Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Poetry of the Convergent Lizards

Convergence at White Sands

Whiptails and fencers scurry and make haste,
cross White Sands their paths converge and pace.
Tho' differing by both origin and type,
their causal genotypes follow trace.

Independent mutations had aligned,
and were by adaptation refined.
Genes and the surroundings got a hitch,
when their ecosystems intertwined.

Nature reduced the melanin of two,
with methods mechanically askew.
They evolved cryptic gypsum like match,
avoiding predatory subdue.

Even when some common genes play actor,
trait expression is a big factor.
So says Rosenblum quite sincere
in a research paper found HERE.

In case that's not quite enough info here's the abstract:
There are many striking examples of phenotypic convergence in nature, in some cases associated with changes in the same genes. But even mutations in the same gene may have different biochemical properties and thus different evolutionary consequences. Here we dissect the molecular mechanism of convergent evolution in three lizard species with blanched coloration on the gypsum dunes of White Sands, New Mexico. These White Sands forms have rapidly evolved cryptic coloration in the last few thousand years, presumably to avoid predation. We use cell-based assays to demonstrate that independent mutations in the same gene underlie the convergent blanched phenotypes in two of the three species. Although the same gene contributes to light phenotypes in these White Sands populations, the specific molecular mechanisms leading to reduced melanin production are different. In one case, mutations affect receptor signaling and in the other, the ability of the receptor to integrate into the melanocyte membrane. These functional differences have important ramifications at the organismal level. Derived alleles in the two species show opposite dominance patterns, which in turn affect their visibility to selection and the spatial distribution of alleles across habitats. Our results demonstrate that even when the same gene is responsible for phenotypic convergence, differences in molecular mechanism can have dramatic consequences on trait expression and ultimately the adaptive trajectory.

Rosenblum, E., Rompler, H., Schoneberg, T., & Hoekstra, H. (2009). Molecular and functional basis of phenotypic convergence in white lizards at White Sands Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0911042107

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bad Science plus Autistic Children equals Big Money

In waging war against disease, modern medicine augments the evolutionarily derived defenses of the human immune system and saves millions of lives. Despite this fact, medical science continues to be plagued by denalism, particularly in regards to the condition known as autism.

Through hundreds of millions of years the process of biological evolution has, through trial and error, refined the vertebrate immune system to an astonishing degree. However, despite these great successes, humans continue to be susceptible to the attacks of bacteria and viruses, as well as to assaults from blunders in our own internal physiological processes. Luckily, through the process of science, which includes clinical evaluation and peer-review, modern medicine augments the natural fortifications of the human immune system as it opposes illness. In the evolutionary arms race against disease, medicine is an essential armament and doctors are very much needed arms dealers. Unfortunately for those on the front lines, not all arms dealers are equally sound.

As a case in point, back in 2005 Diana L. Vargas and other scientists published a paper in which they described the occurrence of neuroinflammation (’neuro’ = brain; ‘inflammation’ = irritated) in the brains of recently deceased patients who had lived with confirmed autism. The brain tissues autopsied in conjunction with the study had been provided by the Autism Tissue Program, and all samples were taken from people who had died of accidental deaths; deaths such as drowning, hyperthermia, trauma, and other non-pathogenic causes. Clinically, neuroinflammation is a symptom that is often associated with immune system disorders and its connection to autism is, for the most part, not yet understood. The potential for misinterpretation and misuse of the paper’s inflammation-to-autism link inspired the researchers to emphasize in the conclusion of the study and elsewhere that although “the role of neuroinflammation in the context of the genetic and other factors that determine the autism phenotype remains an important issue to be investigated.” The paper made clear that treating persons afflicted with autism with protocols for immune dysfunction was not recommended.

And yet since publication of this neuroinflammation paper, it has been used by ‘doctors’ as a rationale for treating children with alternative and non-standard procedures aimed at immune system disorders… Despite the lack of evidence, quacks, particularly those associated with the Defeat Autism Now network, have been promising progress to the parents of autistic children through the use of strong immunosuppressant drugs, hormone treatments, intravenous immunoglobulin, and therapies using hyperbaric oxygen chambers.

Scary stuff… It seems as though ’snake oil’ is abundant resource when there’s money to be made. It’s a real shame that these treatments bring only slight and transient emotional relief to agonized parents. Especially when considering that such harsh treatments bring only pain and suffering to the kids on the receiving end. The victims in this case happen to be diagnosed with autism - a condition that is already widely misrepresented as being brought about by life-saving vaccinations.

Vaccinations are disease preventing medical treatments that stimulate a natural immune response through the bodily introduction of biological molecules. As a product of evolution, the immune system attacks foreign, potentially pathogenic proteins; because the agents introduced during vaccination contain a molecule that is structurally similar to the protein of a disease causing microorganism, the body’s chemistry reacts defensively. The immune system first seeks-out the foreign protein; it then records its identifying characteristics as ‘military intelligence’ for later operations before finely destroying the medically infiltrated invader. Through this process, vaccinations effectively increase the immune system’s repertoire of available defensive tactics, thus reducing the likelihood of serious besiegement when the real pathogen is encountered.

