Field of Science

There is no pay gap between men and women

Over on Greg Laden's blog is a post about the gap in salaries between men and women. The video ends with the words "Paying women 24% less is insulting." I then hoped to start a discussion about the causes for that gap, wondering whether it was biologically influenced or not. Greg is a biologist, and so am I, and this discussion fits right in.

I assumed that when such a figure is quoted it would be comparing men and women in the same jobs. Like CEOs or something. Not in positions where salary is not individually negotiable, like for nurses. If there was a difference in how much male and female nurses were paid, then I would be shocked and offended.

Then I now find this article from a year ago, The truth About the Pay Gap, in which a journalist a the Chicago Tribune exposes that there really is no significant pay gap at all:
June O'Neill, an economist at Baruch College and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, has uncovered something that debunks the discrimination thesis. Take out the effects of marriage and child-rearing, and the difference between the genders suddenly vanishes. "For men and women who never marry and never have children, there is no earnings gap," she said in an interview.
Incidentally, it was not possible to have a serious discussion about the causes on Greg's blog, because four women preferred to launch ad hominem attacks on me, ending with JanieBelle:
Yeah, there's a biological component. The biological component is that men have the power and women get less money. And when someone mentions that this isn't exactly fair, some fucktard like Bjorn comes along and makes up shitty excuses that women are supposed to shut up and accept.
What I wrote in reply was the first time I have used explicitly bad language on the web. I'm not sure it will happen again. Not sure it won't.

What's the difference between make-up and surgery?

Cate Blanchet refuses to ever have cosmetic surgery.
OSCAR winner Cate Blanchett is refusing to buy into Hollywood's obsession of defying the ageing process.

While other actors turn to Botox, facelifts, fillers, plumpers and cosmetic enhancements, Blanchett is happy to embrace her wrinkles.
I wonder if she can look this great without make-up and all the things that people do to their hair to make it look better. If not, I then wonder what she, and others of similar alignment, thinks the big difference is between cosmetic surgery and make-up, etc. Why are invasive surgical procedures off-limits while a daily dose of eye-liner is fine?

Teach evolution in elementary school?

I'm all for teaching evolution in science classes, and all for teaching creationism as an example of what science is not. However, I am not so sure that evolution and the scientific method needs to be introduced in grades K-5 at all. This proposal on suggests just that. I realize that understanding of evolution is at a dismally low level in the US, but I just don't think that means that it is important to teach the difference between fact, theory, and law in science to children who are less than 10 years old. But, I know nothing of pedagogy, so I'd like to hear what experienced teachers of elementary school children have to say about this. Anyone?
Grades K-5: Kids in elementary schools will be introduced to basic concepts, including Evolution, the scientific method, Biology, Geology, Astronomy, and many basic experiments and labs. They will be taught the basics of Evolution, and what “Facts”, “Theories”, and “Laws” mean in Science.

Were they both faking idiocy?

“I told him I wouldn’t reveal them, so that if he ever asked for my advice again, he’d feel comfortable doing it knowing that it wouldn’t be out there for public consumption.”
Said who? Said George W. Bush of his private talks with Obama. Is it just me or is he becoming more eloquent these days? It's just like Paris Hilton, who turned out (perhaps) not to be so darned empty-brained as her own acting has made her appear. Now I honestly wonder if Bush for some odd reason has been playing the same game. For what reason?

I've noted before that I think Bush voted for Obama. Could it be that he was anti-Bush himself during his own reign? I know, I know: during the reign of Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, etc. is probably what I mean to say.

I'm still super-looking forward to an auto-biography from W with a chapter or two about his exact role during his own presidency.

Cheetah and Puma not sisters

My favorite animal of all has just had its origin moved from America to Asia. A well preserved skull of a ~2.35 million year old cheetah has just been unearthed in China, and that old age suggests that the cheetah is not so closely related to the puma.

I took this picture in San Diego Zoo. Ain't it a beaut?

Here's a picture of a San Diego Zoo puma I took while it was stalking its preferred prey: my two-year old boy, Bjarke.


Keeping the family's weird name-policy

Do all Alaskans name their kids these weird non-name names? Bristol, Sarah Palin's 18 year old daughter is naming her son Tripp. What the heck is that supposed to mean?

Disclaimer: I'm all for unique names, mind you, but I think cool names are cool, and I don't think uncool names are cool. I think uncool names are uncool. However, it works out fine that it's a one-syllable name, because in America everybody gets a one-syllable nickname anyway. There seems to be some cognitive problem using more than two syllables too much. On that note, I never understood how William becomes Bill, or how Richard becomes Dick.

Top ten evolution articles of 2008

New Scientist has a list of their top ten evolution articles this year. A nice resource to get acquainted with the status of evolutionary theory today (no subscription required).

Neanderthals outcompeted by humans?

ResearchBlogging.orgWouldn't you love it if the Neanderthals hadn't gone extinct, but were still living with us today? I'd give my right arm to see that (but then again, I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous). It is still hotly debated how they went extinct, but a paper in PLoS ONE [1] concludes that Homo neanderthalensis were outcompeted by humans.

The authors mention two competing hypotheses, namely
  1. the Neanderthals were unable to adapt to the changing environment, and
  2. competitive exclusion by anatomically modern humans (AMH, aka Cro-Magnon, aka Homo sapiens) drove them to extinction.
I have, however, seen two or three other hypotheses before that deserves to be mentioned:
  1. Neanderthals and AMH interbred and the distinction between them disappeared,
  2. they perished because they didn't publish weren't able to evolve resistance to some pathogen or other, and of course
  3. that they were wiped out by AMH in bloody feuds that so seem to define the winners to this day.
The fourth of these could be covered by the first about the changing environment (except that in this study changing environment refers strictly to climate changes), and the third hypothesis about interbreeding has been ruled out by the sequencing of a complete Neanderthal genome [2], from which they inferred that the Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) falls outside of the variation among humans. Competition does not usually involve direct contact, but it might have been a mix of both competition and fighting, perhaps even with the added benefit of a nice proteinaceous meal?

The idea behind the competition hypothesis is that for longer periods of time, only one species can exist in a single niche. A niche is a nice way to describe something which is very difficult to define, but it largely means "way of life," and is comprised of all the resources that the species utilize in order to survive. Figuring out exactly what those resources are for a given species is not easy at all, because it concerns not only the foods that are eaten, but, in the words of David Tilman
any substance or factor which can lead to increased growth rates as its availability in the environment is increased, and which is consumed by an organism. [3]
Substances that can be a resource include (but may not be limited to) chemicals, other living organisms, and space (but note that if you read this paper you'll find they use 'niche' as meaning 'geographical range').

