenlanders, and they just voted to move towards becoming a a regular country. A clear majority wants to be on their own. The vote does not grant immediate independence, as their own government and the Danish parliament have the final say. (News in English, Danish.)

I personally don't think that would be a good idea for them, but I'll admit that I don't really know much about the place and the politics. However, I do think that they should be the ones to decide how they want to affiliate themselves.

... just as it should be the case for Tibet and Taiwan. If they want independence from China, why the hell not? All right, I do realize there are reasons why China refuses: resources, power, and an aversion to losing face. Anything else? Except, don't give the that crap about how Taiwan is Chinese. You are what you want to be, and that can change over time. Eventually it always does.

The Faroe Islands also voted recently, but the result was against self-rule. They, on the other hand, are so damned bigoted that I would prefer that Denmark forces them out. They have two movie theaters, and they both forbade showing The Da Vinci Code. Losers. And they slaughter whales, which I don't like (ask me why). Bastards.

Whale blood. Lots.

Any other colonies that want independence from the mainland?

Bush popular again as gas prices tumble?

In President Bush's second term, gas prices has been a good predictor of his popularity. Invert the gas price so that cheap is up and expensive is down, and you get a curve that's a good match to Bush's approval rating.

Source: Pollkatz.

Now that the gas prices are down again, should we expect Bush to enjoy the favor of the people before his time is up? I like him better already.


Click images for higher resolution.

Is Obama atheist?

I have a few clues that suggests Barack Obama is an atheist. Yes, he is a Christian, but I mean one of those who don't actually believe in a personal god.

Item 1: Obama's mother was nonreligious. She raised him, teaching him about many different religions. The best predictor of a person religious views is that of his peers:
The best predictors of youth religiosity were ethnicity and peers' church attendance during high school. Other predictors were, in order of decreasing magnitude: residence in the south, gender, religious schooling during childhood, maternal religiosity, church attendance during childhood, the importance mothers placed on childhood religious training, and an interaction variable identifying religious mothers who were very supportive. These analyses attest to the primacy of religious role models in the development of youth religiosity.
Obama talked about his parents in 2006:
And I speak with some experience on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.
Item 2: Obama has spoken out against religion, stating that "We are no longer just a Christian nation."

Item 3: Obama is really smart and very ambitious. There does exist a anti-correlation between being smart/educated and religious. Further, he of course knew that it is impossible for an atheist to get elected, and could thus early on have joined a church in order not to ruin his chances at conception.

In conclusion, let me say that none of this prove anything, and that I acknowldge that Obama may in fact really believe in God. He is a member of United Church of Christ, which may indicate that he is sincere in his belief (more so than if he were a member of another Protestant denomination, though I have no personal knowledge of the differences between the various congregations). I don't know. But if I had to guess, I'd say that this is the closest America has ever been to a non-believing President yet (but see comments below).

Darwin the business man

This is just a quick blog-redirect to Pharyngula. PZ Myers writes that Janet Browne reports that Charles Darwin thought his only talent was that of a business man. Go read the post, which includes this shocker:
At his wedding, the Darwin family financial seed was £10,000 granted to Charles and £10,000 to Emma. From this grew a fortune that, in the year before his death, was about £282,000. That's a lot of money: Darwin's expedition on the Beagle cost his father about £5,000, which was enough to buy a very nice house in those days, so Darwin was the equivalent of a modern multi-millionaire.

Cafeteria religion

Imagine living according to the Bible for a whole year. A. J. Jacobs of Esquire did that. I highly recommend this video of him telling the story on One conclusion is that it is literally impossible to do a hundred percent, especially in our modern world where you can go around killing adulterers. Toward the end he muses over cafeteria religion, the notion that you can pick and choose which part of the Bible to believe in, and which parts to ignore. "What's wrong with it? I like cafeterias."

Recently, several Christian scientists have argued that science strengthens their faith, and that there is no contradiction between reading the Bible and what science teaches us. Of course, that's when you don't take everything in the Bible literally. Genesis would seem impossible to reconcile with modern physics and biology if not read as allegory or even completely ignored. 

Kenneth Miller, in Finding Darwin's God, argues against creationism and for evolution, and then continues to state that only theologically challenged Christians (my term) see any contradiction between faith and science (he's a Roman Catholic).

Now a Karl W. Giberson, physics professor from some Christian college™ (how's "Many Differences, One Faith" for a motto?) states that science and (his watered down version of) faith can be reconciled. A position Francis Collins seconds, and he's even an Evangelical Christian.

Michael Dowd, Christian preacher and "evolutionary evangelist", has been living on the road for six years teaching other christians that science is a vital part of christianity.

I wish these people would just tell me how it is that they can pick and choose which parts of the Bible they can interpret as allegory and which we should take literally. How do they know? Who told them? How do they know? It sure as hell doesn't say in the Bible. I did meet a Jehovah's Witness once, who told me it was obvious when you read the Bible. Fair enough. I would then say all the parts that contradict science in any way are to be ignored, but then JW's do actually believe that the World was created as described in Genesis, and that Noah really gathered up all species on a boat.

How does a Christian know which denomination to join? The truth is most choose out of convenience - same as parents, neighbors, spouse, and never really give those differences any thought. From this point of view the fundamentalists whom all other christians are so quick to dismiss at least believe with some consistency (neglecting the fact that the Bible is internally inconsistent).

