Field of Science

Women may not watch wrestling in Iran

Today in Politiken, my favorite Danish newspaper, you can read (though you may not understand) that a Danish female coworker of the Danish Wrestling Union (?) was expelled from the spectator seats (carpets, really) at a wrestling tournament in Qom, Iran. She was first allowed to enter the premises duly wearing all black with a scarf, but after 20 minutes was very politely asked to leave. They organizers were very sorry, treated her very well, offering refreshments in a nearby VIP lounge. No harm was done, but she was not allowed inside again to watch her countrymen wrestle.

Why the hell not?

Not because anyone present really cared, Muslims or otherwise. Not because she was behaving in an inappropriate manner. Nothing like that.

They were afraid that the religious leaders would hear of it. And the point here is that that was most likely the only reason at all. I'm not saying that because of prejudice, but because Iranians I have met here in California have told me how life sort of revolves around - evades, really - the religious leaders. Iranians are not all the crazy fundamental Muslims that we often hear about. Rather, I have been shocked to learn that people drink alcohol, watch western television, and (!) arrange sexual orgies, all behind closed doors. An Iranian professor at a college in Claremont told me how she went back to Tehran to study this phenomena, and got herself invited to several of these orgies (just to study them, she assured me). She couldn't even begin to tell me the things she saw, much to my disappointment, of course.

So it would seem that life in Tehran is not much different from life in the West in terms of depravity, except behind closed doors. And except I have never been invited to any orgies. Sigh.

I'm thinking Iran might do very well with tourism if they could just get rid of their leaders.

A religious experience

Now I finally know what it means.

Via Black Nerd Comedy.

Krugman on Stephen Jay Gould

Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton, gave a talk in 1996 to the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy by the title What Economists Can Learn From Evolutionary Theorists. I know next to nothing about economics (read the horror story of my personal finances), but the relationship between economics and evolution is intriguing.

I mention this here because he gives a acidic outside view of one of the most famous American evolutionary biologists (okay, the most famous), Stephen Jay Gould:
I am not sure how well this is known. I have tried, in preparation for this talk, to read some evolutionary economics, and was particularly curious about what biologists people reference. What I encountered were quite a few references to Stephen Jay Gould, hardly any to other evolutionary theorists. Now it is not very hard to find out, if you spend a little while reading in evolution, that Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is bevolved [sic] by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about - not just the answers, but even the questions - are consistently misleading. His impressive literary and historical erudition makes his work seem profound to most readers, but informed readers eventually conclude that there's no there there.

Gould died in 2002, so he must surely have been aware of Krugman's talk and criticism. Personally I love reading Gould, but it is true that the more one reads him, the clearer it becomes that he was consistently ignoring genetics and molecular biology, and that since these are hugely important for understanding evolution, he was sorely missing out on a lot of the fun stuff in his own field.

Gould and Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium, however, does continue to have appeal. In my own work (which I will blog about only once I have something published), as well as other recent discoveries (experiments with Croatian lizards, E. coli, and green algae), it is becoming clear that very rapid evolution is indeed reality, and that stasis (which is what is the equilibrium that's punctuated) really is what needs an explanation.

While he may not have been right about everything he touched upon, we still owe Gould a lot of credit first and foremost for popularizing evolution for the masses - something which is sorely missing at the moment - but also for introducing terms such as terminal addition, spandrels, and exaptation into the evolutionary vocabulary, in addition to the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

Creationism in Europe is also bad

An article in Nature this week details how Creationist Beliefs Persist in Europe (subscription required - email me for a copy).

Two surprising examples of how dismal the evolution/creationism situation is in Europe, and one unsurprising.

In the United Kingdom
Creationists have adopted the attitude that if you get to children young and early, you can indoctrinate them before they even start talking about evolution in schools." Williams cited a December 2008 Ipsos Mori poll of 923 primary and secondary school-teachers in England and Wales: 37% of the respondents agreed that creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution. Even among biology and science teachers, the number was 30%.
Biology teachers?! Apparently understanding science really isn't a prerequisite for teaching it. Boggles the mind.

In Germany
a survey of 1228 German students planning to become teachers [] evaluated their knowledge of and attitudes toward evolution. The results of the 108-question study--part survey, part quiz--revealed surprising gaps. Twenty percent of those studying to teach biology, for example, thought that evolution could be explained in part by Lamarckism, or the idea that traits acquired during a parent organism's life can be passed on to his or her offspring. And less than a third were able to answer basic questions about the role of reproductive fitness in evolution.
Lamarckism? Use and disuse? If you pull out my teeth, then my children will be born without teeth? How can they teach with such dismal comprehension of evolution?

The call it creationist America, but England's just as bad. Germany's worse, and Turkey's also sad.
More than 75% rejected the theory of evolution. "There's a minimal understanding of evolution in Turkey," Soran says. "The more religious people are, the more they forget about evolution."
Okay, so Turkey is the pits, really. A muslim society with secular aspirations (though one wonders if the profitable prospect of an EU membership is the sole reason for the secular tendiencies). And then they have Adnan Oktar, eminent exhibitor of fishing lures.

There is a strong correlation between a belief in creationism and understanding of evolution, and that doesn't really seem surprising:
The survey also probed the students' belief in creationism, and Graf reported that the most likely predictor of creationist thinking wasn't religious belief but a lack of confidence in science, followed closely by a poor understanding of scientific principles. "What surprised me wasn't that religion correlated with antievolutionist thinking but that the correlation between a failure to understand science and not believing in evolution was very strong," Graf says.
If you don't understand a theory, then you are likely to have misconceptions about it, and thus reject it on those false premises. It would be fantastic if someone actually did a survey to rigorously document this, say comparing people who believe in evolution with those who do not. Such a survey just might rock the boat a bit, don't you think?

They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
Wednesday's worse, and Thursday's also sad

Yes the eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
Eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
Sunday I go to church, then I kneel down and pray

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on me
Lord have mercy, my heart's in misery
Crazy about my baby, yes, send her back to me

Did Jesus Christ really exist?