If two species, or populations, are sharing a niche (or overlap to a large extent), then they will compete for the resources, and one will necessarily drive the other to extinction given enough time (though not a lot is needed on evolutionary time-scales). The selective pressure to utilize different resources can even drive two populations of the same species away from each other, resulting in a speciation event. The two species can then coexist exactly because they no longer utilize the same resources, and thus do not occupy the same niche anymore. This happens to be one of the research projects that I am working on at the moment, so enough about that.

The study looked at the three climatic periods to evaluate whether climate change can have been the cause of the Neanderthal extinction. The three periods are
  • "Pre-H4": 43.3–40.2 kyr with mild weather,
  • "H4": 40.2–38.6 kyr with cold weather, and 
  • "GI8": 38.6–36.5 kyr with mild weather again.
That means that the relevant time-period is from 43,300 years ago to 36,500 years ago.

The computer simulation they applied (GARP, download) used archeological data from Neanderthal and AMH archeological sites to pinpoint their geographical ranges, as well as data about the landscape and climatic dimensions potentially relevant to shaping the distribution of the species. The results are that the geographical range of the Neanderthals was much smaller in GI8 than what would be expected based on the climatic data. Thus, they conclude, the vanishing distribution of Neanderthals was not due to problems coping with the changing environment, and must then have been due to competitive exclusion by AMH. The last words in the paper's discussion are these:
The AMH expansion and Neanderthal contraction of niche characteristics were concurrent, and we suspect causally related. It follows that there was certainly contact between the two populations, which may have permitted both cultural and genetic exchanges. Our findings clearly contradict the idea that Neanderthal demise was mostly or uniquely due to climate change [51] and looks towards AMH expansion as the principal factor. Hence, we contend that AMH expansion resulted in competition with which the Neanderthal adaptive system was unable to cope.
So what they have done is to rule out one hypothesis (hyp. #1), and, without further proof, sort of succumb to the only other they list (hyp. #2), but which they did not investigate at all. As I mentioned earlier hyp. #3 has been ruled out, and hyp. #5 is perhaps part of hyp. #2 (driven to extinction by competition for resources and/or by direct hostile contact with humans). But since the Neanderthal population was very small towards the end, I don't think we can totally rule out that some disease had something to do with their demise. Additionally, it would be really nice with some direct evidence in support of the competitive exclusion hypothesis, which for example could take the form of data indicating that the resources utilized by the two Homo species were identical. Perhaps that already exists, in which case it would have been nice if it had been mentioned in this paper.

[1] William E. Banks, Francesco d'Errico, A. Townsend Peterson, Masa Kageyama, Adriana Sima, Maria-Fernanda Sánchez-Goñi (2008). Neanderthal Extinction by Competitive Exclusion PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003972
[2] R GREEN, A MALASPINAS, J KRAUSE, A BRIGGS, P JOHNSON, C UHLER, M MEYER, J GOOD, T MARICIC, U STENZEL (2008). A Complete Neandertal Mitochondrial Genome Sequence Determined by High-Throughput Sequencing Cell, 134 (3), 416-426 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2008.06.021
[3] David Tilman, Resource Competition and Community Structure, 1982, Princeton University Press.

The big Judge John E. Jones III interview

PLoS Genetics has this December 5th fantastic interview with Judge John E. Jones III (a George W. Bush appointee), who ruled the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005 on the teaching of Intelligent Design.
Gitschier: Regarding the Memorandum Opinion itself, I found parts of it astonishing. You used words like “mendacity,” “sham,” “breath-taking inanity of the board's decision.”

Jones: You should have been there.
Later he adds this tasty morsel:
In the realm of the lay witnesses, if you will, some of the school board witnesses were dreadful witnesses and hence the description “breathtaking inanity” and “mendacity.” In my view, they clearly lied under oath. They made a very poor account of themselves. They could not explain why they did what they did. They really didn't even know what intelligent design was. It was quite clear to me that they viewed intelligent design as a method to get creationism into the public school classroom. They were unfortunate and troublesome witnesses. Simply remarkable, in that sense
I just wrote a reply to some creationists who claimed that the theory of evolution is not a science. Here Jones III recalls how he decided whether Intelligent Design is:
Gitschier: Nonetheless, you have captured the essence of science in your opinion.

Jones: Well, you could read it that way if you chose to. What it does contain is something that you could utilize as a portable mechanism to look at other concepts and decide whether they were science. But the question I decided was whether ID was science. And you use tools like—is it testable? Is it peer reviewed? Is it generally accepted in the scientific community? And the answer to all three of those things is “No.” (My emphasis.)
Regarding evolution, the last two of his criteria are obviously true for evolution. The first, whether it's testable or not, is a little harder to assess, but once one starts learning a little more than what most people know about evolution it becomes very clear that the answer to that question is "yes."

The court ruling is only legally binding for part of Pennsylvania, but it still had much wider implications, as Jones III explains.
Jones: (...) Kansas at that time was having [state-wide] school board elections. And this became an issue in Kansas, and Kansans did not elect proponents of ID, utilizing my decision I think, saying that it was improvident to do this. In Ohio, they had begun steps that would have allowed the teaching of ID, and the school board ruled the policy back because of my decision, not because they had to, but they thought it was persuasive. Florida had a debate last year, into this year about changing some of their standards or adopting new standards of science, again citing my decision.
But, as Jones III puts it, this dispute will not see it's end in our lifetime. To our distress this fight is far from over with Dover.
The hotbeds today—and this is re-emerging—Texas has a very strong desire to get into something like teaching intelligent design. Louisiana just passed a stature that seems like it could be used as a vehicle for teaching ID. This is speculation on my part—I don't think that the concept of ID itself has a lot of vitality going forward. The Dover trial discredited that thing that is ID. To the extent that I follow it—I'm curious about it, but it doesn't go any further than that—the likely tack going forward is something like teach the controversy, talk about the alleged flaws and gaps in the theory of evolution and go to that place first.
I recommend reading the whole interview, even if you aren't interested in evolution vs. Intelligent Design. He also talks a lot about what it means to be a federal judge, which I found interesting in itself.

Galileo pardon not needed

Pope Benedict (the current one) has pardoned Galileo. Big deal. I will not pardon the Catholic Church for what they did to Galileo.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II declared that the ruling against Galileo was an error resulting from "tragic mutual incomprehension."
Mutual incomprehension? Meaning that Galileo didn't understand... what? Nothing, as far as I can tell. That the Earth revolves around the Sun, check. That the Vatican believed the Sun was the center of the Universe, check. The rest of the religious dogma? Sure. But who cares?

Re: Is evolution 'scientific'?

Creation Ministries International has a article by a Calvin Smith this Christmas Day: Is evolution 'Scientific'?

I was going to comment on the article there, but the form says that
Your comments on this web articles are welcome and may be considered for publication on our website, together with a response. Comments may be edited for clarity and brevity.
May and may. I didn't like the possibility of my comment being edited by someone who doesn't understand evolution, so I decided to post my reply here instead.