Are grizzly bears just dirty polar bears?

We went to the San Diego Zoo last month. It's a fantastic zoo, and we keep coming back. This time I was amused to find this dirty polar bear and its inmate, who was a nice clean white. Click images for (much) larger versions.

I recall reading somewhere that the genetic difference between Ursus maritimus (polar) and Ursus arctos horribilis (grizzly) is really quite small, and hybrids do occur in captivity as well as in the wild.

So, tongue in cheek, I wonder if the genetic difference isn't just normal variation, and we have been fooled all this time by dirty polar bears.

It could be one of those infamous attempts of the damned treehuggers to split up the wild population into many small ones, having us all believe that they need protection because there are only a few polar/grizzly/brown bears left in the wild. But they won't fool me, and one day someone will go into the wild and point a hose at those grizzlies and rub that ink off Gorbachev's forehead while they're at it.

The face of Copernicus and Luther's analogy

Scientists have verified that a skeleton found under a Polish cathedral is that of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) (Guardian, Politiken). They reconstructed his face from the cranium, and matched DNA in the bones to that of two pieces of hair found in a book that he owned. (Click image for larger size.)

Copernicus wasn't the first to hypothesize a universe with the planets revolving around the Sun, but he was the first astronomer to formulate a scientific theory of heliocentric cosmology (note that the Sun was then the center of the Universe, not just the solar system).

Martin Luther apparently didn't like this idea at all. He is quoted saying
There was mention of a certain astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving.
No it wouldn't. This tactic of arguing by analogy is very much in use today as well. By creationists, for example. However, it is the easiest thing in the world to make up an analogy to support any argument. Trying to convince a creationist that he shares an ancestor with a gorilla is like reading The Origin of Species to a gorilla in the hope that he will evolve into a human. Not going to happen.

Besides, Luther's analogy of the earth and trees moving is very much how Einstein thought about relativity. The "Does Chicago stop by this train" idea. Perhaps we should give Luther some credit for this.

Sociologist in defense of gay-marriage

Much has been said recently for and against same-sex marriage. Those who are afraid of letting two men or two women marry argues that it is unnatural, against the constitution, or that God is the original homophobe. I have argued that homosexuality is very natural indeed, some have reminded us that there is nothing in the constitution about marriage, and many simply do not care what Yahweh the Homophobe thinks about the matter.

Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College, Phil Zuckerman came out yesterday with another very good reason that we should allow homosexuals to marry: Society would benefit from it. Why? Because there is a strong anti-correlation between how prosperous a country is and how religious its citizens are. His article in the Huffington Post explains how the most wealthiest countries are also the most secular, and therefore also the most accepting of gay-marriage.

He first reminds of that argument from homophobia:
The underlying reason religious people voted to revoke from gays and lesbians the legal right to marry is doggedly theological: God doesn't like it. And when a society or culture does things that God doesn't like, that society or culture will suffer.
However, that countries God wouldn't like suffers is just completely contrary to the facts, because secular countries does not seem to be suffering from God's punishment for their diminishing faith or for failing to only have sex the way He intended.
Where is the best place to be a mother and raise children? According to the latest Save the Children Report, it is relatively godless Sweden. The worst? Extremely Godful Niger. How about murder rates? Highly religious Columbia leads the globe, while highly secular Japan is near the bottom. What about strong economies? According to the World Economic Forum, of the top ten nations boasting today's most competitive economies, nine are relatively irreligious (the USA being the sole exception).
The conclusion is clear: Gay sex makes for better societies. More secular societies are more successful, and more secular societies are more tolerant - towards homosexuality and mormonism.

Join the convert-a-mormon meme

The mormons convert dead jews into mormons, so we're converting dead mormons into homosexuals. First one to accept the pleasure was Joseph Smith. Join the fun at Daily Kos.

Darwinian weight loss

ศูนย์สุขภาพ Bangkok Nutrition Academy (BNA) กำลังเฟ้นหาพรีเซ็นเตอร์ใหม่ที่มาจากคนธรรมดาทั่วๆไป

Today in my inbox was an email from 'Bangkok Nutrition Academy' <>

It was all in Thai, but it clearly was about weight loss. Lots of before/after pictures of Thai women. It also included this fantastic cartoon. Please explain it to me, if you're able.

It looks like men were fitter, taller, sexier, etc. a hundred years ago than they are today. I must be an extreme outlier.

ดังนั้นทางศูนย์ BNAจึงได้เริ่มโครงการ "A Hundred KG Project" ที่จะช่วยให้คุณสามารถลดน้ำหนักได้

Dawkins on why

The following question and answer is from a Salon interview with Richard Dawkins from 2006 prior to his book tour promoting The God Delusion:
What about the old adage that science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions?

I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, why do birds have wings? To fly with. And that's a Darwinian translation of the evolutionary process whereby the birds that had wings survived better than the birds without. They don't mean that, though. They mean "why" in a deliberate, purposeful sense. So when you say religion deals with "why" questions, that begs the entire question that we're arguing about. Those of us who don't believe in religion -- supernatural religion -- would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.