Most medical procedures - including vaccines - have a potential for adverse side effects which can range from minor aches and pains to death; BUT, when compared to the risks inherit to the disease itself there is absolutely no comparison - vaccines are the hands-down best option. Key to the effectiveness of vaccination programs is public participation; this starts with gaining confidence through the elimination of misinformation, which in the case of autism is a substantial quantity…

Although there is no valid, or for that matter even plausible, connection between autism and vaccination, or any reason to treat autism with therapies designed for immune deficiency, the spread of misinformation on these topics is rampant. The resulting distrust of medical science has contributed to numerous illness and deaths that would have otherwise been preventable. Those in the anti-vaccine movement are similar to creationists; they allow personal bias, subjective opinion and their penchant for conspiracy theories to override rationality, facts and morals. In the case of medical science this denialism comes at a tremendous price.

There is a reason why it's called ‘alternative’ medicine – it’s alternative because it doesn’t work.

UPDATE: This post was also posted at the Faster Times - several additional comments can be found there.

A good write-up on the topic can be found at the Timesleader.

Vargas, D., Nascimbene, C., Krishnan, C., Zimmerman, A., & Pardo, C. (2005). Neuroglial activation and neuroinflammation in the brain of patients with autism Annals of Neurology, 57 (1), 67-81 DOI: 10.1002/ana.20315

Image of human blood from Wikipedia

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tonight on NOVA - What Darwin Never Knew

Reminder: NOVA wil be airing “What Darwin Never Knew” on Tuesday, December 29 on PBS at 8PM ET/PT; be sure to check local listings and set the DVR. The program features Sean Carroll and details the science of Evolutionary Development - "Evo Devo"

The comapnion website can be found HERE.

Here's a preview:

Wetland Plant of the Week #39

Hydrocotyle verticillata

Shield Pennywort

Shield pennywort represents but one of about a hundred different species that belong to the Genus Hydrocotyle, a.k.a the ‘water pennyworts.’ Though often found listed as members of the Apiaceae Family, the Hydrocotyle group is now included in the ‘Ivy Family’ (Araliaceae). The genus as whole enjoys a worldwide distribution; however, the Facultative Wet H. verticillata is native to the Americas where can be found occupying floodplains, swamps, ditches, and just about anywhere with moist soils.

A perennial herb, shield pennywort is often found growing in dense mats or even rafting on open water. The rounded leaves (orbicular) leaves can grow up to 6cm in diameter and are crenate at the margin. The five-petaled flowers of Hydrocotyle verticillata are white-to-green in color and cluster together in umbels.

The above photos were taken a couple of weeks back near Panama City, Florida.

CHANDLER, G., & PLUNKETT, G. (2004). Evolution in Apiales: nuclear and chloroplast markers together in (almost) perfect harmony Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 144 (2), 123-147 DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-8339.2003.00247.x

The Inflation of Infantile Denialism

I felt that the below article was worth re-posting here, especially after just having watched Jesse Ventura’s ‘documentary’ on the global warming conspiracy - give me a break…

The below was written by Steven Newton; the public information project director for the National Center for Science Education. It originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 12/24/09.

Science denial is on the rise
From evolution to global warming to vaccines, science is under assault from denialists - those who dismiss well-tested scientific knowledge as merely one of many competing ideologies. Science denial goes beyond skeptical questioning to attack the legitimacy of science itself.

Recent foment over stolen e-mails from a British research group inspired an American creationist organization to pronounce that "a cabal of leading scientists, politicians, and media" has sought to "professionally destroy scientists who express skepticism" about climate change. The Discovery Institute usually uses this kind of over-the-top language to attack evolution, so it was remarkable to see it branch out to climate-change denial.

Despite such misleading hyperbole, science is meritocratic. Once at a minimum level of education and competence, anyone can participate, ask a challenging question of even the most respected scientist, or submit papers to scientific journals, where research is judged by the data and methodology. Esteemed scientists face relentless criticism. This is how science works.

Even when a scientific consensus based on evidence emerges - as it has for evolution and climate change - there is opportunity for dissent. As the great physicist Richard Feynman noted, "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

Science requires conclusions about how nature works to be rooted in evidence-based testing. Sometimes progress is slow. But through a difficult and often frustrating process, we learn more about the world.

Science denialism works differently. Creationists are unmoved by the wealth of fossil, molecular, and anatomical evidence for evolution. Global-warming denialists are unimpressed by climate data. Denialists ignore overwhelming evidence, focusing instead on a few hoaxes, such as Piltdown Man, or a few stolen e-mails. For denialists, opinion polls and talk radio count for more than thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles.

Denialists often appeal to the ideal of fairness, arguing schools should "teach the controversy" and address "evidence for and against" science, as in then-Sen. Rick Santorum's proposed amendment to the No Child Left Behind bill in 2001. But they apply the ideal selectively to science they dislike: evolution, climate change, vaccines. They hope to cloak themselves in the mantle of science without being restricted by its requirements.

If denialists had evidence disproving global warming or evolution, they could submit it to scientific conferences and journals, inviting analysis by scientists. But, knowing their arguments don't hold water, they spread misinformation in arenas not subject to expert scrutiny: mass-market books, newspapers, talk radio, and blogs.