Exceptionally, I include here a long quote from an article in eSkeptic, The Greatest Story Ever Garbled. It is a rebuttal of Zeitgeist, a conspiracy movie of which part one is about the historical reality of Jesus. Never mind the movie, though. Here, Tim Callahan explains - in a factual and detached manner - what the evidence says about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real person or one of fiction.
        Was there a real Jesus? While the historical evidence is meager, it does exist. In his Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, chapter 9, item 1, referring to the execution of James, Josephus refers to him as the brother of “Jesus, who was called the Christ.” It is quite plain that Josephus didn’t see Jesus as the Christ (Christos, the Greek word meaning “anointed”), he merely recorded that James’ brother was the Jesus who had been called or was alleged to be the Christ.
        Beyond this scrap, valuable though it is, we can imply the existence of a historical Jesus from the criteria of embarrassment and difficulty. The criterion of embarrassment says that people do not make up embarrassing details about someone they wish to revere. So, if they say such things about the person, they are probably true. Now let’s apply this to what the Roman historian Tacitus had to say about Jesus early in the second century. Concerning rumors that had spread that Nero had deliberately set fire to the city of Rome, Tacitus says (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 1, Chapter 15):
To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats — and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.
        That Tacitus is obviously a hostile witness makes it much more likely that he accepted Jesus as a real person. Had he reason to suspect he was nothing more than a fabrication, Tacitus would certainly have said so. That author’s claim that Jesus had been executed by Pontius Pilate could only have come from one of two possible sources: Either Tacitus knew this to be true from extant imperial records or he was repeating what Christians themselves had said of Jesus. Were Jesus a mythical character they had invented, they certainly wouldn’t have gone out of their way to invent his being a criminal who had been executed.
        In like manner, people do not go out of their way to invent difficulties for a character they have invented. It is clear from the Nativity narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke that they were faced with having to explain why Jesus grew up in Galilee if he was born in Bethlehem. Both gospels had to invent rather convoluted means to get Jesus born in Bethlehem in accordance with the messianic prophecy in Micah 5:2, then get him moved to Nazareth. Clearly they were stuck with a real person known to have come from Galilee, when he should have come from Bethlehem. Had they been making Jesus up out of whole cloth, they would simply have said he came from Bethlehem: end of story, no complications. So the evidence for Jesus as a real, historical personage, though meager, is solid.

Official challenge to creationists

Ray Comfort, aka the bananaman, has offered Richard Dawkins $10,000 if he will debate with him for an hour.

Dawkins normally makes much more than this per talk, and he has answered that such a small amount wouldn't be worth his time. However, he has offered to do it if Comfort donates ten times that amount to the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

The ball's in Comfort's court. I doubt he will cough up $100,000, though I sincerely hope he will, and that they meet for a good mauling.

Ray Comfort is of course the star in this most credulous movie where he explains how the banana is proof positive of (his) God. When I first saw it years ago I thought it was a very funny parody of a creationist argument. Only much later did I learn who Comfort was, and that he means every word. Take a look. ("It's even curved toward the face to make the whole process so much easier.")

The big secret is that the banana indeed is designed - by man. The wild banana is green, roundish, tough, and full of seeds:

It is, by the way, not the first time Dawkins has been offered a fair amount of money for this sort of thing. Last year a man by the name of Gerry Rzeppa offered him $64,000 if he would sit and hear Rzeppa read a poem to him, and then answer a single question. (I've read the poem. It's awful. I'd love to know what the questions is, though.) Dawkins refused, and I then sent Rzeppa an email offering to come in Dawkins' place. I thought that was mighty grand of myself, actually, but Rzeppa refused saying I wasn't enough of a big shot. In other words, he would not get the exposure he needed if I showed up and Richard stayed home.

Whenever a challenge like this is made, from a creationist to an evolutionist, the reason they do it is to raise their own credibility. If they can boast that a famous scientist took them serious, then that's practically like adding a 'Ph.D.' to your name, and your book and your ideas will sell even better. When the scientists refuse to meet, they pretty much always counter by asking what the evolutionists are so afraid of. If they are so sure that evolution is true, then why not debate the creationists?

From Comfort's challenge:
"Sadly, I have found that even evolution's most staunch believers are afraid to debate, because they know that their case for atheism and evolution is less than extremely weak," Comfort said.
The real reason Dawkins generally won't debate them is stated well by one of the forum members of
As has been said... "Never argue with and idiot. He will drag you down to his level and then beat you with experience."

Richard is right. To even agree to appear on the same stage as these people is to give them too much credibility and publicity.
But, it is annoying that people are persuaded but the false implication that the evolutionists won't debate because they know they would lose. I therefore had the idea that I will send out similar invitations to creationists, and ask if they will debate me. I don't have any money to offer (I'm sort of hoping the cash will flow the other way), and I am not famous, so I doubt I will have much success. Except that I can then rhetorically ask why they are so afraid to debate an evolutionist, of course.

I'll let you know how that goes...

Chemist disses evolution in Forbes

"Oh Hell," I found myself thinking with a heavy sigh when I read a reply to Jerry Coyne in Forbes Magazine by a member of The National Academy of Sciences.

Under the title The Dangers Of Overselling Evolution, emeritus Evan Pugh professor of chemistry at Penn State University, Philip S. Skell, argues that the study of fossils brings us no new knowledge:
But fossils fail to inform us of the nature of our ancient antecedents--because they have been transformed into stones that give us only a minuscule, often misleading impression of their former essences and thus are largely irrelevant to modern biology's experimentations with living organisms.
How, do you suppose, does he know that fossils give us a misleading impression of their former... essences? Erhm, is Skell not aware that essence is sort of a deprecated word, because one of the great insights from evolutionary biology is that organisms and species are superfluous and do not have an essentiality about them. There is no quintessential lion.
For instance, we cannot rely upon ruminations about the fossil record to lead us to a prediction of the evolution of the ambient flu virus so that we can prepare the vaccine today for next year's more virulent strain. That would be like depending upon our knowledge of ancient Hittite economics to understand 21st-century economics.
Nor can we reply on experiments about the flu virus to understand how and when extinctions happened.
In 1942, Nobel Laureate Ernst Chain wrote that his discovery of penicillin (with Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming) and the development of bacterial resistance to that antibiotic owed nothing to Darwin's and Alfred Russel Wallace's evolutionary theories.
The mere fact that Skell takes his quotes from time when he was himself a young man points to an embarrassing ignorance of present day biological theory. That he says "development of resistance" suggests that he might have an inherent bias (e.g. due to his religion) against evolution. Resistance is evolved, not developed. In fact, viruses don't really develop at all. And, how resistance evolves is only properly understood in an evolutionary context.

Skell apparently values utility over understanding, as when he says
Chemists have depended largely on geological sources, from which they have isolated the hundred or so elements on the periodic table and subsequently devised a great variety of schemes for synthesizing millions of new complex arrangements of these elements, giving to the public medicines, fertilizers, plastics, etc., of great utility.
I find it amazing that the NAS invites scientists who holds such views. But then, Skell has been a member since 1977. Hopefully things have changed since then.

Skell is also a signatory of A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism, the Discovery Institute petition whose signatories attest to a statement which expresses skepticism about the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. He is, in other words, a creationist.

I wonder if the NAS members all get together once in a while over large glasses of cognac talking about the good old days, or even something sciency. Imagine Rich Lenski giving Skell a nice lecture about the current advances in biology, and a polite wink about keeping to chemistry next time around.

Time to drink Pepsi

  • Pepsi gave a total of $1,000,000 to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) to promote acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in the workplace.
  • Both HRC and PFLAG supported efforts in California to defeat Proposition 8 which put a ban on same-sex marriage. HRC, which received $500,000 from Pepsi, gave $2.3 million to defeat Proposition 8.
  • Pepsi employees attend sexual orientation and gender diversity training where the employees are taught to accept homosexuality in the workplace.
  • Pepsi is a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
Now they also promote the gay lifestyle in these ads, as the AFA likes to put it.
AFA asked Pepsi to remain neutral in the culture war, but the company refused - choosing to support the homosexual activists.
[Source: One of those wonderful emails they keep sending me designed to make people act on their hatred and fears.]

Culture war? I guess... for or against tolerance.