First, I think the question is put wrong. It's a common mistake. It should be What about the old adage that science deals with the "how" question and religion deals with the "why" question? Specifically, the question is about origins. Of humans. (We fundamentally seem to be chiefly concerned with ourselves.) Why are we here? How did we get here? This why question is what religion purports to answer. This how question is what science attempts to answer. That religion also has answers to the latter question is why creationists do not believe in evolution.

Additionally, Dawkins' point here is to say that some questions doesn't deserve an answer because putting the question that way solicits a certain kind of answer. An assumption has been made that atheists do not agree with, namely that there was a conscious mind that intended something with our creation. When you ask what the meaning of life is, then you are talking about someone deciding for you. If that works for you, then keep on deluding yourself by all means, in the face of all the evidence. I personally find it much more intriguing that the job of finding out why we are here is left to ourselves. It seems grand to me that our own conscious minds are the only entities that can decide what the meaning of this life is.

Strange inherited behaviors

I have a friend whose two sons area couple of year apart had the same quirky behavior when they were babies. With elbows down the side and hands extended from the body, they flipped their wrists with loosely closed fists.

My boys are nearly three years apart, and the oldest one used to have this habit of grabbing a cloth or sheet between his ring- and middle fingers moving gently back and forth, so that the cloth would touch the skin between the fingers. Then, the other night I put the younger one to rest, and to my amazement he started doing the same thing. It appears to be of some comfort to them.

In both cases I am confident that the younger brothers did not imitate the older ones, as they had ceased the behavior when the younger ones began it. I am left with the surprising conclusion that such behaviors are inherited. Unfortunately, I cannot say whether any of the parents did the same thing when they were children.

I found it strange that such behavior should be encoded in our DNA. If anyone else has observed similar behaviors in their children that they trust are not learned, I would be very interested in knowing about it. Alternatively, if you know of anything that you did as a child that you have observed in your own child, that would support the same conclusion.

<sarcasm>Since most visitors here so diligently leave comments every day, I though it would be great if you shared your own observations of inherited behavior with the rest of us.</sarcasm>

Chumbawamba on Darwin

Over on Pharyngula there's a video of Chumbawamba playing their tribute to Charles Darwin.

Here they are live on Letterman with their big hit, which really should be called Pissing the night away.

Beatles off-piste

I have for many years been deeply in love with the expression of John Lennon's love. The story of his love for Yoko Ono and his son and his untimely death never fails to bring tears.

I have for a very long time (that's not geological time) been that impressionable. Listening to 'Grow old with me' or 'God' never fails to make me weep in the good way.

That hasn't changed since I read 'John' by Cynthia Lennon. However, that's because the musics speaks to my emotions directly. Went it through a rational filter, the sensation would be different. Because here I see the man who was driven by the lust for stardom and sex - fine things indeed - but in his case they came only at the cost of neglect for his wife and son. His undying love for Yoko gets a twist with the story of his 'Lost Weekend,' and the way he abandoned Cynthia and Julian.

On top of all that, it now turns out that Lennon wasn't always the one of the four who was more the rocker and the avant-garde. Teaming up with a crazy artist is just not the only way. Apparently on January 5th, 1967, while recording Penny Lane at Abbey Road, Paul McCartney asked the other three to spend ten minutes for this 'off piste' project called 'Carnival of Lights.' They obliged, but thought it was so weird that they refused to release it (English, Danish). Hopefully now the fourteen minute long piece will see the light of day.

Takezo's first joke

My oldest son, Takezo (pictures*) is almost five. He is named after Miyamoto Musashi. He made his first joke today:

"Toto er to, hutatsu."

You're forgiven for not getting it. It's really very deep. Not only does it take knowledge of both Danish and Japanese, but you also need to be intimate with our own little family history. However, once you're there, it's hilarious. Trust me.

* You'll need a password to see his pictures. Email me if you're an agent.

When I grow up I want to be a Finn

Which kid's plan for adulthood is funnier?

"I want to study linguistics and translate children's books for small children," or

"I want to become a veterinarian who saves the environment."

Why did the Italians elect Berlusconi again?

Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Prime Minister, entrepreneur, real estate and insurance tycoon, bank and media proprietor, sports team owner, songwriter, psycho-dwarf. His coalition lost the election by the slimmest margin imaginable in the 2006 election, but won it all back this year in April.

The victory of Romano Prodi and his L'Unione coalition in 2006 was deservedly covered widely by international news media, while Berlusconi's 2008 victory.... let's just say "not so much." Why was that? Just because it wasn't the insanely tight race that the 2006 election was, or did his victory somehow mean less to the rest of Europe and the World?

Well, never mind why there was more euphoria over getting rid of Berlusconi in 2006 than there was over getting him back in 2008. To me, the real mystery is rather why the Italian people keeps electing this buffoon.

While the media outside Italy has entertained us with reports of Berlusconi's weird behavior (at least for a statesman), credible sources inform me that the Italian media apparently aren't as eager to divulge. Wikipedia has a nice collection of his blunders, including his statement that Mussolini had been a benign dictator who did not murder opponents but sent them "on holiday.", and an assurance that Russian President Medvedev should have any problems establishing good relations with Obama, because he is young, handsome, and even tanned. The newspapers do write about these incidents, but the question is whether the Italians read newspapers with as little interest as the average American (or even as little as Bush and Palin, who reads "all of them").