Understanding science has never been more important than it is today. Critical issues such as climate change and the threat of newly evolved flu strains demand greater scientific literacy among the public and politicians. As long as scientists must squander their time defending their work from denialism, we will fall behind on our fundamental responsibilities.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sexy Snails and Expensive Males

What are males good for? A study published this month in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution provided new insights into one of the many benefits of sexual reproduction. The research, conducted out of the University of Iowa’s Roy J. Carver Center for Comparative Genomics, examined the mitochondrial genomes of a freshwater snail species in order to compare the rates at which genetic mutations accumulate during sexual and asexual reproduction.

The freshwater snail Potamopyrgus antipodarum is unique in that it can reproduce either sexually or asexually. In their native range male and female snails reproduce via sex; however, in places like the U.S. populations of P. antipodarum are clonal – they’ve been established by invasive and asexual females. By counting-up mutations and comparing the mitochondrial DNA of populations derived from sexually functional males to those populations founded completely by parthenogenic females, researchers were able to demonstrate that genetic recombination through sex effectively removed mutations from the snail genome.

The removal of potentially harmful mutations (‘purifying selection’) from a population is a benefit that may help explain why the expenses associated with sex are maintained by evolution. See, males do have value!!!

Neiman, M., Hehman, G., Miller, J., Logsdon, J., & Taylor, D. (2009). Accelerated Mutation Accumulation in Asexual Lineages of a Freshwater Snail Molecular Biology and Evolution DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msp300

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Climate Change and the Velocity of the Shifting Niche

A little more than a month ago, I posted a three-part series on the topic of ecological niches with specific reference to their ability to track the ever shifting variables of climate. In large part drawn from research out of UC Berkeley and the ongoing Grinnell Project, those posts focused on the weather patterns associated with the mountainous terrain of Yosemite National Park. Today, Nature published a letter in which other California based scientists have extrapolated the shifting niche model in order to estimate the anticipated ‘velocity’ of temperature change across different biomes.

The ability of an organism to confront ever-shifting environmental attributes with resilience and flexibility is critical to maintaining lineages with the capacity to undergo the morphological and behavioral modifications required for continued survival. Regardless if such elastic traits are realized through major swings in ontogenic development, or through the advent of novel life-history strategies, the ability of an organism to accommodate ecological variability is essential. This biological tenet is certainly true today as anthropogenically incited climate change is forcing accelerated rates of ecological alteration.

Just how fast are these alterations occurring? How fast are the biomes moving?

In tropical and subtropical coniferous forests at a rate of 0.08 km/yr

In flooded grasslands at about 1.26 km/yr

In tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests at 0.42 km/yr

Mangroves forests 0.95 km/yr

Within Mediterranean forests, woodlands and scrub at around 0.26 km/yr

In tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests 0.33 km/yr

In temperate broadleaf and mixed forests at 0.35 km/yr

In temperate grasslands, savannas and shrublands at 0.59 km/yr

Etc… The paper offers more biome classifications.

In looking at the rates of spatially shifting biomes, the researchers found that only about “8% of global protected areas have residence times exceeding 100 years.” Niche’s are definitely on the move.

ALSO SEE: Adapting to Climate Change, the Uphill Pursuit of the Shifting Niche

Loarie, S., Duffy, P., Hamilton, H., Asner, G., Field, C., & Ackerly, D. (2009). The velocity of climate change Nature, 462 (7276), 1052-1055 DOI: 10.1038/nature08649

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Twisted Penises, Convoluted Vaginas and Really Ducked-up Sex

Wow, I really had a tough time coming-up with a title for this post! There were so many possibilities…

In the December 23rd edition of the journal of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, several scientists from Yale University detailed their recent experiments into the coevolution of male and female duck genitalia. Specifically, the researchers wanted to evaluate whether or not the physical morphologies exhibited by duck penises and duck vaginas provided evidence of ducks being actively engaged in a sexually antagonistic ‘arms race.’ In hopes of resolving this reproductive riddle, the folks from Yale traveled to a commercial duck farm in California, while equipped with artificial duck vaginas, mineral oil and a high speed video camera.

Sexual conflict arises when the strategies used to optimize reproductive fitness differ between the males and females of a species. In the case of muscovy ducks, like those used in the Yale research, the strategy of the male is to mate as frequently as possible, and with as many different females as he can find – even if sexual coercion is the only means available to achieve these goals. Conversely, the strategy of the female is to select only the healthiest of males as reproductive partners and to outright reject all those deemed unworthy. Because the male and female strategies are in conflict – quantity vs. quality - both sexes have undergone adaptations to out-maneuver the opposite gender. In this back-and-forth battle for reproductive victory the process of sexual selection has discovered an affective tactic - to change the physical shape of the duck’s genitalia.

In addition to being one of the few birds with a penis at all, the phallus of the male muscovy duck is physiologically and morphologically very unique. Unlike the penises of most mammals, which when erect are hydraulically rigid and supported by axial-orthogonal layers of inextensible collagen fibers, the penis of the muscovy has an arrangement of supportive fibers that allow for complete flexibility while erect. Besides being highly limber, the shape of the muscovy’s twenty centimeter long penis is ‘twisted’ forming a distinctive counter-clockwise spiral. These functional traits allow the male to very quickly insert into the female during copulation.