The article lists the National Science Education Standards criteria for a theory to be scientific as

1-Observational data
2-Accurate predictions
4-Open to criticism
5-Accurate information
6-No presuppositions

I do not agree that this is necessary, nor sufficient, for a theory to be scientific, and I have not been able to verify that the NSES actually says this (nor would I agree that what the NSES says on the matter is written in stone), but for argument's sake lets just address those six points quickly.

My comments are really made in response to a blog-post on this blog. If it seems spotty, it's because I couldn't make myself paste in all the text from that post, so you might want to go there and read the thing.

#1 Depends on what you accept evolution is. The old micro- vs. macroevolution. What you probably think evolution is (e.g. humans evolving from the common ancestor of human and chimp) takes too long to observe. However, evolution at the genetic level happens, and is observed, all the time. Blount et al. from Lenski's group published a paper this year on E. coli evolving the ability to metabolize citrate, while they were watching. E. coli is normally distinguished by it's inability to eat this sugar.

#2 Numerous predictions made about the fossil record have come true. Transitional fossils between land- and sea-living animals, and between fish and amphibians (read Your Inner Fish) have been found, for example. Go to for many more examples (seems like that site is down, so here is a Wikipedia entry instead).

#3 The question of origins in the example of the robot is not one of engineering, but of evolution. An engineer could say whether or not the robot could be designed by an engineer, but would not normally know enough about evolution to tell whether natural processes could have done it. The case of the robot is obvious, but to assess whether living organisms have evolved, one needs to know about evolutionary processes - something that most engineers, and certainly most laymen do not. Either way, the example does not even suggest (logically) that evolutionary theory is not logical.

#4 Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a bunch a lies. There is no such thing as Darwinian dogma. There is just evolutionary theory. It can be challenged, and has again and again. And stood up to every challenge. Evolutionary biologists continue to challenge the theory, and it is very much up for discussion. That's the way it becomes a better and stronger theory.

#5 There is and has been inaccurate information regarding evolution. And there is plenty of accurate information. The charge that all information must be "completely accurate" for it to be scientific theory is just silly. That some information is inaccurate does mean that nothing is accurate. And those hoaxes were done to fool scientists (Piltdown Man, etc.), and were subsequently exposed by scientists.

#6 No presuppositions within science, that is. Science is the study of natural phenomena. You suggest a hypothesis, and you test it. It has to be testable (the fact that neither 'testable' nor 'falsifiable' is on the list is very suspicious, by the way, as those are normally considered imperative for a theory to be scientific) . If you hypothesize that God did it all, then there is no way to test that. If you hypothesize that it didn't evolve, then you have to suggest another natural process which it came into being. Just saying that someone did it, without a way to test that, stifles the increase of knowledge.

I wanted to end by saying that there are X evolutionary biologists worldwide. While the fact that X scientists are working in a field doesn't by itself guarantee the validity of the field, so to speak, it does make it hard to explain how so many - atheists as well as theists, btw - could be deluded into thinking that what they do is science, if it is not. A much more parsimonious explanation would be that those who oppose the scientific facts of evolution (i.e. creationists) are trying to turn people against it. By misrepresentation and by lies.

What is the value of X? I can't find that anywhere. My best guess is 114,533. My second-best guess is 96,027. If it's neither of those, then I'd go for 805,646.

Old enough to marry, too young to divorce

An eight-year old Saudi Arabian girl who was married off by her father to a 58-year-old man has been told she cannot divorce her husband until she reaches puberty. [Source.]
What the hell is wrong with these people?

Merry Christmas from Pat Condell

Change is to religion as
Kryptonite is to Superman.
Garlic is to Dracula.
Heel is to Achilles.
Sex is to Ratzinger.
Chapman is to Lennon.

Go on, marry your cousin

ResearchBlogging.orgNot that I was ever thinking about it, but should I marry my cousin? Should anyone? Is it such a bad idea that there should be laws against it? You may not know that there are laws prohibiting first cousins from marrying in most US states. In this picture the white colored states are the ones that do not.

The map is from “It's Ok, We're Not Cousins by Blood”: The Cousin Marriage Controversy in Historical Perspective, an article published today in PLoS Biology, which argues that there is no sense in having laws against first-cousin marriage.

The reason for the animosity is of course the fear that the offspring of first-cousins has an increased risk of developmental anomalies, resulting from inbreeding. Genetic disorders can result when deleterious recessives are inherited by both parents, meaning that some bad allele (think of it as a version of a gene) is inherited not from just one parent (which would be fine, since one good copy is enough), but from both (which is not good, because now the child lacks a good copy of the gene). Cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease are examples.

But, the authors argue, there isn't really that much of an increased risk at all. Previously there was much disagreement about the risk, so some experts convened to review existing data.
Their report concluded that the risks of a first-cousin union were generally much smaller than assumed—about 1.7%–2% above the background risk for congenital defects and 4.4% for pre-reproductive mortality—and did not warrant any special preconception testing. In the authors' view, neither the stigma that attaches to such unions in North America nor the laws that bar them were scientifically well-grounded.
If you think that increased risk is bad enough to warrant laws against first-cousin marriage, consider that women above the age of 40 are not prevented from having children, nor are people with autosomal dominant diseases. A woman over 40 has an elevated risk of giving birth to a child with defects. People who with autosomal dominant disorders have a 50% chance of having children with the same disorder. If we allow these people to give birth, why not allow the same for first-cousins (or, indeed, for them to marry).

Additionally, there might even be a bias in assessment of what the risk is, which might render some of the arguments against first-cousin marriage moot.
Inbred populations, including British Pakistanis, are often poor. The mother may be malnourished to begin with, and families may not seek or have access to good prenatal care, which may be unavailable in their native language [20]. Hence it is difficult to separate out genetic from socio-economic and other environmental factors.
Lastly, it can be argued that the ill will against first-cousin marriage stems from the eugenics movement ("prevent the ugly from breeding"), and I would think most people nowadays would shun it for that reason alone, at least once they realize what the conclusion of eugenics was.
It is obviously illogical to condemn eugenics and at the same time favor laws that prevent cousins from marrying. But we do not aim to indict these laws on the grounds that they constitute eugenics. That would assume what needs to be proved – that all forms of eugenics are necessarily bad. In our view, cousin marriage laws should be judged on their merits. But from that standpoint as well, they seem ill-advised. These laws reflect once-prevailing prejudices about immigrants and the rural poor and oversimplified views of heredity, and they are inconsistent with our acceptance of reproductive behaviors that are much riskier to offspring. They should be repealed, not because their intent was eugenic, but because neither the scientific nor social assumptions that informed them are any longer defensible.
So sometimes a careful look at the evidence shatters old myths. Unless we are somehow differently invested in these myths, and the practices that go along with them, then we should change our views on them accordingly.