While such idiotic behavior (again, for a statesman*) can and did cause international relations to suffer, the real curse of Berlusconi is his policies, especially those that are enacted to save his own skin from charges of corruption, and to allow him to retain control of his three national TV channels. This same control of three of six national TV channels is also what keeps him in power. It should be a surprise to no one that a politician who owns half of the country's TV channels should have a major advantage in elections. Being rich helps too.

In addition to firm control over the popular media, Berlusconi is also rumored to have connections with both the Mafia and the Catholic Church (yes, they are separate, I trust). With these powerful allies, and a large fraction of the population intimidated by computers and the internet, it starts to be less of a wonder why Italy has a clown for president, while the rest of the World watches with pity. Not much different from the Worlds reaction to Bush's reelection in 2004, I suppose.

However, there is hope. Just as the older American generation is the more conservative one, so it is in Italy. Younger people are much more comfortable with the news media, and are therefore better suited to finding the information that is so crucial in being informed voters. Berlusconi has perhaps foreseen this development, and a "blogger-killer" law is therefore in the workings (please see the update below). Among other things, it includes this:
Every blog that does not register with ROC can be denounced for the crime of “clandestine publishing”: two years in prison and financial sanctions.
A blogger can choose to register with ROC and run the risk of one of the innumerable criminal and civil actions on the crimes via the printed word that go back to the “Codice Rocco” of fascist times, or alternatively, enter clandestinity before entering prison. Basically he can hang himself or shoot himself in the head.
Check out Beppe Grillo's "Free Blogger" initiative to thwart such fascist measures against the free flow of information.

* I keep saying "for a statesman", because I know that I could have made similar statements - except I really would be joking, and would have to be under the influence of alcohol.

Update 11/17:
Strangely, it is not Berlusconi and his coalition that wrote this new law, but the opposition, led by Veltroni. Thus Beppe Grillo writes about Veltrusconi, when the two seem to be working together. Here it would seem that it would not be in the best interest of the opposition to enact this law to diminish the free flow of information. What gives!?

Vatican still not officially atheist

A report is back from the meeting on evolution in the Vatican in the journal Science (requires subscription). Apparently Cardinal Schönborn hasn't changed stance on the God of the gaps, which he shares with the advocates of Intelligent Design:
"He believes there are gaps in evolution and [that] God acts in those gaps," says John Abelson, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Davis, who gave a talk at the meeting. This is a "nearly 19th century" view.
It almost could have been one of those feel-good scientific meetings on the origins of life, the Universe and everything.
It was like many scientific conferences except that the pope showed up to bless the proceedings, and the first talk, titled "The Reflections of Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI on Evolution," was given by Schönborn, a theologian.
Several of the scientists present obviously found the whole seance pseudoscientific, and had reservations about the value of the Vatican's role in the debate:
The sparks flew when the cardinal fielded questions. "He still expressed reservations about whether evolution can account for all aspects of biology," says Collins, including whether Darwinian evolution can account for the generation of species. "It was preposterous," says Abelson, who says that the meeting took " a step backwards" in the church's relationship with science. Wolters was disappointed, too: "Schönborn has the same intention as the pope has--to fight evolutionism," he says, but "he is just repeating this creationist gibberish" used by U.S. proponents of intelligent design. Wolters adds: "Fighting science in this way is a losing game."
Evolutionism is used to describe the promotion of atheism through evolutionary biology. By its opponents, that is.

So, we can safely conclude that while the highest ranking Vatican officials don't really believe, they aren't officially going to announce that anytime soon. Of course. That would take away their very powerful and very profitable position as leaders of about a billion people.

Olbermann on proposition 8

Keith Olbermann asks why two people of the same sex marrying matters to those who voted for proposition 8:

Indeed, I would like to know, too. You can post as anonymous in the comments, so go ahead and tell me why you think same-sex marriages should not be allowed. Please be specific. Don't just say that it destroys the sanctity of marriage, or that it's unnatural (because that argument I have already razed). Are you afraid somehow it will make your children gay? Is it the thought of the sex that disgusts you? Do you think Fred Phelps is on to something? What?

Was Martin Luther gay?

Martin Luther, father of Protestantism, claimed that he decided to become a monk when lightning struck close to him in 1505. Archaeologists have now found new evidence (sorry, only in Danish) that it really may have been because his father was going to force him to marry the daughter of a hatter. One wonders why that would be so bad. Or indeed, how it is worse that spending the rest of your life as a monk. However, I'll speculate - at a very frivolous level - if that decision was perhaps based on the fact that Luther was gay, and that he had more interest in spending the rest of his life among men of similar alignment. Now wouldn't that just be a wonderful conclusion in these times?

Hitchens at Pitzer on rum

I just came back from a dinner with and talk by Christopher Hitchens at Pitzer College. To me he is best known as author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, but he has also famously subjected himself to waterboarding, and the Santa Barbara makeover. He claims to know over 300 limericks, 5 of them clean.

The dinner was with a few invited students, at which the students had many very good questions, which I can't remember a single one of, because I didn't write them down. I do remember that he asked us what we would like him to talk about at the formal event later on. The choices were faith, the axis of evil (he has been to all three countries), Thomas Jefferson, and one or two more topics. There was agreement that faith would be the best choice. I concurred because it is on this issue that he is an influential public figure, and not on the other otherwise interesting points.