The speed at which copulation occurs is of vital importance to the male, it gives him the ability to inseminate even those females that actively defy his advance. Physical resistance is minimized because the male can insert his penis at a speed of about 1.6 meters per second and complete insemination in just 0.36 seconds – that doesn’t leave much time for fighting. Since the male’s seemingly invincible swiftness eliminates combat as a pragmatic brood planning option, the female line has employed an anatomical counter adaptation to ensure its continued mate choice.

As a defensive escalation in the muscovy’s inter-sexual arms race, the female has undergone adaptation for a counter armament – she’s changed the shape of her vagina. The female duck’s vagina can be found to exist in one of two possible shapes, either with a 135-degree bend, or with a clockwise ‘twist.’ During forced copulations, the morphology of the vagina functionally prevents the male’s penis, or his sperm, from entering sufficiently far into the reproductive tract to result in fertilization. However, when the female muscovy is receptive to a male suitor – when SHE chooses a mate – she actively facilitates the sexual congress by taking on a body posture with an elevated tail. The elevated tail, in combination with muscular contractions, permits the male duck to penetrate further into the reproductive tract and thus improves the likelihood of successful fertilization.

To uncover the fascinating story of co-evolving duck genitalia, the researchers from Yale presented aroused males with replicated duck vaginas. In conducting the experiment, female ducks were placed in a cage with a male, once the male initiated a mounting behavior, the female was quickly removed and the male was filmed with a high speed video camera as he inserted his penis into one of four different shaped molded test-tubes. The mineral oil covered test-tubes either had a straight shape, mimicked the male’s penis with a counterclockwise twist, or they had a female-like clockwise twist or 135-degree bend. After analyzing the film, the scientists discovered that the replicated vaginas that matched the shape and dimensions of real-life female muscovies effectively blocked the male’s penis from reaching very far into the test-tube.

Patricia L. R. Brennan, Christopher J. Clark and Richard O. Prum (2009). Explosive eversion and functional morphology of the duck penis supports sexual conflict in waterfowl genitalia Proc. R. Soc. B

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Flight Path of the Globe Skimmer

While living and working as a marine biologist in Maldives, Charles Anderson noticed sudden explosions of dragonflies at certain times of year. He explains how he carefully tracked the path of a plain, little dragonfly called the globe skimmer, only to discover that it had the longest migratory journey of any insect in the world.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Connecting the Fifth Ape to the Sixth Mass Extinction

Recent research conducted out of UC Berkeley and Penn State University has quantitatively demonstrated that mammal diversity in North America has plummeted since the arrival of humans about 13,000 years ago. The study (Available at PLoS One) examines changes in the number and variety of mammal species from several different biogeographic provinces within the United States and over a time period ranging from the Oligocene up to about 500 years ago.

To conduct the study, researchers established a ‘diversity baseline’ by calculating species-area relationship values from counts of fossilized mammals. Species-area relationship values are basically ratios of species occurrence to geographic area. Once this base line was determined, time intervals without human presence were compared to periods since the arrival of humans into North America about 13,000 years ago.

After finding a correlation between humans and declining mammal diversity, the scientists concluded that if “mass extinctions are defined as loss of at least 75% of species on a global scale, our data suggest that North American mammals had already progressed one-fifth to more than halfway (depending on biogeographic province) towards that benchmark, even before industrialized society began to affect them.”

The study is unique in that it utilized fossil evidence to establish a diversity base line covering a thirty million year period. The quantification of this paleontological data aids in giving greater empirical support to qualitative assessments of declining diversity worldwide. As stated in the paper’s conclusion, “[w]orldwide, about 60 mammal species have gone extinct in the past 400 years, and some 25% of remaining species are considered under threat of extinction, observations which contribute to notions we are experiencing a sixth mass extinction.”

Carrasco, M., Barnosky, A., & Graham, R. (2009). Quantifying the Extent of North American Mammal Extinction Relative to the Pre-Anthropogenic Baseline PLoS ONE, 4 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008331

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wetland Plant of the Week #38

Iva frutescens “Marsh Elder”

Marsh elder is a perennial, multi-branching shrub that is native to the coastal regions of the southeast United States. It can typically be found inhabiting the ecotones surrounding saltwater and brackish marshes, as well as in the wetland transitional zones associated with the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Though an Obligate species, Iva frutescens has a reduced tolerance for long periods of inundation; this is why it’s found in ecotone areas as opposed to more marsh-centralized localities.

The succulent lanceolate leaves of Iva frutescens maintain a dull green color year around and exhibit an opposite arrangement. The margins of the leaves often display a serrate edge and/or have few sporadically placed teeth. The plant’s green flowers can be found clustered on panicles and appear as a ‘drooping head.’ The fruiting bodies of Iva frutescens exists as oval shaped, dark brown achenes.

The morphological characters displayed by the marsh elder’s achenes demonstrate adaptation to an aquatically driven mechanism of dispersal. The achenes are only about 2mm in length and have a very smooth outer covering; this makes them ideally suited for transport via water. Known as hydrochory, water facilitated seed transport is a strategy that is implemented by a large number of coastally located plant species. In regards to the lineage of Iva frutescens specifically, proximity to tidally influenced waters has selected achenes with a tolerance for saltwater and a proven ability to stay afloat while in a non-dormant condition. In fact, research published just this year has shown that the achenes of Iva frutescens can stay afloat for more than 67 days – that’s pretty impressive. These physiological adaptations have paid large dividends for the marsh elder, as they can be found in abundance from the Gulf Coast of Texas northward along the US shoreline to Canada.