Diane B. Paul, Hamish G. Spencer (2008). “It's Ok, We're Not Cousins by Blood”: The Cousin Marriage Controversy in Historical Perspective PLoS Biology, 6 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060320

Obama's Lincoln connection

What does it mean that Obama is to be sworn into office on Abraham Lincoln's Bible?

Lincoln is known as a religious skeptic, among other views on religion. I just wonder if Obama, being the closet-atheist I suspect, would deliberately choose Lincoln's Bible to echo this sentiment.
It was the Declaration of Independence, rather than the Bible, that Lincoln most relied on in order to oppose any further territorial expansion of slavery. He saw the Declaration as more than a political document. To him, as well as to many abolitionists and other antislavery leaders, it was, foremost, a moral document that had forever determined valuable criteria in shaping the future of the nation. [Source.]
Perhaps Obama should be sworn in on the Declaration if Independence, then?

Adnan Oktar repeats challenge ($$$) in a white suit

This is too precious not to share: Muslim creationist Adnan Oktar challenges scientists to prove evolution. A correspondent from The Guardian went to Turkey to interview Muslim creationist Adnan Oktar, author of the Atlas of Creation. (Here's my previous post on Muslim attitudes towards evolution.)

Oktar repeats his challenge to anyone to prove evolution, by showing him just "a few fossils." I assume he means transitional, given that he even knows what that refers to. And once again promises 100 trillion Turkish Lire to the person who can do that. That's about 65 million US dollars (divide by a million to get the Turkish New Lira). What do you think? Is there any way his organization could afford to give away that kind of money, or is he somehow certain that no one could reproduce "a few fossils?"

However, while the interview reveals another layer of the enigma that Oktar is, the story becomes absolutely hilarious with this picture.
Oktar, squeezed into a white trouser suit...

Dangnabbit, that ain't no lie. That tie is just awful!

Spirituality is an induced disorder

On the blog of the British Humanist Association there is a new post about a research paper that links spirituality to brain damage. The right parietal lobe determines "how we figure out where we are, and how we relate to the world around us." The researchers explain that
Disorders of the right hemisphere involve a diminished capacity in the ability of the self to function in the immediate environment, including difficulties localizing the body in space...
The blogger notes that studies of Buddhist monks have revealed the same effect in the same area of the brain when they meditate. Thus, a transcendental state achieved through meditation, or prayer, as in the case of catholic nuns, is really just shutting down part of the brain. So much for the religious component, and so much for basing your life on those experiences.

I am reminded of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who had a stroke that inhibited her ability to distinguish herself from her surroundings. A pure feeling of happiness, she recalls.

Donate to Wikipedia

Who knew, Wikipedia isn't free?! So, if you can, this is a good place to donate. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, is asking for financial support.
Wikipedia is different. It's the largest encyclopedia in history, written by volunteers. Like a national park or a school, we don't believe advertising should have a place in Wikipedia. We want to keep it free and strong, but we need the support of thousands of people like you.

On evolutionary psychology: success

Biologists agree that not every trait is an adaptation. Some have drifted to fixation (neutral evolution), some have gone to fixation together with another trait that is an adaptation (i.e. via pleiotropy). But is is also agreed that many traits are adaptations - that they are there and have the value they do because they have been favored by natural selection.

In evolutionary psychology - which is a discipline in psychology, and not in evolution - researchers make the assumption that the traits they study are adaptations. And it often makes a lot of sense, as we shall see. It just fits so well with how we can easily imagine what our evolutionary past was like, and how the traits would have affected survival and reproduction (the main components of natural selection). However, as I have cautioned before, while we make this assumption, recall that we may at times fool ourselves, because what makes sense and may seem reasonable to us may in fact not have anything to do with reality. Just always keep it in mind, is all I'm saying.

There was a wonderful article in the Economist a couple of days ago on Darwinism*: Why we are, as we are. It surveys five main points as elucidated by evolutionary psychology.
  1. Why we strive to get wealthier,
  2. why we commit crimes,
  3. why we punish,
  4. why women and men aren't equal, and
  5. why we are racist.
The bottom line is that they all affect our survival and reproduction. And the answers are (I'm going to make this extremely concise, as I really wish to make another point altogether):
  1. Because the wealthier you are the more sex you get to have,
  2. because it pays, especially when we can't get any sex in the first place,
  3. because you don't want to be a cuckold,
  4. because men and women have different reproductive strategies, and
  5. because xenophobia strengthens your group and weakens other groups.
Makes sense, yes? If not, go read the article now. It deals nicely with each of these points.

On the first point, the (anonymous) author writes
The relative nature of status explains the paradox observed in 1974 by an economist called Richard Easterlin that, while rich people are happier than poor people within a country, average happiness does not increase as that country gets richer. This has been disputed recently. But if it withstands scrutiny it means the free-market argument—that because economic growth makes everybody better off, it does not matter that some are more better off than others—does not stand up, at least if “better off” is measured in terms of happiness. What actually matters, Darwinism suggests, is that a free society allows people to rise through the hierarchy by their own efforts: the American dream, if you like. [My emphasis.]
The relative nature of status means that people would rather earn $100,000 while everyone else earns $50,000, than earn $150,000 while everyone else earns $300,000. Thus, if everyone earns ten times more than what they earn today, after an initial bout of euphoria, people will go back to being as happy, or unhappy, as they were before there gigantic raise. I choose to interpret this fact as meaning that happiness is irrelevant in evolution. Natural selection does not favor happiness, as it does not influence survival and reproduction. Wealth is not a means to buy lots of ice-cream, but it is rather a signal that I am sexy. So as long as I am richer/sexier than everyone else, I get more you know what.

Which is why I chose the wrong line of work.

* Biologists never call it 'Darwinism'. Evolutionary theory has come a very long way since Darwin, which some people who use the term are ignorant of.

The Manga Bible should be a juicy feast

Here's something I'd like for Christmas: The Manga Bible.

From Amazon:
One wouldn't imagine that Siku, onetime artist for postmodern bloodfest Judge Dredd, would be the ideal choice for a manga-style graphic novel adaptation of the Bible, but not many pages have passed before it becomes clear that the Bible is, in fact, the perfect material for him.
I'd say! The Bible has loads and loads of blood'n'gore stories that are perfect for a graphic novel, indeed. I can't wait for Cain slaying Abel, God destroying Sodom and Gomorra, and especially my favorite prank of all times, God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son.

Newest video from Edward Current

Five Biggest LIES About Christianity

No comments. You can't argue with that.


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On evolutionary psychology: foundation

At some point a scientific theory may become so well established, having withstood test after test, that it can then be used for useful predictions. Electromagnetism and general relativity comes to mind. These theories are being used every day for prediction, in scientific research as well as for more practical purposes.