Pepsi’s products include Pepsi soft drinks, Frito-Lay chips and snacks, Quaker Oats, Tropicana, and Gatorade.

Heaven is for drug addicts

To go to Christian Heaven one must have live a "good life" of some sort or believe in Christ as you savior, depending on denomination. Fair enough, I say, if that's what it takes, neither of these conditions sound too unreasonable.

However, actually going to Heaven sounds altogether unreasonable to me.

Consider what heaven is supposed to be like. Generally a place of happiness. A place of peaceful rest for the soul. Who would not want to enter such a place? What could be wrong with it?

I'll tell you what's wrong with such an awful place. What's wrong with it is that once you go there you're expected to be happy, despite the fact that some of those you love are being tormented in Hell for all eternity.

Could you imagine sitting in Heaven enjoying yourself and the company, or whatever is so great about the place, ignoring the fact that, say, your children who didn't quite cut it are having an awful time down there? I don't think many parents can think of anything worse than their children suffering. It would be like standing outside a burning building enjoying the sight and when someone walks over and asks why you aren't going inside, you answer that you like it better out here. When this person reminds you that your children are inside the burning building, you just answer that you already know that.

In Heaven, you are having a great time, when some saint comes over and asks you if you like it here. "Yeah, it's really nice, thank you very much for asking." "But your children are burning in Hell!?" "Yeah, I know. It's great!"

Heaven, in other words, only works if you're on drugs.

You tell me what the difference is between the two examples, please. If you say that people have to make their own choices, also concerning their path to Heaven, then how is that different from you warning them that they should leave the building, because it will catch fire soon?

So, I don't care what God will do with me, or if he is my creator. When I stand before him I will tell him to his face what I think of him. Anyone who can but won't save my children from excruciating agony shouldn't expect me to sit and enjoy myself in his garden of joy. Pffft!!

P.S. If it isn't already clear, let me make sure to say that I do not for a moment believe there is any god of any kind. Also, in the above I have also assumed that this God omnipotent, which is universally claimed in all denominations of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, as far as I understand.

Strobel's case for a creator

I just finished watching The Case for a Creator (2006) by Lee Strobel. It's the story about a man "trained in journalism and law to respond to truth," as he says of himself towards the end of it, and how his search for scientific evidence finally convinced him that it all points to a creator.

From high school he was an atheist (moment of conversion was when he learned of Stanley Miller's experiment showing that organic compounds can be created by fairly simple physical processes from inorganic substances). But then he married, and five years later his wife became a Christian. He was skeptical, but eventually saw how it transformed her into a good person. He wondered how that could be, and started the path towards his own conversion. I, in turn, wonder if he hadn't already made up his mind at that time?

Everyone he interviews in the movie are creationists (if I write that fast it often comes out as 'cretinist'), so there his journey looking for evidence already looks very biased - something that he makes a point out of not being.

Anyhow, I could go on, but no need. Paul Doland has already dismantled the book for us: The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God (2004). Funny title, by the way. Sounds like he only investigates the scientific evidence that points toward god. Says right there in the title! And that is indeed what he proceeds to do. Doland details:
Prior to the interview on cosmology, Strobel says that he wants to find "hard facts":
I wasn't interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them (p. 95).
And in order to obtain the "hard facts of mathematics" and the "cold data of cosmology," Strobel interviewed Dr. Craig, who doesn't even have an undergraduate degree in mathematics or cosmology! Dr. Craig's credentials are purely in theology and philosophy. While Dr. Craig is indeed qualified to publish on related topics, such as the philosophy of science, he is not among the first people one should approach with questions about mathematics and cosmology--unless one already has an underlying agenda.
Doland's rebuttal is very thorough. It goes on like this. If you read Strobel's book or watch the movie, and think he might have a point, I urge you to take a look at the rebuttal before you convert.

Pointless poll on the stimulus bill

The American Family Association has a poll about Obama's spending proposals. After I voted I got the results as they stand at this moment:
President Obama's $3 trillion spending proposals
President Obama is right on track. His spending proposals will help turn our economy around. 826
President Obama is off track. His spending proposals will simply make a bad situation worse. 38,628
That's two point one percent yeas and the rest nays. I wonder if instead of doing poll the AFA shouldn't just have written a petition and gotten people to sign it. It's not like anyone in the (current) White House would be fooled into thinking this was representative of anything else than Conservative Christians who will be against anything that this anti-Christ proposes for the next eight years.

The stimulus bill that Obama just signed is for $787 billion - a fair amount indeed, but a far cry from $3 trillion. So where does that figure originate from? The email I got from AFA gives it away:
Some economic advisors, including CNN's Lou Dobbs and The Washington Times, believe the final cost of Obama's actions will exceed $3 trillion.
I'm sorry, but both Lou Dobbs and The Washington Post are unequivocally are of a (fiscal) conservative persuasion, so we can only expect them to paint a grim picture of any government spending. Not to be taken seriously, in other words.

New York Post portrays Obama as perp chimp

Did the New York Post just publish a cartoon in which an Obama-chimpanzee is shot to death by two police officers?

In the middle of Black History Month?

This is going to be a freakin' scandal!

In the news.

Are we the baddies?

A question we all should ask ourselves more often.

Attenborough on the importance of understanding evolution

In an interview in Nature, David Attenborough speaks of the benefit of understanding evolution and therefrom our place in nature.

(Note you'll need a subscription or make a payment to read the whole article. Or email me and I can send you a copy.)
Why is teaching evolution now more important that ever?
Because of the influence of the Bible's book of Genesis, which says the Lord God said 'go forth and multiply' to Adam and Eve and 'the natural world is there for you to dominate, you have dominion of the animals and plants of the world'. That basic notion - that the world is there for us, and if it doesn't serve our purposes it's dispensable - has produced the devastation of vast areas. We have assumed that we can build a house on it, dig it up, put tarmac over it; that's OK because it's there for us. In finding solutions to our ecological problems we have to understand evolutionary processes.
I couldn't agree more.

If you don't understand your place in nature - as one tiny part of it that constantly interacts with everything else - and think that all this was made for you, then you aren't quite predisposed to taking care of the place in the best way, are you? On top of that, if you believe that armageddon, the rapture, the second coming, or just the end of the world is nigh, then what difference does it make whether we nuke or pollute or exploit the whole thing with abandon?

Yes, I know not all Christians think like this, but a sizable, and electable, part of the population does. They are the problem.

Plants are officially boring

ResearchBlogging.orgThis fantastic paper finally proves that plants are boring and animals are exciting. At least in the eyes of men.

Psychology and botany students took the plant blindness test, in which they were shown fourteen images of plants and fourteen images of animals of equal nameability, and then later asked to recall what those plants and animals were.

As you can see in this graph, the students were able to recall more animals than plants. It didn't matter if they students of botany or not, but there was a significant difference between male and females. Females were way better at recalling plants than males were, but the effect seems to be explained primarily by the substandard ability of males to recall plants compared to females, in addition to being slightly better at recalling animals than females.

The study included 124 introductory psychology students (58 female and 66 male) and 203 non-major botany students (90 female and 113 male).