Elsey-Quirk, T., Middleton, B., & Proffitt, C. (2009). Seed flotation and germination of salt marsh plants Aquatic Botany, 91 (1), 40-46 DOI: 10.1016/j.aquabot.2009.02.001

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Splendor of a Saprotrophic Stinkhorn

While in field last week, I encountered a species of fungus with a rather unique set of morphological and ecological characteristics. The aptly named ‘stinkhorn’ fungus (Clathrus columnatus) belongs to the Phallaceae Family of fungi and produces a distinctive gelatinous spore mass that gives off a lovely perfume. Well, lovely to insects anyway, to me it reeked of rotting meat and dung. The stinkhorn’s ‘aroma’ serves as an attractant for flies and other insects vital to the fungus’s lifecycle. In the process of munching on the glebra (spore mass) insects gather the fungus’s reproductive spores on their bodies and in their digestive tracts, these spores are then transported and dispersed once the insects have gotten their fill and part ways. Although my nose took offense to the odoriferous bouquet produced by the stinkhorn’s gleba, the fungus’s appearance was really pretty cool.

The orange and spongy columnar structure of Clathrus columnatus emerges from an "egg" on the ground and grows upward forming an arch-like receptaculum at the top. The underside of the ‘arch’ forms from the joining of the stinkhorn’s multiple columns and anchors the foul-smelling glebra.

The "Egg"

View from above - Intersection of Columns

Fungi play major roles in the nutrient cycling of terrestrial ecosystems. Clathrus columnatus itself is a saprotroph that decomposes organics, and in process of doing so frees-up important resources for it and the other organisms sharing its ecosystem.

Energetically, saprotrophic fungi utilize extra-cellular digestion to acquire nutrients from dead and decaying organic material. Extra-cellular digestion is the process in which an organism, such as a fungus, releases tissue degrading enzymes into its surrounding environment. The enzymes break down nearby organics into their more easily metabolized constituents, such as simple sugars and fatty acids. In the case of the wood specialist Clathrus columnatus, its enzymes catalyze cellulose into simple sugars which are in turn engulfed by the fungus’s cells (endocytosis). In addition to freeing simple disaccharides from wood, the enzymes produced by C. columnatus also liberate valuable carbons from the wood’s lignin stores. The ability of lignin to store atmospheric carbon makes it an important component of the Carbon Cycle, and antagonistically, the capacity of the stinkhorn’s lignin-modifying enzymes to oxidize and release these sequestered carbons represents a significant ecological contribution.

As a consequence of Clathrus columnatus’s affinity for dead wood, the fungus is often associated with anthropogenically disturbed habitats. It can often be found growing in and around gardens and residences where areas of cultivation have resulted in accumulations of mulch, woodchips or other cellulose laden landscaping materials. Interestingly, the photos displayed here were taken adjacent to a brownfield that previously held a paper mill. As a part of the mill’s past wood-processing, the otherwise nutrient poor sandy soils include high quantities of wood chips - a virtual stinkhorn buffet.

Tuno, N. (1998). Spore dispersal of Dictyophora fungi (Phallaceae) by flies Ecological Research, 13 (1), 7-15 DOI: 10.1046/j.1440-1703.1998.00241.x

Friday, December 18, 2009

Rick Santorum: the High Priests of Darwinism went berserk

Another Science Lesson from Rick Santorum...

I think that I ruffled Rick Santorum’s feathers. Last week I published an article in which Christian fundamentalist and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was used as a metaphor to dispel one of the commonly held misconceptions about biological evolution. In that post, “What an Unlearned Presidential Hopeful can teach us about Evolution ,” Santorum’s science illiteracy was presented as a ‘proof’ that humans do not occupy the top rung of an evolutionary ladder. On Thursday, just five days later, Rick Santorum published an opinion in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which he argued that evolution and climate change are ideological beliefs used to indoctrinate children and to promote socialism.

At first glance, I thought that the appearance of Santorum’s ‘science based' article a mere five days after mine was coincidental, but then I read his closing, “In some respects, the case for evolution is improving: We may indeed have evolved to the point where we can detect hot air of a different kind.” Now, I may be reading into this a wee bit, but Santorum’s metaphorical use of humans evolving towards an improved state suggests - to me at least - that he read the article here (or at the Faster Times). In addition to his closing lines, Crazy Rick also used the Philadelphia Inquirer as a soapbox to defend his 2001 “Santorum Amendment” that was criticized in my previous post. In his own defense he explained that his “teach the controversy” based amendment was initially well received by the Senate, but then, the next day “the High Priests of Darwinism went berserk” with assertions that there is no controversy. With the “berserk” assertions of scientists, the tides turned, dooming the amendment – luckily for us.

In Santorum’s new post, “The Elephant in the Room: Challenging science dogma,” he argued against science generally, and both evolution and climate science specifically. Far from being bound by conjecture, Santorum brings what he believes to be hard scientific facts to bear in disputing the “ideology” of science. Here are his facts:

“A recent Gallup poll found that only 14 percent of Americans agreed that "humans developed over millions of years" and "God had no part." A Zogby poll this year found that 78 percent of Americans agreed that schoolteachers "should teach Darwin's theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it." The same poll also found that 86 percent of self-identified liberals agreed that "teachers and students should have the academic freedom to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a scientific theory." But the scientific "community" claims there is no controversy, and that debate should be banned. …only 37 percent of respondents agreed that man is causing global warming in a recent Rasmussen poll.”