During dinner he was offered juice and water, to which he said he would not like some. He would like a strong drink, but he'll take water for hydration. He got a beer, but going over to the lecture hall a bottle of rum appeared, and he asked to have some in an anonymous cup. He was sipping on it during his talk.

His talk was followed by a long question session, and together they included many interesting matters. Here are a few of the points he made:

He believes women are prone to be superstitious because they are the child rearers. When you have already had two children die, you aren't going to take any chances with the third, so you'll do anything that is said to protect your child.

Asked if he would consider moderating his tone, which admittedly can be rather harsh at times, he answered "not for a second." However, later on he had the epiphany that while people often email him to tell him that his book made the difference to them coming out as an atheist, no one ever tells him that in person. "You ruined my evening," he exclaimed with a slight grin. The lesson would be that you can be rude and piss people off in writing, but don't do it to their faces, because that doesn't have the desired effect.

On the issue of gay marriage, he joked that the good thing about being homosexual is that you aren't supposed to marry.

Asked to recite a limerick, he asked if we wanted a dirty one. People said yes, but a woman behind me kept saying no. "No. No. No." No exclamation marks. I don't think she found it amusing at all, which I found highly amusing. He did a few, of which I only wrote down this one:

There once was a hooker from Q
who filled her pussy with glue.
She thought with a grin
if they'll pay to get in,
they'll probably pay to get out, too.

A lot of the questions regarded Hitchens' view on the Iraq War. He argues that it is a just war, a war to be proud of, and that we should all be thankful that the United States decided to intervene when Saddam Hussein refused to live up to the conditions that he was given after being driven out of Kuwait. Hitchens denies that George W. Bush has ever said that "God told me to invade." According to an article in The Independent, Bush has said
"I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George go and end the tyranny in Iraq,' and I did."

I personally don't care either way what Bush's reasons were. To me the important thing is the immense suffering that the war has caused. Depending on the source it is 655,000 Iraqis, or it is a little less than 100,000 civilians. Either way that is too high a cost to get rid of this dictator. However, I do admit that I don't really know anything of the political situation on the Middle East, before and after the invasion. I don't think that Saddam Hussein would have acquired nuclear weapons. Hitchens seems to think he would. And that he would have used them on the United States.

Zoology quiz

What do these animals have in common, and which one is the odd one out?

Norwegian lemming
Western gorilla
American bison
Loggerhead sea turtle
Mediterranean monk seal

And, do you know any more like them?

Evolution is wrong, creationist tells me

In reply to my post about the Catholic scientists denying evolutionary theory, I received a long email from Dr. Arv Edgeworth of Truth and Science Ministries (motto: In Search of the Truth) about some of the many ways "pro-Darwinists" get the science wrong. I present some of our conversation here with permission.

I thought about what he wrote, emailed him back asking how he learned about evolution, and what kind of research he had done. His answer was that over the last 30 years he has collected (read?) 150 science textbooks and about 400 other science books, as well as about 75 books on the debate between creationists and evolutionists. Impressive. As for his degree:
My degree is actually a Doctor of Divinity degree, and is honorary.  Actually, did you know in England an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree has often been in higher regard than an earned degree? And Darwin's only degree was in theology. Charles Lyell is called the father of geology and his only degree was in law. Since I got this degree I found out I still have to pay the same amount for a Diet Coke. What good is this thing anyway? Well, actually they do let me teach a two-credit college course occasionally. I really enjoy teaching.
No. I did not know that in England an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree has ever been in higher regard than an earned degree. If true, that is truly amazing. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and that seems to support his claim. I am amazed.

The first letter he sent me had eleven paragraphs, including this gem:
The theory accepted by pro-Darwinians for the natural explanation of the existence of the universe violates the first law of thermodynamics, the law of cause and effect, and the law of the conservation of angular momentum, yet it is still accepted.  Whose supernatural explanation for the existence of the universe shall we accept as being scientific?  You cannot have an explosion without energy or matter, that is unscientific.
Usually creationists say that it is the second law of thermodynamics that is violated (the conflation of evolution and cosmology is very common, by the way). I have not before seen the first law invoked. But the big surprise is his reference to conservation of angular momentum. This is truly precious. Angular momentum is a measure of rotation, and this is indeed conserved. I suspect the idea is that he thinks the universe wasn't rotating initially, but now it and galaxies and solar systems are. Again, this has nothing to do with evolution, but no matter.

Then he talks about abiogenesis vs. the law of biogenesis, handedness of amino acids, mutations being only harmful, the supposed lack of transitional fossils, and that information must have a sender to really be information (c.f. DNA), all of which he thinks disproves evolution. He ends with a line about UFOs, which on his website you can see he thinks are the works not of aliens, but of Satan:
Are there any life foms clearly in transition today?  No.  Is there fossil evidence it happened in the past?  No.  If someone were to beam in the DNA from one human being from outer space, the scientists at SETI would go nuts.  That would be absolute proof there is intelligence out there.  It would actually be better proof there is not a lot of intelligence on this planet.
I really have no idea what he means to say here, but clearly Dr. A.E. Edgeworth believes that
the Bible is the divinely inspired, infallible, inerrant word of the living Triune God.  It is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
Which means evolution must be wrong. This is his angle to studying science and evolution, and he does so with a foregone conclusion that when it contradicts the Bible, it must be wrong.