Biology has mostly been devoid of theories of this caliber, and this is mainly due to the complexity of life. And by complexity I here mean that it is very complicated to understand, because there are so many more parameters to account for compared to electromagnetism etc. The theory of evolution, mathematically the most advanced in biology, has also been tested relentlessly, and, while a theory in flux, has come up on top every time. Additionally, some parts of the theory can be used to predict outcomes with high precision, namely in the case of population genetics, which predicts allele frequencies in population under the four forces of evolution: natural selection, mutation, genetic drift, and gene flow.

But the part of the theory which is historical, i.e. where it attempts to deduce what happened in the past, isn't quite as rigid. This is not a special feature of the theory of evolution, really, but just a general problem inferring about past events. Physics is on comparably shaky ground when it is used to tell us about the history of the Universe, for example. Phylogenetics, the discipline of reconstructing evolutionary relationships among species (or larger groups of species, or of genes), based on the idea of common ancestry of species, have had many successes "predicting" past events. Hypotheses can actually be tested, given the fossil record and the extensive genetic data we now posses.

Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand, is quite another story. It is a discipline in psychology (and not in biology) that attempts to make sense of the human psyche in the light of evolution. Specifically, human traits, such as behavior and instincts, are given explanations that make sense in the light of natural selection. EP relies heavily, to the point of exclusion, on natural selection (including sexual selection) to understand why we are as we are. In fact, the Tooby and Cosmides 2005 paper on the foundations of evolutionary psychology begins by recognizing that it is the "theory of evolution by natural selection [that] has revolutionary implications for understanding the design of the human mind and brain," not the theory of evolution. At this point we notice that this means only one of the four forces of evolution is invoked. Notably, genetic drift is completely ignored, as it is an effect of random sampling, which does not offer sexy explanations of human traits. "The fact that humans are instinctively afraid of snakes evolved via genetic drift, and as such is a trait that doesn't really mean anything in our evolutionary past or present." That doesn't really make any sense in the case of ohidiophobia, but even if it did it wouldn't be something that would be worth the effort for an evolutionary psychologist to report to the rest of the scientific community, nor, and this becomes important*, to the general public.

The reason I started out by talking about the theory of evolution as an established theory was to drive home the point that we now do know, as much as it is possible to know anything about the past if you weren't there in person, that natural selection has been a major component in shaping life as it evolved, and that undoubtedly includes the human psyche. However, that does not mean that we can know for certain what the adaptive value of a given trait was when it evolved (here I really mean "went to fixation because of" when I say "evolved"). Take the female affinity to the color pink. Women like pink more than men do. This is something that can be easily confirmed by experiments with real live humans. Once the fact is substantiated in this way, evolutionary psychologists proceed to invoke the natural selection to explain it. "Women like pink because our female ancestors had to be more sensitive to that color when they were gathering fruit, and had to pick the best ones." This might be a decent hypothesis, but it is one that cannot be tested. If it cannot be tested, it is a dead end, scientifically speaking. If we could rule out all other hypotheses, then we would have a strong case, but we humans are very good at coming up with stories to explain the world around us. "Women like pink because the were the ones raising babies and thus needed to be highly attuned to the color of baby cheeks (which are pink on occasion)."

Moreover, just because a trait has a specific function at the present doesn't mean that it initially evolved by selection acting on that trait. The trait could have had a different function, which then changed as the environment (or rather, the fitness landscape) changed. One example is feathers, which without a doubt is functional in flying, but most likely first evolved as insulation. Such co-option, or exaptation, is very common in evolution. Yet, selection is all evolutionary psychologists have to work with, and they apply it heavily to tell some very intriguing stories* about the evolution of the human mind.

*Which is the subject of another post coming soon.

The scientifically incorrect guides to science

An email sent to PZ Myers has a paragraph that start with "Evolution is the biggest lie Satan has ever told." and ends with "Even the prophet Isaiah knew that the earth was round. (Read The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science)." You should go read those emails he get. They are incredibly funny and very frustrating.

I didn't know about that book, so I went and found it on google books, and discovered that it is a series of guides on various subjects that are controversial for the right-wingers and other Americans with a political or religious persuasion that conflicts with the real world.

Click the images for larger views.

The text on the top of the covers say
Liberals have hijacked science for long enough. It's time to set the record straight.
"Annoy a godless liberal: Buy this book" -- Ann Coulter.

Jonathan Wells is a Moonie and one of the founders of the Intelligent Design movement, and Tom Bethel is a journalist and member of the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis, a group of AIDS denialists (that is, people who do not accept the scientific consensus that HIV is the cause of AIDS). The scientific community has rejected their spurious claim, of course. Another of the members, Peter Duesberg, was an advisor to Thabo Mbeki, who, based on the idea that HIV does not cause AIDS, failed to deliver drugs that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in South Africa.

I seriously wonder what goes on on the heads of people like this. I'd give my right arm for a mysterious portal... But then again, I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous.

What is fart and what's the use?

In one of my children's books on defecation there is a section about flatulence. It says that the gas, or flatus, we pass is composed of air that we swallow when we eat and drink, and to this I was at first extremely skeptical. Dismissive, rather. I had the idea that fart consisted of methane and other gases produced by the bacteria and archaea that digests our food for us, and that we burp all the air we swallow. Wikipedia to the rescue. This article on flatulence explains that most flatus are odorless gases:
The major components of the flatus, which are odorless, by percentage are:[2]

* Nitrogen - 20% - 90%
* Hydrogen - 0% - 50%
* Carbon Dioxide - 10% - 30%
* Oxygen - 0% - 10%
* Methane - 0% - 10%
I stand blissfully corrected.

Mr. Methane is a professional flatulist. There used to be others, but now he's the only one.

In this interview he explains and demonstrates how he does it. He expands his abdominal muscles to fill her bowels with air, which he then lets out in a controlled manner. I highly recommend Mr. Methane performing Stevie Wonder's I just called to say I love you.

Why is cannibalism taboo?

Cannibalism, or anthropophagy, is frowned upon all over the world. In fact, most people probably think it is morally wrong, even though it is not uncommon to hear the question of why it happens to be regarded as disgusting and taboo.

I would have liked to make this a post about a journal paper on the subject, but there aren't that many on the whole, and those I can find are all about the history, culture, and crimes of cannibalism. Not a single one that I can find deals with our feelings towards the practice.

On TruTV there is an article about cannibalism with emphasis on the criminal aspects of it, including many stories of famous cannibals.

The author of the article states that the exact origin of cannibalism is a mystery and will most likely remain so. I bring this up because the origin of cannibalism would seem to precede the onset of any feeling towards the practice. I obviously don't have any data to support a claim, but would venture a guess that cannibalism is at least as ancient as humanity. There are many other species of animals that practice cannibalism on occasion, and so it would be most parsimonious if cannibalism existed as humans evolved from our non-human ancestor. I mention this in this context only because it forces us to consider that the origin of the taboo is possibly as old as humanity as well, predating laws, religion, and other established moral codes.