This being a paper in a journal of education, the authors conclude that teachers should put more emphasis on naming plants in college:
To help identify which images are most helpful for instruction about plants, more teachers need to ask students which plants they know by name at the beginning of semester, and which examples they remember from class at the end of the semester. Teachers also need to be aware that there is a potential for gender differences in the recall of examples they use in class, particularly for cut flowers and carnivorous plants. Most importantly, biology teachers need to realise that students are coming to class with an inherent disparity in their plant and animal knowledge, and they need assistance to consciously attend to the green side of life in a world full of distracting animals.
However, I would be more interested in a conclusion along the lines of how human males and females are naturally differently attuned to recognizing animals than plants. One hypothesis could be that during some period of our evolutionary past when differences in the male and female brains evolved, males were hunters and females were gatherers, and thus had different priorities. It's a hypothesis, nothing more.

Also, take a look at the individual plants that were presented and how well females and males recalled each:

I have highlighted in red those plants females remembered at least 20% more often than males, and in blue the same for males. Most striking here is that males are so much worse at remembering flowers (rose, daisy, and carnation). Perhaps women should start giving men venus fly traps on Valentine's Day. Or carrots.


Elisabeth E Schussler and Lynn A Olzak (2008). It’s not easy being green: student recall of plant and animal images Journal of Biological Education, 42 (3), 112-118

Facebook reverts to previous terms of service

Two weeks ago Facebook changed its terms of service to give their users less rights of ownership. Following an outcry of its users, Mark Zuckerberg has decided to revert the terms to the previous ones until they can work out something better.

I just hope that doesn't mean a new formulation that people won't object to while it more or less means the same thing.

Most likely life on other planets

Cue Alan Boss, astrophysicist at Carnegie Institution for Science:
The images from those new planets, he added, should identify "light from their atmosphere and tell us if they have perhaps methane and oxygen. That will be pretty strong proof they are not only habitable but actually are inhabited."

"I am not talking about a planet with intelligence on it. I simply say if you have a habitable world ... sitting there, with the right temperature with water for a billion years, something is going to come out of it.

"At least we will have microbes," said Boss.

The violent gay conspiracy

I got another email from the Christian conservative AFA bashing homosexuals some more. This time they are telling me how much Christians are suffering under the oppression of a handful of gays who influenced two TV-stations to not air this program called 'Silencing Christians'. Here's the first part of six on youtube, uploaded by someone with the username 'uckfobama'.

Here's a few outrageous quotes from the video with my comments:

0:50: "I believe that the caricature that's painted of Christians as being mean and hateful it creates a context where violence is being perpetrated against Christians." [Where is all this violence against Christians? Perhaps we are talking about Christians resisting arrest when they demonstrate against homosexuals?]
6:00: "There's nowhere you can turn to without being bombarded by the message that homosexuals need special rights." [Wrong! They want equal rights, not special right. You Christians are the ones who wants special rights.]
7:28: "If they have a right to go out and say gay is good, then I should have the right to say that I don't believe in it." [What does he mean by 'believe' in it? Like, if he has the right to say that he is not a blabbering moron, then I have the right to say that I don't believe that he is not a blabbering moron?]
8:05: "[Children] should not be forced by the government into situations where they are being indoctrinated into beliefs their parents don't agree with." [I agree. This should always be objected against, as when children are being indoctrinated by having to say 'One nation under God', etc.]
8:38: "What kind of society will our grandchildren grow up in if basically all sexual behavior and all forms of marriage are defined as equally valid? That is a recipe for national decline over time. No nation can sustain itself with that kind of sexual and family ethic." [Not all forms of sexual behavior - only that which takes place in private among consenting adults. Not all forms of marriage - only that between two consenting adults. No, it is not a recipe for national decline. You say yes, I say no. You have no evidence. Back up your claim. Yes, there are self-sustaining nations that allow homosexual activity as well as marriage. They are doing fine: The Netherlands, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Norway, Belgium. Civil unions and registered partnerships are allowed in many more countries, and none of them are in particular decline.]

You can see the whole video here. I didn't have the stomach for it, though.

Evolution Weekend

It's time for even the most conservative Christian congregations to come to terms with the specter of evolution. A thousand congregations were to participate in Evolution Weekend in the last couple of days, with the aim of reconciling our modern world with that of the Bible.
"Faith is related to one's belief system ... science, on the other hand, is in a different domain," said the Rev. Gerald Kersey, who planned a Sunday school lesson and discussion of Darwin's theories at Avondale Estates First Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta.

He blamed religious intolerance for causing many faithful to feel they must choose between science and the Bible.

"I'm presenting the idea that science or evolution is compatible with faith," he said.
If indeed science and religion are in different domains (areas over which they rule), then why is it even a question whether they are mutually compatible? If being of different domains means they don't address the same questions, then there should be no reason to have to reconcile the two. Penguins rule the South Pole, polar bears the North Pole. They don't affect each other at all. (Okay, so perhaps one could come up with a story about how they really do, indirectly through their ecosystems.)

On the other hand, if their domains do overlap, such as when they both talk about the origins of humans and all thats, then how is it that the Reverend Kersey plans to present them as compatible? Seems more like combatable to me.

Blaming the woes of the faithful on religious intolerance is a real stretch. Religion came first, with myths to explain what was otherwise unexplainable at the time. Then came science with justified explanations that naturally were at odds with the myths. I say naturally, because how could people have gotten it all right with no knowledge of atoms, cells, and stars? At this point all that needs to be done is to update scripture, but of course that won't do for those who are married to the idea that their fairy tales are the word of God. Don't blame intolerance of religion, but the intolerance of the religious.

I don't think there's any need for the faithful to choose between science and the Bible. They just have to stop taking yet another part of the Bible literally. Once that process has started, I don't see any good argument why it shouldn't be extended to cover the whole book. Why not? Cafeterias are great. For food. Not for religion.

Should scientists study differences in intelligence?

Celebrating Darwin 200, this week Nature has a great issue with lots of articles about evolution and things related. Among them are two articles debating whether science and society benefit from research on race and gender differences in intelligence. Should scientists do such research at all?

What do you think? Given that many consider it politically incorrect to say that men are more intelligent than women, or white people are more intelligent than black people, should research into the matter be undertaken in the first place?

Steven Rose, professor emeritus in neuroscience at the Open University, UK, argues that neither science nor society benefits by exploring differences in intelligence in terms of race and gender. My first instinct was to ask "why the hell not?", but after reading what he has to say, I was actually somewhat won over by his argument. Which goes like this.

According to Rose, three criteria must be be met for research to have any merit:
  1. The questions it asks must be well-founded,
  2. the questions asked must be answerable with the theoretical and technical tools available, and
  3. any answers the research arrives at must either contribute to scientific understanding, offer new technological prospects, or aid sound public policy-making.

To the first criterion his answer is that there is so much difficulty defining intelligence that the question of intelligence differences doesn't really make much sense. He doesn't believe there is any general intelligence factor, g, this hypothesized measure of an underlying heritable intelligence, and if so it really does not make sense to ask what the differences are based on genetic differences.
However, except to a small band of dedicated psychometricians, it seems obvious that to try to capture the many forms of socially expressed intelligent behaviour in a single coefficient — and to rank an entire population in a linear mode, like soldiers on parade lined up by height — excludes most richly intelligent human activities. Social intelligence, emotional intelligence, the intelligent hands of the craftsman or the intelligent intuition of the scientist all elude the 'g' straightjacket.
Secondly, Rose asserts that we don't have the theoretical tools to study differences in intelligence. All attempts to make culture-free IQ tests have failed, he says.