Obama the comedian

Obama is actually funny as heck. I submit these two speeches where he pokes fun of Rahm Emanual (2005) and John McCain (Oct 16th, 2008), who appears to have fun, but not too much, as that would probably not work in his favor in the middle of the election campaign.

Head injury as a cause of ADHD

ResearchBlogging.orgI don't often read the British Medical Journal (this is a first), but there is an interesting article in the newest issue about the cause of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. It was previously believed that head injury in two-year olds was a factor, based on evidence that there is a correlation between incidents of head injury and ADHD later in life. The diagram below show the hypothesized causal relationship, in which head injury causes ADHD:

That makes a lot of sense. ADHD is a disorder of the brain, and hitting the head hard we know can result in all sorts of maladies of the brain. All that was left was to find the damaged part of the brain, and causation would have been established. But that was not to be.

New evidence also finds a correlation between burn injuries in two-year olds and ADHD later in life. The same line of thinking as with head injury might make one suggest that somehow burn injury causes ADHD, but most would probably agree that such an inference would be absurd. Another factor could be in play, such as "poor impulse control and increased risk taking behaviour" (this is a British journal, not an American jornal):

This makes a lot more sense in terms of head and burn injury. Unruly kids are of course more likely than average to be injured. However, who is to say that poor impulse control etc. is a direct cause of ADHD? At least as plausible is the explanation that some other factor, e.g. a developmental abnormality, causes both poor control and ADHD:

The authors conclude that while head injury is not a causative factor of ADHD, it may be a marker for subsequent diagnosis of ADHD.

This paper is a great example of the importance of getting causal relationships right. Correlation does not imply causation. It takes more than that, such as a plausible theory to explain the hypothesis. But even then we can't feel too certain that we're not fooling ourselves, as we were in this example until burn injuries was included in the study.

Via Politiken.

H. T Keenan, G. C Hall, S. W Marshall (2008). Early head injury and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: retrospective cohort study BMJ, 337 (nov06 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a1984

Bush voted for Obama?

So, W thinks Obama's victory was "pretty cool."

Disclaimer: I do not think Bush has been a good president. I will not excuse his actions.

It is becoming clearer that while Bush has officially been the guy at the helm for two terms, in reality he never really neither understood, commandeered, nor cared about politics. Can anybody shake the feeling that Bush would probably have found much more pleasure and fulfillment in clearing brush with the other cowboys on his Texas farm? Is there further doubt that the real people in control has been Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice...? I can't wait to see W.

And today another indication that Bush perhaps seconds his wife in being against his own policies: Americans electing Obama was "pretty cool." (in Danish.) Of course [as a republican I have to say that] "we might have preferred McCain to win." But I think I get the gist of what he means. Closet-democrat.

Reportedly, Bush is interested in writing a book about his years in the White house. Not that I don't find it ironic that a man who doesn't read books should write one, but if I am looking forward to the movie, this book could really be dynamite.

Some shameless self-serving

A little advertisement:

Here on the left you can opt to "follow this blog." This will increase the total usage of the gadget, which is in the interest of developers of it. Do them a favor and use it.

Catholic scientists deny evolution

Catholic News Service reports from a closed meeting in Rome dedicated to "A Scientific Critique of Evolution." The French center invited five Catholic scientists to reveal "the bankruptcy of the evolutionary hypothesis," so we already know where this is going...

The scientists included
  • Pierre Rabischong, former dean of France's Montpellier University and an expert in prosthetics and improving the mobility of paraplegics.
  • Father Stanley L. Jaki, a professor of physics and the philosophy of science at Seton Hall University in New Jersey
  • Antonino Zichichi, an expert in subnuclear physics.
So they aren't biologists, let alone evolutionists, so what do they know?

it is impossible that humans and other creatures emerged out of chance.
Oh, ok. On what evidence? This:
His medical training and expertise in recreating the highly sophisticated and complex form and function of human limbs have exposed him to the mind-boggling beauty and perfection of "bio-architecture."

All living organisms are high-tech machines; therefore, they "cannot be produced by random processes" even if these developments spanned billions of years, he said. Science must "accept the possible intervention of a constructor of living systems even if he is invisible and mute.
He cannot, in other words, imagine it happening. "I don't know anything about evolution, but I know it could never have made this"(picture him holding up an amputated human leg as conclusive evidence).

Father Jaki:
that human chromosomes differ but slightly from those of higher apes only increases the problem of why humans, and they alone, think, speak and have science as well.
Really? Humans alone think? And speak? How do you know? Meet Koko, a gorilla who speaks and thinks. And if it's a competition of claims based on belief only, I will claim that all mammals think. We know they have the organ to do it with.

Look, they can have their little closed-door meetings all they want. The foundation for how Catholic popes, priests, and scientists talk about origins is based on a book. A book written by goat-herders.

Pat Condell: Godless and free

Re-open proposition 8 for California

Californians just voted to take away the rights for anyone to marry someone of their own sex. A petition has been written to re-open proposition 8. You can view it here. If you are a CA resident you can even sign the petition.