That’s Santorum argument; scientific facts should be determined by opinion polls, not by scientists! So, in addition to disproving the notion of human evolutionary perfection, Santorum has now taught us how to employ incorrect reasoning. To hold a proposition as true simply because many people happen to believe it, is a logical fallacy - argumentum ad populum.

Incidentally, Crazy Rick’s numbers don’t give the whole picture. Setting aside for a moment the fact that ‘belief’ has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with reality or what is true, consider and compare the below 2009 Gallop statistics to those provided by Crazy Rick:

Overall ‘Belief’ in Evolution - Rick's Stats Only Show Atheist

‘Belief’ in Evolution by Level of Education

‘Belief’ in Evolution Cross-referenced to Knowing Darwin

‘Belief’ that Humans are Factors in Climate Change (View at Gallup)

Just for the fun of it – Here’s Belief in Witches, Astrology and Haunted Houses

Then, after irrationally linking popular belief to scientific validly, Santorum goes on to produce even more nonsensical non sequitars; he correlates climatology and global climate change to a socialist conspiracy!

“It is one thing for ideologically driven science to indoctrinate children in classrooms. It is another for politicians to use science to destroy national economies and redistribute global wealth. I refer, of course, to the latest scientific non-controversy, man-made global warming.”

How can one argue with that kind of reasoning? What world does Rick Santorum live in?

In closing, there are about 15,000 independent school districts in the United States and although science education standards are gradually improving, there is still much work to do (check-out the US standing below, listed as #2 from bottom). Rick Santorum, his minions, and others like them are out there, actively working to insert creationist propaganda into textbooks and classrooms – stay watchful! As can be read from the above tables education is a critical factor in promoting rationality.


Scott, E. (2009). Science Standards Evolve Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2 (3), 538-540 DOI: 10.1007/s12052-009-0153-0

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The View from atop the Shoulders of Giants

“The Giant’s Shoulders” is a monthly science blogging event, in which authors are invited to submit posts on “classic” scientific papers.

The Giant's Shoulders #18 is up at JOST A MON take a look!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

An Imminent Creationist Feeding Frenzy, Courtesy of Nature

An article just published to Nature has turned the world of evolutionary biology topsy-turvy!

Or, so they’d like us to believe…

The paper’s authors Chris Venditti, Andrew Meade and Mark Pagel have devised a new model that shows that evolution is not driven by natural selection or through the accumulative effects of random genetic drift. Rather than incremental and gradual change, their study suggests that the vast bulk of speciation results from rare stochastic events. They call this new theory “punctuated equilibrium” – NO WAIT! They don't...

Actually, they don’t call it punctuated equilibrium, which is strange because that’s what it looks like to me… What’s even stranger is that neither Niles Eldredge nor Stephen Jay Gould’s names appear anywhere in the paper – including the references.

Through phylogenetic analysis of 101 different plant, animal and fungi groups the researchers established that - what I’m going to call - the punctuated equilibrium model is the most parsimonious fit for explaining the branch lengths of the studied taxa.

Although, this ‘rediscovery’ of what’s been known for about the last 30-years may not seem too earthshaking, I’m confident that (with Nature’s help of course) creationists around the world will be harvesting quotes from the article and its associated news release.

Check out these lines:

Quotes from Nature’s accompanying news release-

“New species might arise as a result of single rare events, rather than through the gradual accumulation of many small changes over time, according to a study of thousands of species and their evolutionary family trees.”

“This contradicts a widely accepted theory of how speciation occurs: that species are continually changing to keep pace with their environment, and that new species emerge as these changes accrue.”

“The team's findings might stir things up in the world of evolutionary biology.”It really goes against the grain because most of us have this Darwinian view of speciation," says Pagel. "What we're saying is that to think about natural selection as the cause of speciation is perhaps wrong."

Quotes from around the web-

"A new study published in Nature contradicts the commonly-held belief that most species evolve gradually through sexual selection in response to subtle changes in their environment." (SOURCE)

"This new theory is likely to be quite controversial, as it goes against the Darwinian view of evolution that most people are familiar with. "It really goes against the grain because most of us have this Darwinian view of speciation," says Pagel. "What we're saying is that to think about natural selection as the cause of speciation is perhaps wrong." (SOURCE)

'The surprise is that this model is not compatible with the idea that lots of small events combine to bring about speciation,' he adds. (SOURCE)

"Our research indicates that the idea that new species occur by gradually becoming more and more adapted to their particular niches, is not true. In fact, we have found that new species appear due to rare random events that seem to simply just happen." Pagel (SOURCE)

Quotes from the study -

“The Red Queen describes a view of nature in which species continually evolve but do not become better adapted. It is one of the more distinctive metaphors of evolutionary biology, but no test of its claim that speciation occurs at a constant rate has ever been made against competing models that can predict virtually identical outcomes, nor has any mechanism been proposed that could cause the constant-rate phenomenon.”