His third criterion puts the final nail in the coffin by noting that there are no examples of such research that is not used to justify a social hierarchy in which white males continue to occupy the premier positions in society.

To summarize, there is no point in doing research on intelligence differences between races or genders, because it isn't even clear what intelligence, or IQ, is, and if it is definable, we certainly can't measure it, and if we could, then people would again use it to justify their own superiority.

Personally, as a scientist, I can't care all that much how the results of research will be used in society. If people are dumb enough that they would take results indicating that Asians have higher IQ than white people to justify that Asians should have any kind of advantage over whites, then so be it. I find it very hard to believe that anyone would today suggest that policies should be made to such effect. On the contrary, I would sooner expect the opposite - that groups that would be disfavored by nature would get some sort of benefit by law.

Rose's first two criteria are what made me think for a while that perhaps he had something going for his disdain. Genetically there is less difference between negroid, mongoloid, and caucasoid that there are between various African ethnic groups. Then, assuming that IQ is genetically based (as opposed to purely environmentally based), does it make sense to suppose that we can find any differences between non-African groups at all?

And, is it even possible to measure g?

I think that the biggest error committed by scientists and laymen alike is thinking of the good ways we can put our minds to use as 'intelligence'. This is clearly wrong, as when intelligence is equated with IQ. From Wikipedia:
Intelligence (also called intellect) is an umbrella term used to describe a property of the mind that encompasses many related abilities, such as the capacities to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to think abstractly, to comprehend ideas, to use language, and to learn.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1996), talks of seven kinds of intelligence that do not correlate within a single person. That is to say, being very good at logic does not mean that one is very good at thinking abstractly, for example. However, I have experienced many people expressing that intelligence is the only factor of importance when evaluating mental capabilities, and further equating intelligence with IQ. IQ-test don't purport to measure how good people are at thinking abstractly, for example, or what their emotional intelligence is.

This post ended up somewhat longer than I had anticipated, so I will have to explore Stephen Ceci and Wendy M. Williams' opposing answer to the question about whether we should study intelligence differences in a later post.

Jerry Coyne slams Forbes and Michael Egnor

Jerry Coyne has a refutation of Michael Egnor's egregious commentary, both in Forbes Magazine.

Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, author of Why Evolution is True, is seriously pissed that Forbes let several well-known creationists (Ken Ham claiming Darwin is responsible for racism) spout insidious claims about something they obviously do not understand much of (or they are willfully trying to deceive their readers), and he lets them hear for it:
Can we expect that it will balance stories on medicine with the competing views of shamans, Christian Scientists and spiritual healers? Will articles on the Holocaust be rebutted by the many Holocaust deniers? When the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing rolls around this July, will Forbes give a say to paranoids who think the landing was a fraud, staged on a movie lot?

This, in effect, is what Forbes has done by giving equal time to evolution-deniers. Journalists have an obligation to be fair, but this doesn't mean that they must give charlatans a prestigious platform from which to broadcast their lies. By doing so, Forbes has debased both journalism and science.
Whatever the reasons Forbes had for giving these creationists a voice, let's hope that at the end of the day the effect is more people exposed to the theory and fact of evolution.

The only quip i have with Coyne is when he says
Among genuine scientists, there is not the slightest doubt about the truth of these ideas. In contrast to Egnor's claim, the evidence for all of them is not only strong but copious--so much so that evolution has graduated from a scientific theory to a scientific fact.
It's not that I don't know that Coyne knows that the theory of evolution explains the fact of evolution, and that perhaps he says it to underline the extent to which we know that evolution occurs. But it also supplies yet another quote to mine for creationists who doesn't understand that evolution is both. If creationists can counter than it is a weakness that evolution is only a theory, as Coyne here would have them believe, then they will have no roblem finding other biologists stating that evolution is indeed a theory, and (as it is not uncommon to hear as an argument against evolution) if the evolutionists can't even agree, then what does that tell us about the validity of evolution?

And with that, happy birthday, Charles.

Hitler still not with parents

I feel really awful that the three children taken by the State of New Jersey on January 9 are still kept away from their parents, who have only been allowed to see them once. The state better have damn good reasons for their actions.

What pisses me off the most, though, is the fact that the parents haven't been told why the reasons for the removal is. For over a month the children have been in care of the state, and still no word why!? Guantanamo of New Jersey?

When I imagine the anguish I would feel if someone took my kids away from me, held them for more than a month, allowed me to see them just once, and then never told me what the reason for the removal was, I feel I'm going to explode.

Crazy police state.

I pledge to make God the issue...

I was invited to submit a pledge on I Pledge God. I pledged this:

I Pledge To Make God The Issue … by speaking out against the arrogant presumption that one must believe in a supreme being to be a good, ethical citizen.

Someone else submitted this minutes before I arrived at the site, and I thought that was so good that I just copied it. That looked like this:

Minutes later the page looked like this:

Flagged, and moderated out of the interwebs. My pledge didn't quite fit in, I suppose.

So what's all this about? From the site:
What is the I PLEDGE Project?

My father, Bill Bright, said, "We can trace all our human problems to our view of God." [We can trace many of our problems to the fact that we have a view of God.] This is not only true on the individual level, but on the societal level as well. Our view of God is what shapes and informs our worldview and our behavior. [And this is a huge problem.] It is an issue of cause and effect.

For too long we have been trying to suppress cultural symptoms without addressing the real cause--our culture's view of God. [If you mean cultural symptoms like bad education, international conflict, poverty, etc. then the real cause is definitely not that some people do not believe in any god at all.] It's like patching cracks in the walls of a house while ignoring an unstable foundation. The cracks will continue to appear and spread unless the foundation is repaired.

The only way to bring about real change in culture is to change society's view of God. [I think there are other ways, but I do agree that changing people's view of God to one of a non-existent god would bring about some real, good change. Oh, and note, society does not have a view, people have views.] This is why we are asking people to take the PLEDGE to make God the issue in their own lives and their communities.

Join us by taking the PLEDGE to make GOD the issue during these challenging times and become part of the real solution. [Pledge, if you must, to give God the credit that he deserves: If he ignores us, let's ignore him back.]

Evolutionary theory is too Darwin's legacy

As we prepare for the big celebration tomorrow of Darwin's 200th birthday, it is all right and proper that we lay all concerns about the originality of Darwin's theory of speciation by natural selection to rest.

Michael Shermer, author of the biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, In Darwin’s Shadow, writes last week in Forbes Magazine an article with the intent of doing just that.

An excerpt:
The extreme interpretation of a conspiratorial cover-up is not supported by the evidence. If Darwin were going to rig (or allow to be rigged) the editorial presentation of the papers to award him priority; or worse, plagiarize from Wallace certain key ideas (the principle of the divergence of species has been suggested), why announce the arrival of Wallace's paper and submit it for publication in the first place?