The petition lists eight claims that are pure fiction:
  1. Prop 8 doesn’t discriminate against gay people. 
  2. Teaching children about same-sex marriage will happen here unless we pass Prop 8. 
  3. Churches could lose their tax-exemption status.
  4. A Massachusetts case about a parent’s objection to the school curriculum will happen here.
  5. Four Activist Judges in San Francisco wrongly overturned the people's vote.
  6. If Prop 8 isn’t passed, people can be sued over personal beliefs.
  7. Pepperdine University supports the Yes on 8 campaign.
  8. Unless Prop 8 passes, California parents won’t have the right to object to what their children are taught in school.
Again, these are all lies. And most, if not all, of them have been stated on TV advertisements in California up until November 4th.

Go read the petition for the rebuttals.

Homosexuality is catholic in the animal kingdom

ResearchBlogging.orgBeetles, bisons, black swans, bonobos, dolphins, elephants, flamingos, fruit bats, fruit flies, giraffes, lions, lizards, macaques, orangutans, ostriches, penguins, sheep. What do these animals have in common?

They are all homosexual. In fact, the list is much, much longer. Here is what Petter Bøckman has to say about it:
No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all
We can thus safely conclude that the argument against human same-sex marriage - that homosexuality is not natural - is invalid. If we wish to be informed by nature in this matter, proposition 8 should not have been passed (but of course, those who are against same-sex marriage are either homophobic or religious - they don't really care if it's natural or not).

In fact, I personally find this little story quite touching:
Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at New York's Central Park Zoo have been inseparable for six years now. They display classic pair-bonding behavior—entwining of necks, mutual preening, flipper flapping, and the rest. They also have sex, while ignoring potential female mates.
The question then is why animals are homosexual at all. As reproduction really only does occur between male and female, it would seem evolutionarily disadvantageous to spend any time sexing up to members of your own sex. Lost effort. So why do it?

There are a number of hypotheses trying to explain the phenomenon. It could be to establish social dominance. I have heard this is the case with orangutans, where the dominant male will take the loser after a fight. It could be practice for prom night. Could even be that sperm is deposited on the other male, who then injects it into the next female he gets frisky with. Social cohesion is another possibility (which is ironic, because religion has also been posited to boost social cohesion). This is most probably the case in bonobos: 75 percent of bonobo sex is nonreproductive and that nearly all bonobos are bisexual (source).

These are all adaptive reasons for homosexuality. But there are non-adaptive possibilities too. Generally, it could be a by-product of another trait that is adaptive. It could be a developmental anomaly, such as an enlarged sexually dimorphic nucleus in the ovine medial preoptic area (source).

Last month a paper came out in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology (reference below) in which the authors suggest that homosexual copulations may be a behavioural mechanism that allow males to expel older, potentially low-quality sperm (reader-friendly report in National Geographic). The authors investigated the "dominance", "practice", and "sperm translocation" hypotheses mentioned above in flour beetles (Tribolium castaneum), but found no evidence for the first two, and only little for the third. Instead, based on direct observation of flour beetle sperm ejaculated upon another male, the researchers conclude that the beetles seem to use homosexual copulatory behavior to get rid of inferior spermatophores.

I find this hypothesis intriguing, but I really don't think there is enough evidence to conclude that flour beetle homosexuality serves such a mundane purpose. Without having to invest any time in such research, I would bet that this behavior is maintained in evolution because it feels good, which sex most probably often does for adaptive reasons. And as long as the males that indulge with other males also do it with females, the behavior need not be lost in evolution.

If the males are only so good at telling males and females apart, the fittest males may be those who don't think twice about who they get behind. Imagine this algorithm:

1) Find another beetle.
2) Mate with other beetle.
3) Check gender of other beetle.
4) Goto 1.

Depending on how easy step 3 is, that might be way more adaptive than this one:

1) Find another beetle.
2) Check gender of other beetle.
3) If other beetle is female, copulate.
4) Goto 1.

K. E. LEVAN, T. Y. FEDINA, S. M. LEWIS (2008). Testing multiple hypotheses for the maintenance of male homosexual copulatory behaviour in flour beetles Journal of Evolutionary Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2008.01616.x

Does God exist? Here's the answer(s)

eSkeptic has a blurb about Michael Shermer and John Lennox debating the existence of God, which includes this:
Lennox and Shermer debated the usual arguments for God’s existence, with Lennox predictably leaning on Christian apologetics arguments and ending with his commitment to Jesus as his savior.
In other words, we can summarize the debate as follows:

Moderator: Does God exist?
Lennox: Yes.
Shermer: No.
Lennox: Yes.
Shermer: No.
Lennox: Yes.
Shermer: No.
Lennox: Yes.
Shermer: No.
Lennox: Yes.
Shermer: No.

That should settle it.


How many of these ologies are you acquainted with? Some of them are easy, some of them I have no idea about. Also, which one is the odd one out?


The bigots are on their way out

Take a look at these results from today's election.

Top image is the national result for President. Notice the difference in voters age 18-29 (young people) vs. 65 and older (old people). Young people like Obama, while old people prefer McCain. [Exit poll]

Second is results for proposition 8 in California. It is a constitutional amendment that eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry. Clearly young people are in favor of same-sex marriage, while old people are against. [Exit poll]

On the bottom is the results for proposition 4, which would "prohibit abortion for unemancipated minors until 48 hours after physician notifies minor’s parent, legal guardian or, if parental abuse has been reported, an alternative adult family member." I'm not going to say how I would have voted on this one, but it is clear that young people vote one way, while old people vote the other way. Prop. 8 would limit abortion, and we see old people being in favor. [Exit poll]

What's the point? The point is that old people vote more conservatively. They vote like people would back in the day when they were young - when the U.S. was way more bigoted. Young people are ready to change things - they are more tolerant of people being different. Thus, they prefer the liberal candidate, don't have as much of a problem with the private lives of other people, and abortion is not such a hellish notion to young people.