“This model predicts a constant rate of speciation, and provides a new interpretation of the Red Queen: the metaphor of species losing a race against a deteriorating environment is replaced by a view linking speciation to rare stochastic events…”

“Speciation is freed from the gradual tug of natural selection, there need not be an ‘arms race’ between the species and its environment, nor even any biotic effects.”

“If the original Red Queen model had a ‘whiff’ of a species running out of breath from the accumulation of many detrimental biotic effects, and then being ‘knocked off’ by the next event, the interpretation we propose is different. Species do not so much ‘run in place’ as simply wait for the next sufficient cause of speciation to occur.”

“This means that researchers seeking to develop explanatory theories of speciation should focus their attention on the size of the catalogue of sufficient causes (speciation factors)
shared by a group of organisms, rather than on special driving forces or how these forces might combine.”

Venditti, C., Meade, A., & Pagel, M. (2009). Phylogenies reveal new interpretation of speciation and the Red Queen Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08630

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wetland Plant of the Week #37

Helianthus angustifolius

Swamp Sunflower

Helianthus angustifolius is a branched perennial plant that is native to North America. This Facultative Wet species can found in hydric flatwoods and marsh communities as well as along the sides of ditches and roads that have mesic to saturated soils. Its brilliantly colored disk flowers make it easily recognizable as a member of the Asteraceae’s sunflower group – the Genus Helianthus. The swamp sunflower’s tall domesticated cousin, ‘the’ sunflower Helianthus annuus, is cultivated the world over for its nutritious seeds, oils and aesthetic value.

The swamp sunflower lacks rhizomes, and loses its basal leaves during the flowering season. The leaves of the lower stem are lanceolate in shape and transition from an opposite arrangement on the lower stem to an alternate one towards the top. The flowers of Helianthus angustifolius are either yellow or purple in color.

The Helianthus genus as whole is widely used to study diploid and polyploid speciation dynamics in plants. Helianthus angustifolius itself is typically phylogenically grouped with the species H. simulans and H. floridanus. All three sunflowers share common morphological features and have overlapping ranges (southeastern United States); however, only H. angustifolius will successfully cross with both H. floridanus and H. simulans.

The above plant photos were taken a couple of weeks back in the Florida Panhandle. The close-up with the lynx spider was featured with several other swamp sunflower pics in the prior post The Tactics of an Egg Tending Lynx.

As an administrative note, in the event that you’re tracking the Wetland Plant series, I’ve recently discovered that there’s been a miscount – I published two different posts with plants designated as Wetland Plant of the Week #25. To correct for this error this post has been numbered 37, but falls in line after Wetland Plant # 35.

TIMME (2007). HIGH-RESOLUTION PHYLOGENY FOR HELIANTHUS American Journal of Botany, 94 (11), 1837-1852

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Best of Evolution Blogging

I missed the release of the new Carnival of Evolution on Thursday!

Carnival #18 is up at Biochemical Soul – Check it out!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What an Unlearned Presidential Hopeful can teach us about Evolution

ABC News reported earlier this week that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is ‘absolutely taking a look' at making a run for the White House in 2012. Although I find Santorum’s fundamentalist and ideologically laden history disheartening - and the possibility of his presidential candidacy downright terrifying - the recent disclosure of his political aspirations provides a great opportunity to disprove a commonly held misconception about evolution – the idea that evolution progresses towards perfection.

One of the common misconceptions about biological evolution is that the process pushes organisms towards a pinnacle of perfection in which the ‘most evolved species’ maintain dominance over ‘less evolved’ or ‘lower organisms.’ Often closely associated with this mistaken belief is the erroneous idea that, by virtue of braininess, our own species – Homo sapiens - currently holds sovereignty over evolution’s hypothetical pinnacle. These egocentric assumptions of human grandeur are simply not wrought out by available evidence. In contrast to teleological intentions fashioned with foresight, evolution is a process driven by hindsight; the ‘apparent fit’ that we observe in nature is the result of a filtering process.

As Stephen J. Gould spoke to at the Faxon Institute Colloquium on Scholarly Communication in 1997, “adaptations to a changing local environment do not imply movement to a higher level or an improved state. Change is simply change, with no value judgment implied.”

And the best evidence that we do not necessarily move to a higher level may be Rick Santorum.

Time and time again, Rick Santorum has proven himself to be antithetical to the notion of evolutionary perfection. For example, back in 2000 he was an outspoken proponent of a new amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act. The purpose of the proposed amendment, which later became known as the ‘Santorum Amendment,’ was to challenge the teaching of evolution in public schools and to include in the curriculum the teaching of Intelligent Design. During the presentation of the amendment to the Senate, Santorum quoted fellows from the Discovery Institute (see my post Darwin’s Dilemma for further info on the Discovery Institute) and argued that U.S. schools should be platforms for the “teaching of the controversy” surrounding evolution.

This proves that humans are not the pinnacle of evolution; because, had Santorum truly been perfection incarnate he would have known that there is not the slightest controversy in regards to the existence of evolution. Evolution is fact. The Theory of Evolution holds the same scientific credibility as does Gravitational Theory, the Special Theory of Relativity and the Germ Theory of Disease. Introducing an amendment that requires teaching alternatives to evolution is the equivalent of presenting an amendment that requires that evil spirits be taught as possible vectors of disease – it’s completely asinine.