Why not either just take what was needed or, if Wallace's paper added nothing new to the theory, destroy it and the cover letter and blame the loss on an inefficient postal service? If one is going to accuse Darwin of such devious finagling--or worse, plagiarizing--then would not the same guileful and scheming personality think of complete elimination of Wallace's essay as a successful strategy?
Shermer concludes that Darwin does deserve full credit for his discovery of natural selection, but there does exist objections that both Patrick Matthew & William Charles Wells had the idea of natural selection before both Wallace & Darwin. Darwin recognized Wells' insight after he published his and Wallace's idea in 1858, & apparently knew about the idea of natural selection from Edward Blyth, who only considered NS as a preserving force, eliminating variation & thus not contributing to the origin of new species.

In other words, other men arrived at the idea of natural selection all independently & prior to both Wallace and Darwin, but they didn't influence Darwin's thinking, because he didn't know about them, in the case of Matthew and Wells, and in the case of Blyth there was no understanding of the importance of NS as a driver of speciation. Today, this difference is recognized by saying that natural selection decreases variation within a population, but increases variation between populations.

On the contrary, another man who Darwin professed being directly inspired by was the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who in his famous work An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798, does not formulate the idea of natural selection, but rather explores the economic consequences of rapid/unlimited population growth - the consequence of which is that natural selection rears its ugly head, and poverty ensues. The parallel to natural populations is (& probably was to Darwin) self-evident.

Let me tell you a true story, my friend Jack. True story. In 2000 I came up with the idea of a free-access social networking website. I even made one, programming the whole thing myself, & it had several members (like 7, I think it was). I'm pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg didn't know about it, but does that matter? Who should be given credit for the idea? Me, having had the idea but left it alone to pursue other more important things? Or Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook, which is now the premier social networking site with more than 150 million active users?

Darwin's should be celebrated this year not because he was the first to think of natural selection, but because he was the first to recognize its importance as a driver of evolutionary change. It was via Darwin that the idea became every man's property, and this is what we can and should acknowledge. Oh, and it is his birthday.

Ernst Mayr said it thus.
Patrick Matthew undoubtedly had the right idea, just like Darwin did on September 28, 1838, but he did not devote the next twenty years to converting it into a cogent theory of evolution. As a result it had no impact whatsoever.
Disclaimer: While I acknowledge that Darwin was the one who founded evolutionary theory 150 years ago, I am not saying that the theory of evolution hasn't changed since then. It has changed so much that neither Darwin nor Wallace would recognize it today. The integration of evolution with genetics, developmental biology, geography, geology, physics (more?) has completely transformed the theory, which we consequently no longer designate as 'Darwinism.'

Holy anger

Obama's stimulus package includes a provision that funds awarded may not be used for modernization, renovation, or repair of other facilities primarily used for events that charge an admission fee to the public, or facilities
(i) used for sectarian instruction, religious worship, or a school or department of divinity; or

(ii) in which a substantial portion of the functions of the facilities are subsumed in a religious mission;
To no one's surprise the religious right is all over this, calling it unconstitutional and discrimination. An email in my inbox from the American Family Association contains some spectacular hyperbole:
"Our culture cannot survive without faith and our nation cannot survive without freedom. This provision is an assault against both. It's un-American and it's unconstitutional. Intolerant and it's intolerable."
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich feels that if Christian activists would have enough courage and holy anger to e-mail and call their representatives and senators, a number of Democrats would vote no on final passage. We should demand that this anti-religious provision be removed.
I totally love the idea of holy anger. Sounds quite acceptable when you put it that way. The AFA continues:
Christians have not expressed enough outrage focused on the concept that people of faith are being taken advantage of by the stimulus bill during a time of crisis. They are being stolen from them when they are down and out and looking in good faith to the government for help. Instead of the stimulus we need, the liberals are getting the pork that they want -- for themselves, their families, and their friends. They are pickpockets and thieves preying on the down and out.
It's the evil liberals stealing the hard-earned money from the saintly Christians, again.

Just how are they being taken advantage of, those people of faith? Are they unable to use all their buildings primarily for worship, while liberals can unrestrained go ahead and use it for porky things? The liberals are doing great during these financially troubled times, and now with Satan's henchman in the White House they can finally suck the last life out of every decent person of faith in God's own country.

Senator DeMint (R-SC) made this statement:
"Our culture cannot survive without faith and our nation cannot survive without freedom. This provision is an assault against both. It's un-American and it's unconstitutional. Intolerant and it's intolerable."
We won't tolerate such intolerance!!!

Except, it really isn't unconstitutional. Quite the opposite, in fact:
“It’s almost a restatement of what the Constitution requires so there’s nothing novel in what the House did in its restriction,” Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel to the ACLU told Fox News.

“For 37 years, the law of the land is that the government can’t pay for buildings that are used for religious purposes.” [Source.]
Seriously, let's not use government money for religious purposes. Remember the separation of church and state? It's in the constitution. Not using government funds to renovate buildings of worship is in no way tantamount to suppressing people of faith. Rather, it means not favoring religious institutions even more than they already are. On the other hand, if they all started paying taxes like all the other corporations, then they could at least come to the table without overusing their quota of hypocrisy.

Dutch Christians attack Darwin

Darwin's birthday is this coming Thursday, and it is going to be celebrated in various ways around the globe.

In the Netherlands 30 Christian organizations are financing a campaign whose aim is to point out that "the theory of evolution is really just an assumption, a theory that can be disregarded."

The theory of evolution really isn't Darwin's anymore, in the sense that it has been totally transformed since his death, but he did get us off to an amazingly good start. A good reason to celebrate a birthday, if there ever was one.

Anyway, evolution is a scientific theory as well as a scientific fact. The theory describes how evolution occurs, and that it occurs has been observed, directly as well as indirectly, so many times that evolution is regarded as fact also. Often people (creationists and others alike) get confused because the word 'evolution' is used for both the theory and the fact. Compare with the theory of relativity, which describes the fact of gravitation, or quantum field theory, which describes... well, something to with... elementary particles (phew, I think I got through that pretty well). But evolution describes evolution. Of course people get confused. This just to say that evolution is not an assumption, but a very well validated theory and observed fact, and it cannot be disregarded if you want to know anything about origins. But the Dutch Christians are of a different persuasion, it would seem.
However, not among pious Christians who watched Darwin bring down the Biblical story of the creation. These Christians will mark this Darwin year by launching a major counter-offensive, handing out flyers arguing that 'The theory of evolution is just another belief'.

The 'Creation Action Committee' has spared no effort. Nearly all Dutch households will find an eight-page folder on their doormats at the end of this month. Glossy paper, bright colours and flaming oratory are used to wipe the floor with Darwin and his evolutionary theory.
This is of course, to me, a Dutch embarrassment. According to the quotes in the article, some the Dutch are generally indifferent, though for good and bad reasons:
"I'm not really interested, I was not raised a Christian, let those people believe whatever they want"......"neither theory can be proved, so I don't understand what the excitement is all about"......"if you take the Bible literally there is much more scientific stuff that's unacceptable"..."I think it's a waste of all the effort that's put into this and I'm wondering what they intend to achieve".
The highlighted comment is great. I studied physics before biology, and at that time my objections with a literal reading of the Bible had to do with cosmology. I didn't really find much congruence between Genesis 1 and modern cosmological theory. However, the comment that 'neither can be proved' shows some serious lack of understanding.