Christianity (and other religions) is often invoked to explain the ultimate cause for people thinking that the practice of cannibalism is morally wrong. From the article:
the spread of Christianity is believed to have significantly diminished cannibalism worldwide.
This of course begs the question why the Christians were against it in the first place. Christianity has been exemplary in hijacking moral instincts (and celebrations, traditions, myths, and rites), and it should be apparent that anti-cannibalism did not originate within the last 2000 (or 6000) years. (If you are of the hope faith that God designed our morality, then you can stop reading right here. Congrats to you for "knowing" with certainty what the origin of the taboo is.)

The article tells of the Donner Party survivors:
Half of the travelers perished before the remaining people eventually succumbed to their situation and began to feed on the flesh of the dead in an attempt to survive. The forty-six survivors were eventually rescued, however upon reaching civilization they were regarded as monstrous criminals and tried for their actions. The travelers served around six months before they were re-released back into their communities.
And this reaction is not even the worst that survivors forced to cannibalize the dead have been subject to.
Even in the most extreme cases, the act of cannibalism is treated with scorn and disgust by many cultures and is sometimes punishable by social ostracization, institutionalization in a mental facility, arrest, incarceration or even death. Cannibalism is most commonly believed to be the epitome of savage behavior.
Still, it begs the question. Can we form a solid hypothesis as to the fear of cannibalism? Or, let's say, is there a reason why we should distrust those with cannibalistic tendencies so much that it has become an instinct? The article continues
Most acts of cannibalism are, to a degree, motivated by a desire to express power or control over the victim. Cannibalism is the ultimate expression of dominance over another person. Aggression cannibalism includes acts of cannibalism that are motivated by feelings of hostility and/or fear, creating an overriding need to exert power, revenge or control over the victim by murdering and then consuming him.
It should be clear from the examples above, and from the famous 1972 Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 which crashed in the Andes and whose survivors ate the deceased, that killing is not the issue. No one killed anybody, and yet the instinctive feeling is that it is still reprehensible to eat humans. It would thus appear that we cannot associate fear of cannibalism with fear of murder, and yet I will argue that we still can.

My own preferred guess is that as humans evolved to cooperate with each other, the negative side-effects of cannibalism (i.e. killing humans) was contrary to fostering good social relations. It may be that cannibalism does not necessarily imply murder, but it is enough that cannibalism is preceded by murder some of the time. If you know that a certain person is a cannibal, then it is better to be on the safe side an avoid him, as it could very well be that he won't sit around waiting for his dinner to die from accident or old age.

The fear of cannibalism is thus adaptive; those who tended to avoid known cannibals were also less liable to be killed and served. And they in turn had more offspring, as the natural selection story goes. Cannibalism is taboo because the instinctive fear of cannibalism is adaptive.

One could argue that there would be nothing wrong with eating the proteinaceous mass of flesh that would otherwise just be buried or cremated, if the cause of death was accidental or disease (provided this would not spoil the meat). But just maybe the diner would enjoy the cooking just a little too much, and start thinking about other means of acquiring more. A taboo makes sense in turns of upholding law and order in the early evolution of man.

Cannibalism is taboo because I am afraid that you would want to eat me.

For a taste of the flavor of human flesh, read this account by a guy who tried it.

Disclaimer: I want to emphasize that these reflections are to be considered hypotheses at best, and wishy-washy at the worst. I have proposed no way to test this hypothesis, which really is what would be needed in order for it to be called scientific in any sense of the word. It's really quite like most research in evolutionary psychology, if you think about it.

Carl Zimmer nails it, again

Carl Zimmer just posted an excellent reply minutes ago on his blog to a bunch of kids who tried to educate him about evolution.

Just minutes ago Carl Zimmer posted on his blog an excellent reply to a bunch of kids who tried to educate him about evolution.

On his blog Carl Zimmer posted an excellent reply to a bunch of kids who tried to educate him about evolution just minutes ago.

One of those, anyway.

So if you're still confused about water-to-land evolution, the second law of thermodynamics, or the irreducible complexity of human face evolution (sic!), then go read this most amicable post on The Loom.

Transitions between water and land animals.

I want this bumpersticker for Christmas

(Yes, atheists celebrate Christmas too.)

Who's the worst dictator of 2008?

Here's a poll to crash: It's in Danish, but if you can't read that then take some classes you can just take my word for it that that's what the poll is about. I voted for Kim Jong-Il. North Korea is, after all, way worse off than Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and I didn't know the other three guys.

Finally a good reason to drink coffee

I don't drink coffee, and I'm not addicted to caffeine. However, now there's finally one good reason to drink a cup: You can make fuel of the leftovers! Sounds too good to be true.
To verify it, the scientists collected spent coffee grounds from a multinational coffeehouse chain and separated the oil. They then used an inexpensive process to convert 100 percent of the oil into biodiesel.
The Independent | Hybrid Cars News | Politiken

What's wrong with the second law?

How can you tell that this is definitely not the real thing?

Metsys detalosi na rof eurt ylno si taht taht llew swonk gnikwaH laer eht elihw, metsys desolc a ni sesaercni syawla yportne syas eh par eht gnirud semit lareves.

Ignore the science, pay the price II

Here's a prediction that I have a tad more faith in than my last one:

A cure for HIV/AIDS will never be found without an understanding of evolution.

Corollary: Application of that which is understood is preceded by acceptance of same.

A recent paper in PLoS Computational Biology, Dynamic Correlation between Intrahost HIV-1 Quasispecies Evolution and Disease Progression, describes the results of phylogentic analysis of HIV in infected patients, and found that HIV evolves faster initially, and then slows down as the immune system gets weaker.

Digest from
As the virus mutates, giving birth to viral offspring called quasispecies, it presents an ever-changing face to the immune system, which is continually adapting itself to keep up with the onslaught. The immune system does a remarkable job fending off the assault, killing most of the viral particles every day. Even so, some of the virus is able to elude the body's defenses and ultimately devastates the immune system in most patients.
(Good review of the PLoS article, except for the fact that they write that HIV "develops" resistance when they mean "evolves.")

This is the second post in the Ignore-the-science-pay-the-price series. First.

Stasis does not falsify evolution

Every week people submit letters to the editor of American newspapers on the subject of evolution. Many readers argue that evolution never happened, and in doing so they often present one or more of a sleuth of standard anti-evolution arguments. I just revisited two of them, and here is another very common one. This one more plainly than most others illustrate the ignorance of those who put it forth:
The theory [of evolution] says that things evolve over time, If that is correct then why have some species not evolved at all! Several fish have stayed the same. The crocodile has adapted and grown smaller in size but it is still a crocodile. Marine turtles have not changed according to the fossil record. Those are just a couple of examples that have been observed.
I found this in the comments of this letter to the editor of a Tennessee paper in defense of evolution, written as a reply to another letter that asserted that evolution is a religion.