Things look good for the future. Tolerance in the U.S. is on the rise, and national values are changing. Young people today are better informed than old people were when they were young. They know more of the world, and having grown up seeing diversity they are more attuned to it. The dogmatic bigots are on their way out. Good for us.

Hologram on CNN

This is amazing. Princess Leia in the CNN studio. Total overkill. Overkill rocks.

Via Politiken

Update 11/9:
Apparently I was fooled by CNN. Not only was this not a true hologram, but the host in the studio wasn't even able to see what we saw. I'm disappointed!

Voting fraud on the east coast?

Are the voting problems connected to fraud?

Politiken (Danish) | L.A. Times | Detroit Free Press | Newsweek

Voting fraud in 2004

The Florida League of Conservation Voters Education Fund of Tallahassee, FL has a page describing voting fraud patterns in the 2004 Presidential election. An excerpt:
Reports from voters in Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, and elsewhere (especially other swing states) documented that many touchscreen voting machines appeared to have been set with a "Default to Bush". The "Default to Bush" could be changed only if a voter successfully selected another candidate. But it appears that in many cases the voters did not successfully override the "Default to Bush," in some cases because they did not notice the problem and in other cases because it was difficult or impossible to get the machine to accept another candidate.
The Votemaster also has a page with links to articles about the issue.

Basically, voting machines are rigged. This gave Bush Ohio and Florida in 2004. The deviance from the exit polls, which predicted Kerry to win, can be explained by voting machine fraud alone.

If you asked me, I would get rid of voting machines entirely. Paper works just fine, and there is no default and no computer manipulation possible.

Compare McCain to Obama

I just received this comparison between McCain and Obama by email from the McCain campaign. It's just a little too thick to take seriously, don't you think?

Obama wants to destroy jobs, says no to energy solutions, and wants(?) failure in Iraq.

McCain wants solutions and victory.

How can you go wrong with McCain, then?

Nate Phelps vs. Shirley Phelps-Roper

Nate Phelps is the son of Fred Phelps, reverend of Westboro Baptist Church. This is the one that hates just about everything in America, and surely everything outside. Nate is now an atheist, and lives in Canada, far away from his insane father. His sister, Shirley Phelps-Roper, is her father's right hand. Go read this article where Nate tells his story, and read the comments, where his sister explains
This is the generation that is about to see the rise of Antichrist, THAT WICKED, also called The Beast. He will pursuant to the promises of God arise from the sea of humanity and he has some work to do, and then, he will be destroyed with the brighteness of the coming of the Lord. YAY!
She's off her rockers. I couldn't agree more with Mavaddat, who comments
Shirley asks, “Why not just OBEY YOUR GOD!?”

The answer is simple, Shirley: We do not obey God because God (as you conceive of it) is evil.

What could be a better reason than that? There is no better reason to disobey God than the realization that obedience leads to God leads to committing evil.

Oh, I know another good reason: God is imaginary. The fact all imperatives ascribed to God actually represent the will of power-hungry, sexist men is a also good reason to disobey.
If there is any God resembling anything from the Old Testament, I will make sure to let him know what I think of him when I get the chance.

Gorillas and other mammals under attack in DR Congo

Here is footage from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Virunga National Park is the last habitat of the Mountain Gorillas. This is the park where Dian Fossey worked and died. 

Fossey's and others' work to conserve Virunga has been detailed in In the Kingdom of Gorillas: Fragile Species in a Dangerous Land by Amy Vedder and Bill Weber. I highly recommend it.

The war in DRC threatens to destroy this last habitat of mountain gorillas, as well as several other species. Additionally, human disaster is impending (news in English, Danish). The DRC could be a new Rwanda, according to British PM, Gordon Brown (news in English, Danish).

Islamic crud stones innocent girl in Somalia

A girl is raped by three adult men. She reports the rape to the militia. A judge finds her guilty of adultery and sentences her to death by stoning. She is buried in a hole with only her head visible. Fifty men stones her to death while thousands watch.

The place is a stadium in Kismayo, Somalia, the time is last Monday, and all of the men involved are despicable, degenerate, sordid crud. Nothing can excuse stoning a girl of 13. Just nothing.

I do not imagine that this is the girl in question, but this looks similar to how her execution is described in
Somali News. Similar articles here, here, and here.

I'm at a loss for words. I want to blame, and I want revenge. I want every one of those excuses for human beings to pay for what they have done. I have total disrespect for Sharia law, and complete and utter contempt for everyone who even for a split second believes that Sharia law should be followed when it results in stoning of a young girl.


Update July 30th, 2010.
This is the post of mine that attracts the most visitors, so perhaps it is time for an update. In Politiken (Danish newspaper), I found this image of a real stoning in Somalia (unlike the image above, which is clearly photoshopped). This story is about the frequency at which stonings take place in Iran. Guess how many (answer below).

About ten people are stoned every year in Iran, in addition to a larger number of people who are hanged.