Be that as it may, about seventy percent of the Dutch believe in evolution (Miller, Scott, Okamoto (2006), Science.), which is better than most countries, and I was also happy to read this one comment on the article:
First of all I am a citizen of The Netherlands and was raised a hard ass Calvinist. Secondly, the "theory" of evolution has been proven over and over again. Of course there are gaps in it but more and more evidence is being found to fill these gaps. The hardest things for christians to admit is that they have been duped for all these years. You cannot help who your parents are and what lies they have told you. These same lies have been passed down from generation to generation to generation. It is up to you to break these chains of lies. Stop letting church leaders tell you how to live your lives. It is your life and nobody elses.
I wonder if this person isn't touching on something very important in the struggle of creationists to accept evolution: Loss aversion causes them to hold on for dear life to the creation myth, just because they have invested so much in it. Simply giving up and admitting that it makes no sense to read Genesis literally is too taxing psychologically. The good news is that there is then reason to believe that creationism will diminish and eventually die as creationists die and the children become better educated than their parents.

The article ends with a box on Darwin's influence today:
Modern medicines against viruses and bacteria would not have existed without Darwin. We understand today that pathogens become immune to medicines as the result of evolution, allowing researches to stay one step ahead of that evolution. Without Darwin, would have become useless long before now.

'Intelligent computers' - installed in cars and equipment - increase their knowledge according to Darwinian principles. They sort data based on their importance and in time delete unused data. Just like the whale - originally a land mammal - lost its feet in the course of its evolution.

Thanks to Darwin, we are once again willing to admit that men and women are really different. From the 1970s, this was a taboo; commonly accepted theory dictated that male or female behaviour was acquired, not inherited. However, genetic research based on Darwinian principles has proved there are fundamental differences between the male and female bodies and brains.
The last point in particularly intriguing, because even among scientists and the non-religious, there is still a strong want (if not belief) that gender differences are purely cultural. For instance, the suggestion that I made recently that the male and female brain differences could probably influence how much men and women earn overall, wasn't quite acceptable to some people who would rather conclude that any difference in earnings are due to discrimination (you'll have to read the discussion there to see what I mean). This taboo of the seventies, that the differences are cultural, is still very much with us - it is one of the claims that the political left still adheres to despite the evidence, and I (though otherwise left-leaning) can't fathom they won't admit to themselves that it is based on a foregone conclusion, rather than on empirical data.

Email from Google in Nigeria

I know it's silly to post these emails that attempt to scam me out of money, but they are so featherbrained that I can resist.

I have highlighted the spelling errors.
This is to infrom you that the google family give away is at it again, this year google is given away ten million (10,000,000) united state dollar to fourty (40) family's across the globe. Amonge the millions of email active on online your email was one of the emails selected for the cash prize of two hundred and fifty (250,000) thousand USD each. The online cyber draws was conducted from an exclusive list of millions of email addresses of individuals and co-perate bodies picked by an advanced automated random computer selection from the web.The promo was hide on the 7th of february in Abuja Nigeria during the lunching and opening ceremoney of google office in nigeria. The promotion is approved by the Nigeria Gaming Board and Also Licensed by the International Association of Gaming Regulators (IAGR).This promo is the 1st of its kind and we intend to sensitize the public as we are using it to promote our new office in Nigeria.

You are advice to contact the manager in charge in nigeria for the claim of your prize with the information below.

Mr James Harold
Manager In Charge
Google Inco-operation Nigeria
Branch office: PLOT 4, BLOCK 23,
Garki, Abuja - Nigeria.
Tell phone +2347055684600
Made me laugh, this Google Nigeria office idea.

Required reading for science majors

Margaret runs a blog, My Growing Passion, which is a very popular botany blog from Australia. Yes, there are botany blogs. I learned about the Superb Lyrebird from her, for which I'm very grateful. Check that out. Also, she tagged me in one of these blog-memes. This one is about science books:
Imagine: YOU are asked to assign a half-dozen-or-so books as required reading for ALL science majors at a college as part of their 4-year degree; NOT technical or text books, but other works, old or new, touching upon the nature of science, philosophy, thought, or methodology in a way that a practicing scientist might gain from.

Post your list, and forward the meme to a half-dozen-or-so other science-oriented bloggers of your choosing.
How can I resist?

  1. Robert Axelrod: The Evolution of Cooperation, 2006.
  2. Sean B. Carroll: Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, 2006.
  3. Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene (in which he coined the term 'meme', by the way), 1976.
  4. Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, 2005, revised edition.
  5. Jared Diamond: Collapse, 2005.
  6. Jared Diamond: Why Is Sex Fun? : The Evolution of Human Sexuality, 1997.
  7. Steven Levitt: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, 2005.
  8. Richard Feynmann: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), 1997.
  9. Stephen Jay Gould: The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould, 2007.
  10. Desmond Morris: Animal Contract, 1991.
  11. Michael Shermer: Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, 2007.
  12. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, 2007.

Also, they should read the Natural History magazine front to back 1989-2009.

I tag Evolutionary Novelties, Somatopsychic, Epiphenom, and The Dispersal of Darwin.

Update 2/10/09: Wait, everyone else are only listing six books. Isn't a dozen four and twenty?

David Attenborough's Tree of Life video

Seems this awesome clip of David Attenborough and his Tree of Life video is on all other evolution blogs, so I'll join the crowd and post it here for all to see.

Ken Ham blames Darwin for racism

Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, writes in that the legacy of Darwin is moral relativism and racism. I agree with the first, at least if evolution opened your eyes to atheism (though it didn't for me). Absolute morals is hogwash. I have discussed this at some length with Alan the tent missionary, blogger at Rhoblogy (here and here).

But racism? Not only was there plenty of if prior to 1859, and not only has it decreased up until today (yesterday was so-so), but there is no evidence that atheists are more racist than religious people. On the contrary. Tell me honestly: Do you have any trouble thinking of a religious person or society that is deeply racist? How about Abraham's God, for starters (Deuteronomy 7:6)? How about Apartheid?
When the NP came into power in 1948, its primary endeavour was to attain a white supremacist Christian National State and implement racial segregation.
On the other hand, evolution has a good scientific explanation (not justification, if you could please make that distinction) for why humans are inherently racist, but it also gives us a good reason why we shouldn't be.

For more on evolution and racism, check out
Racism is thousands of years older than the theory of evolution, and its prevalence has probably decreased since Darwin's day; certainly slavery is much less now. That is the opposite of what we would expect if evolution promotes racism.

Are blogging professors wasting their time?

Here's a very uplifting article about the benefit of blogging to professors. Is it just a waste of time, or is there a benefit to the professor, the university, society?
Blogs considerably raise the profile of University professors, which is good for the University. Through their archive of posts, professors advertise their expertise in a given field. Establishing that authority leads calls from the media — and the University's name appearing in print.
Still, I would argue there's still something to be said for the view that it's a timesink.