The argument has also recently been trampled to death by Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahua, who produced the now infamous Atlas of Creation. In that beautifully illustrated tome (though some pictures are of fishing lures) he similarly argued that since many species are identical to fossils that are millions of years old, these didn't evolve (as they falsely claim that the theory of evolution posits they must), and thus evolution is false.

Within evolutionary theory, the phenomenon of no phenotypic or genotypic change is known as stasis. Wikipedia does not have an article on stasis, unfortunately, so you'll have to make do with the mention of the it under the heading of punctuated equilibrium (stasis has also been called unpunctuated equilibrium, but don't let me hear that again!). Essentially, at times organisms/populations/species evolve rapidly (as is the case with Podarcis sicula), and at times hardly at all (as with the Coelacanth and other living fossils).

Why does stasis happen? Stasis occurs when
  • the environment that the organism lives in doesn't change, or
  • the organism is developmentally constrained so that it can't evolve.
[Update 10/25/2012: Stasis could also be explained by
  • habitat tracking: populations whose environment changes can physically move so that they are not going to be affected by the change, and
  • small populations may not be able to respond to selection because it isn't strong enough; instead, in small populations genetic drift rules.

The last two reasons could work at the same time, even in conjunction with developmental constraints.]

Developmental constraint is a little harder to explain, but I promise myself to deal with it thoroughly within very long.

On the contrary, the idea that stasis prevails when the environment doesn't change is really easy to grasp. It is the environment that determines what the fittest phenotype is, so when the environment doesn't change, neither does the organism (except for neutral evolution, in which genotypic changes that doesn't not affect the fitness of the organism can go to fixation).

In terms of fitness landscapes: If you're sitting at the top of a peak, then any phenotypic change lowers your fitness, and stasis results. This is one effect of natural selection: it weeds out the inferior phenotypes, preserving the type that produces the most offpsring (there are other effects of selection, by the way). As long as that landscape doesn't change, the peaks remains, and evolution doesn't happen.

Ahh, excellent! That should take care of that, and I suspect we won't hear that silly argument made ever again...

P.S. Yes, I love Wikipedia.

Vedic creationism and human devolution

A human is a combination of matter, mind, and consciousness, accoriding to Dr. Michael Cremo, who wrote Human Devolution. This article (Humans may have originated billions of years ago in waves of consciousness) about him and his vedic creationism was too long and boring to read, but the video I could just manage - with breaks.

His evidence for a subtle mind element associated with the human organism: Experiments with random number generatORs. Students at Princeton were able to "will" random numbers to be non-random. To change the outcome of computer-generated random numbers by thinking about it. To which I will say, well yeah, they are Princeton students! Duh!

His evidence for a conscious self that can exist apart from the body: Medical reports of out-of-body experiences. People self-reporting on being conscious while they're brain-dead. I personally know several people who keeps talking even though they are clearly brain-dead.

Once we accept that a human being is composed of the three elements, it leads to the idea of a multi-level cosmos. Devolution: the process by which a human departs from pure consciousness into the lower levels of mind and matter. We don't evolve "up" from matter, as scientists would have you believe, but down from the higher level of exalted spirit.

A process that can be reversed, he promises. Just not one I will be having part of. I really like it here in my faulty material form. I'm not too much into prayer, mediation, or yoga, which he says are the ways to restore the conscious self to its original position, freeing us from its covering of the lower energies. Which is the actual purpose of human life, according to Dr. Michael Cremo.

Laws preventing evolution resurfaces

The San Antonio Bible Based Sciences Association (SABBSA) "has been around for more than a decade with a membership which includes an astrophysicist, teachers, medical doctors, a college biology teacher, computer programmers, civil engineers and many other degreed professionals with varied technical backgrounds."

I just read a letter on stating the above, where SABBSA charge that
We stand ready to go to any venue you invite us to, and can present several hours of scientific evidence which supports creation. Included in these will be the fact that evolution violates the 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics, as well as the Law of Biogenesis.
Not that falsifying evolution would be evidence of creation, but forget that for a moment.

Apparently, neither the astrophysicist nor any of their other "degreed professionals" understand evolution and thermodynamics at the same time. It really should be enough to understand the physics... The second law of thermodynamics is explicitly stated for an isolated system, i.e. a system that does not interact with it's surroundings in any way (contrast witha closed system, which can exchange energy but not matter). It should be clear to most that Earth, and thus life on it, is not an isolated system. We get bundles of energy from the sun, and therefore there is no violation of the second law of thermodynamics in the case of living organisms evolving, and increasing in complexity.

The law of biogenesis is an observation that life does not arise from non-life. It is not a law that states that this should be impossible in principle, in contrast with for example the second law of thermodynamics, which states that as a matter of principle, "heat generally cannot spontaneously flow from a material at lower temperature to a material at higher temperature." Thus, abiogenesis - the origin of life - isn't rendered impossible by the law of biogenesis.

Both claims are perfectly common among creationists. And they are both embarrassingly false. That abiogenesis and some other instances of evolving complexity has yet to be explained in details is true, but the arguments that thermodynamics and the law of biogenesis should prevent these in principle, I guess just because they are stated as "laws", stems from an incorrect understanding of both.

SABBSA also objects that it is incorrect that
evolution above all other scientific theories has neither weaknesses nor points of debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Science is a field constantly in a state of flux.
That is indeed true as stated. However, when their objections are that the weaknesses and points of debate is the second law of thermodynamics or the law of biogenesis, then their statement falls flat to the ground.

Please don't think you have understood everything we have learned about evolution in the last 150 years just because you have read Evolution for Dummies. One of the core elements of evolutionary theory is easy to understand (natural selection), but it doesn't follow that the rest is as excrement from a baby calf.

Muslim attitudes towards evolution

As if sent from heaven, the newest issue of Science has an article by Salman Hameed about current acceptance of evolution in Muslim countries. (Subscription is required, but if you don't have that and want to read it, I'd be happy to send you a copy.)

The science article has this figure with data gathered from 1996 to 2003, which clearly shows that acceptance of evolution is low in these Muslim countries.

Bracing for Islamic Creationism Science, 2008, 322, 1637 - 1638.

Contrast it with this figure of 33 western countries and Turkey:

Public Acceptance of Evolution, Science 2006, 313, 765-766.
(Again, I have the pdf...)

Salman Hameed writes:
The message about evolution in the Islamic world needs to be framed in a way that emphasizes practical applications and show that it is the bedrock of modern biology--thereby capitalizing on the existing proscience attitude (13). The national academies of Muslim countries will need to tailor the specifics of the message according to the political and cultural realities of their respective countries. Religion in the Muslim world plays a much larger role in the social and cultural landscape, and thus, our discussions with the general public need to take that into account. As scientists, we should present, without compromise, the best available science. Evolutionary ideas about human origins may face serious obstacles, but a peaceful religious accommodation is also possible. However, efforts that link evolution with atheism will cut short the dialogue, and a vast majority of Muslims will reject evolution. (My emphasis.)