Nigerian meta-scam

We scammed you, so now we will send you one million dollars. You are one of the lucky one hundred recipients...

This is to bring to your notice that I am delegated from the United Nations to OCEANIC BANK Lagos to pay 100 Nigerian 419 scam victims $1,000,000 00.USD each, you are listed and approved for this payments as one of the scammed victims,get back to me as soon as possible for the immediate payments of your One Million United States compensations funds.
Of course, no one scammed me (from Nigeria). I am to reply to processing Manager Mr Innocent Ojomo on the following email: So, that may be his name, but one would think that a they would choose a person with a believable name for this position. And a proper non-gmail email address.

Obama provides for more healthcare

Again, words fail me. I love Obama. More healthcare coverage for children:

President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed a law expanding a health program to include 3.5 million uninsured children, advancing an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system despite the embarrassing withdrawal of his nominee to lead the initiative.


"In a decent society, there are certain obligations that are not subject to trade-offs or negotiations -- healthcare for our children is one of those obligations," Obama said.
Contrast that with what Bush had to say about it:
President George W. Bush twice vetoed similar bills, arguing it would raise taxes and encourage businesses and families to drop private insurance and switch to the program.
People should switch to this program. It's a burden for families and companies to pay for it, and society should, as Obama opines, take the responsibility. And yes, it will raise taxes - on tobacco products, from $.39 per pack to $1.00. What a sacrifice!

In my mind everybody in America should be covered through taxes. Not only does that directly benefit the poor the most - as it should, since those people are the most in need - but I also posit that it would transform society on a massive scale. I imagine that with worry over health care costs gone, companies and families will have both financially and emotionally the strength to lead more prosperous and caring lives. Apparently Obama seems to agree:
The bill was "a downpayment on my commitment to cover every single American," he added.
Congratulations, America!

Porn, God, and Ogden

I just received an ActionAlert-email from the conservative Christian American Family Association (previously the National Federation for Decency (sic!)) that I would like to share with you. I can't express in words (and I am not photogenic enough to make a video) how numbingly, invigoratingly hilarious it is. Take a look at this headline.

Apart from the fact that I am surprised (though I guess I shouldn't have been) that the AFA are pornophobic, what, really, is up with not spelling it? Pro-p*rn? In the email body they have no problem writing 'pornographic' at least twice. It's like Jews writing G*D, because there is something really wrong about writing GOD, even though any fool knows it means the same thing. Or perhaps it's just an o aversion. The letter o is indeed part of many foul words, such as homo (sapiens), voodoo, popsicle, and oology.

Also love the subtitle: Phone calls need now!

Anyway, so if you are against Obama nominating David Ogden (i.e. *gden) please call your senators and have them vote against his confirmation. Email me to get the number.

And remember, *gden
has litigated numerous obscenity and pornography cases on behalf of clients like Playboy, Penthouse, the ACLU and the largest distributor of hardcore pornographic movies.
As if working for Playboy and Penthouse isn't bad enough, he has even been in bed with the American Civil Liberties Union. Eeew! Those abominable defenders and preservers of
the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Yes, we are still evolving

On I learned that BBC has published a magazine celebrating Darwin's bicentennial. It's in the February issue of Focus, the BBC’s award-winning science and technology magazine.

Dawkins wrote the editorial, Carl Zimmer a piece on Rich Lenski, who studies the evolution of E. coli as it happens, among other things, someone wrote some stuff about artificial selection, and someone wrote about what we have learned since Darwin, and then... Then there's Steve Jones and PZ Myers, two "leading evolutionary biologists," who each give their answer to this question: "Has our species's evolution comes to a halt?" In other words, are humans still evolving? I don't know Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics and the University College London, in any other context (but see this older post on the same subject), but I am a frequent reader of Pharyngula. Neither professor is a leading evolutionary biologist. Jones is a geneticist, and PZ is a developmental biologist. It's a small quip, but since they are discussing evolution, perhaps it is worth taking into account.

Steve Jones says 'yes', and PZ says 'no'. Jones' answer is the controversial one. It is also the stupid one. He clearly does not understand evolution very well. Just trust me. Okay, don't trust me. Here's what he says and why it's wrong.

Jones' claim is that because mortality before the reproductive age has almost vanished, there is no selection going on in humans anymore, and as a result we are not evolving. He gives examples of men in the past who had hundreds of children while other men had none. This is selection: differential reproductive success.

Now, he says, variation in reproduction has all but disappeared. Most people have between zero and four offspring. Thus, he expounds, the variation that selection could favor among is gone, so we are done evolving.


First of all, zero or four offspring makes a big difference for evolution. In fact, if everyone had one child, except one man who had two (and his children had two each, etc.), then his lineage would soon dominate completely. Zero vs. four makes a huge difference.

Secondly, it is a common misunderstanding that natural selection is a prerequisite for evolution. It is not. All that's needed is heritability and variation. Neutral evolution due to random sampling will take care of the rest (also named genetic drift). Neutral evolution will result in a lot more variation in the (human) population compared to the case with selection. The effect of selection is to reduce variation within a population (but increase it between different populations), so as long as there is no selection, any genotype/phenotype is as good as the other and the population will become more and more diverse.

In humans today there is a great deal of neutral evolution going on, but selection obviously still has a large effect. Just think of genetic diseases. Cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, and Huntington's disease are examples of horrible, heritable diseases, and the unfortunate people who have them are strongly selected against. Additionally, spontaneous abortions happen all the time, and it is likely that many of them are caused by deleterious mutations in the either one of the parents or in the fetus. Additionally, sexual selection may be at work. The more attractive specimens may in fact end up having more children. And then there's the fact that some groups of humans have more children than others (at the moment), such as the Quiverfull, the Congolese, and the Malagasy (source). Selection for reproductive strategy, as in 'the Lord tells me to keep churning them out.'

Another important point to make is that people have different things in mind when they think about evolution. For instance, recalling the notorious micro/macro-evolution dichotomy, in which microevolution is (merely) a change in allele frequencies, whereas macroevolution is speciation and the origination of new traits, such as exoskeletons, blindness, and telepathy. If you mean only the latter, then you might have a point, because right now we don't see these big changes in humans. No one seems to be getting new abilities X-men style or less.

Evolutionary biologists generally agree today that the micro/macro distinction is invalid, in the sense that they are not separated by different mechanisms. A lot of small changes in at the genomic level (micro) accumulates and can eventually result in significant morphological/physiological/anatomical changes and the birth of new species (macro). (Creationist will frequently make this distinction saying that microevolution is possible, but that macroevolution does not follow.) The problem is just that these things naturally take a very long time. 'Millions of years' is an oft quoted span of time necessary for such events (though there is recent evidence in other species that much, much less time is needed). Since humans live and have recorded their own history for a very, very short time compared to a million years, we should not expect to see major changes happen in our lifetimes. The fact that we then don't should not lead us to conclude that we aren't evolving. Have a little patience!

As for selection, it is an unstoppable process. PZ Myers nearly ends his essay in the Darwin 200 magazine thus:
Selection is a subtle force, and you cannot escape it.