To some extent I agree with him on this point. Present the science, stop talking about religion. However, is evolution vs. creationism the war, or just one battle, as Richard Dawkins have phrased it? Dawkins is of the opinion that the real war is between secularism/naturalism and religion. In that fight, evolution is just one front that can win converts. I happen to agree with both: Let the battle over evolution be fought first. Then we'll see how that changes the landscape on religion.

Update Dec. 13th: Salman Hameed gives an interview in New Scientist: How to stop creationism gaining a hold in Islam.
This dialogue will be cut short immediately if you bring in atheism. If evolution is presented as a choice between evolution and religion, people are going to pick religion. No question.

Khmer Rouge chemistry

Someone comes along with a new theory regarding something scientific. It's really more like a hypothesis, but with a proposed way to test it. However, it's not one of those constructive ones that once resolved we can gain further knowledge. In that sense it's sort of only anti. But again, there is a test.

Now, suppose the discipline is a natural science. Take chemistry. The central science. Here is a rather large collection of laws and facts that all fit together nicely, for the most part. They still do research in chemistry. Yeah, I know. We'd rather be doing something else, so kudos to those who serve us. Anyhow...

If confirmed, this hypothesis would disprove a rather important tenet of chemistry, and would significantly alter how people think chemistry works. But it would not offer a path to further knowledge. Not shine a light. Just a brick wall.

What do the chemists say to the arrival of this new hypothesis? Do they dismiss it on the grounds that it will not provide any new insights beyond disproving something? Additionally, do they look at the reasoning behind the posing of the hypothesis? Assume there is some political motive. It might be that the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia happens to dislike redox reactions, just because their ideological leader learned about it from one of his rivals. Or whatever.

No to the first, and no to the second. A hypothesis that can be tested stands on its own. Chemists won't care what can be learned, only that something can be learned. It also completely doesn't matter how it came along. Why would it? "Pfft, the Khmer Rouge has an anti-chemistry agenda, so whatever they say we can't really take seriously." No, we could. It the idea has any merit, it will be taken seriously, no matter what lies ahead and how it came along.

Now suppose that the Khmer Rouge wanted to introduce the hypothesis into chemistry classes. In high school. Could they? Well, hold on a moment. That sort of thing requires some more validity. If chemists everywhere were able to confirm the hypothesis, then eventually the idea would make it into chemistry textbooks. But that's the only proper way. The Khmer Rouge, doing all they can to promote their political cause, should not be able to change what we know about chemistry in any other way than doing chemistry. Lobbying the government, or suing the publisher, or some such would never work. Shouldn't. The Khmer Rouge are free to attempt to fund chemists to apply the idea in the lab, and if these Red Khemists get any results, they can write it up and send it to the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation where it be reviewed by other chemists. And if the reviewers see fit, they will accept it for publication, and the Khmer Theory will gain supporters, and after years of ongoing research and successful laboratory tests, it might get a mention in a new textbook for an advanced college chemistry course, and years later, when no one doubts that Khmer Theory tells us something real about the natural world, then it will be added to a high school chemistry textbook.

On the other hand, should the Khmer Chemistry be the continued laughing stock of chemists worldwide, and only manage to publish half-baked papers in fringe chemistry journals because no one thought the test of the hypothesis really works, then KC will never make it further than a college course on political science.

Get it?

Such a hypothesis with a companion idea to test it has actually come along a few years ago. It's called Intelligent Design (wiki), and the idea is that some systems, components, or features of living organisms are so complex ("irreducibly complex") that they could not have evolved (i.e. originated) via natural causes. And intelligent designer must have been at play. The blood clotting cascade, the bacterial flagellum, the first living organism, and the cell are a few such proposed constructions. Boeing 747s, pocket watches, and mousetraps also figure prominently (wiki).

Should we care what the consequences are if this hypothesis is proven correct? It would overturn our (scientific) understanding of how life evolved and evolves. So we would rather not allow it to be tested? Of course not. Let it be tested by all means.

Does it matter that the people with whom Intelligent Design originated believe in God, or that they believe God created humans as described in the Bible, or that they believe God helps evolution along once in a while? Should we care that if an Intelligent Designer were proved to have had a hand in evolution, that we couldn't really use that knowledge to anything else within biology?

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No.

A theory's validity stands on its own. But...

The fact is that Intelligent Design has not been validated. Irreducible complexity has not been shown to exist anywhere in the biological world. No credible peer-reviewed papers have appeared in scientific journals that anyone who isn't married to the theological consequences of Intelligent Design take seriously. That should lay the matter to rest until someone comes up with evidence to the contrary. It's worth the wait, but excuse us if we do not include Intelligent Design in high school textbooks and curricula until that day arrives.


Thus I chastise those who refute Intelligent Design with the argument that its proponents are religious, or that they have a non-scientific agenda.

And accordingly I berate those who try to rewrite science textbooks and school curricula by any other means than doing science.

Shame on both of you.

Bush's God is not a terrorist

George W. Bush doesn't claim to be much of a theologian, I am aware, but what he said about religion in the December 8 interview is really bizarre.
"I think anyone who murders to achieve their religious objective is not a religious person."
Boy, how to make sense of that? He must have the view that being religious equals being good, or something to that effect. It's not that I don't realize that many religious people see it that way - that they are the good ones, fighting evil, doing God's work, etc. However, I do fail to see how Christians who are aware of the atrocities committed by God as described in the Old Testament can do anything but throw that book in the trash.

Bush explains,
"They may think they're religious, and they play like they're religious, but I don't think they're religious. They are not praying to the God I pray to ... the God of peace and love."
Ah, the God of peace and love. Then I think he in fact did not read the Old Testament, because Yahweh of the Old Testament isn't exactly all peaceful and loving. You know, taunting (all) the egyptians when the Pharaoh wouldn't let his chosen people go. Raining burning sulphur on two cities, children included, because they were a bit anal. On and on the horror stories go. Great stuff to raise children on, no?

Mormons on science: we like if we like

Mormons are apparently not directly hostile against evolution and science in general, like so many other Christian denominations. They accept both if they harmonize with their faith.

Here are words from the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e. the mormons [two m's]).

Diversity of opinion does not necessitate intolerance of spirit, nor should it embitter or set rational beings against each other. The Christ taught kindness, patience, and charity.

Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us no matter where it may be found. (My emphasis.)
Great, so as long as science keeps in line we're fine. But then...

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, declares man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity. . . . Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes.
Damn. Direct offspring of God himself does seem to be a little on the side of the kind of creationism that would not accept what we have learned about evolution. But then again, what do you expect from people believing all humans have the potential to become gods, and who wear magic underwear.

The Mormon garments. Click for up-close-and-personal view.