Far from ‘evolving’ over time, Santorum’s idiotic and anti-scientific mindset has remained stagnate since its emergence from the fundamentalist primordial sludge in which it was born. During a lecture at a Christian school in South Carolina on Thursday, he explained to students that there is an ongoing “war of ideas” in which the religious are being challenged by the secular minded people of academia and public education. After insisting that there is a “controversy” he continued to say,

"There are real consequences to climate change, there's real consequences to evolution, that have to do with not just truth, but your own faith: Whether there is a God. Whether this God is sovereign. Whether this God was a creator. As opposed to… That there is no God. That we are all just a matter of random chance to have arrived at where we are. There's no truth. There's no moral law. There's no lawgiver..."

Now, I’m not a theologian but it seems to me that Mr. Santorum has missed the point of both science and faith. He clearly doesn’t comprehend science if he thinks that the findings of science can be variably applied to suit the particular religious leanings of the person interpreting it. Although he refers to only “this god,” there are in actuality hundreds of mutually excusive religions worldwide; but, there’s only one science standard - it applies to Muslims, atheists, and even un-evolved fundamental creationist Christians. Furthermore, Santorum evidently doesn’t think that faith is something that should be held despite a lack direct evidence for a god; quite the opposite, it seems to me that he predicates his adherence to faith on objective - though not understood - science. His bible thumping rants give the impression that religion will fall if science is accepted. It’s as though he’s telling students to contest science, because should it prevail god will be no more. He portrays his faith like a frail and fleeting wager.

He continued,

“All of these things, whether it's climate science, or whether it's evolution science, have that huge issue hanging over us."

I’m not even going to get into Santorum’s mention of “climate science” because, for one, this is an evolution based blog, and two, Santorum is also a correspondent for Fox News – thus his knowledge of climate science is limited to personal revelation and the four out-of-context email lines central to ‘climategate.’

To close this post, let me reemphasize three points;
1- Evolution is not goal oriented or progressive

2- The Theory of Evolution is a scientific fact regardless of ‘belief’

3- Rick Santorum is an ignorant ideologue that shouldn’t be trusted to represent anyone

D'Angelo, K. (1997). Faxon institute colloquium on scholarly communications issues Serials Review, 23 (2), 91-96 DOI: 10.1016/S0098-7913(97)90058-7

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Convergent Brains of Humans and Elephants

In recent evolution news, a research article published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has demonstrated that the brains of elephants and humans have followed similar adaptive paths.

The collaborative study, undertaken by scientists from several U.S. universities, analyzed the phylogenomic patterns displayed by genes linked to brain metabolism in fifteen different vertebrate groups; including eleven placental mammals, a marsupial, a monotreme, a bird and an amphibian. Of specific interest to the researchers was the evolutionary history of the elephant brain, which has many physical and functional similarities to that possessed by humans.

Although about four times larger, the brains of elephants are like human brains in that they boast extensive regions of neocortex. The neocortex is the neurological structure responsible for an animal’s sensory perception, motor commands and higher thought processes. Elephants were of particular interest in the study because they - like humans - are known for displaying intelligence, complex social behavior and empathy.

In conducting the research, the scientists examined the occurrence of both synonymous and non-synonymous nucleotide substitutions within each brain-linked gene. Synonymous substitutions can be thought of as ‘silent’ because these changes don’t illicit a change in the resulting amino acid. By contrast, non-synonymous substitutions do result in the incorporation of a different amino acid, and therefore advent a potential for novel risks or benefits on which natural selection can act.

In the case of the brain genes evaluated in this study, the scientists found that when compared to the other vertebrate groups the genomes of elephants and humans show increased frequencies of non-synonymous substitutions in areas responsible for the brain’s aerobic metabolism. So, not only are brains of both elephants and humans relatively large, but they’ve also followed a similar adaptive path in obtaining their current state.

Goodman, M., Sterner, K., Islam, M., Uddin, M., Sherwood, C., Hof, P., Hou, Z., Lipovich, L., Jia, H., Grossman, L., & Wildman, D. (2009). Phylogenomic analyses reveal convergent patterns of adaptive evolution in elephant and human ancestries Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (49), 20824-20829 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0911239106

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Conclusion: Darwins Dilemma, Creationist Propaganda and Corrupt Christians

This post is the conclusion of a four-part series. The preceding post can be found here, the introductory 1st post is linked here.

According to “many published scientists,” there is a “story being told by Darwinists” that DNA and genetics play a role in evolutionary development, protein synthesis and the ontogeny of the physical characteristics displayed by animals. In hopes of edifying the masses of wayward “Darwinists,” these same “many published scientists” point out in Darwin’s Dilemma that DNA lacks the potency and mechanical know-how required to undertake these tasks. In actuality - according to “many published scientists” - all of life is derived from non-genetic “information” that is harbored within each irreducibly complex cell. Furthermore, this “information” does not arise from earthly processes, rather these “blue prints” are “preordained” by an “intelligent source.”

Many published scientists, many published scientists and many published scientists.

At this point in the science ‘doctrine-mentry,’ piles and piles of cover pages from published articles are shown on screen. Included with these publications are those to be found in THE JOURNAL OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY, which is visually emphasized in the film.

So, the bestowment of consecrated ‘information’ from the heavens has reportedly been shown to be a fact? Who are these “many published scientists?”

As introduced in the film, the ranks of these scientists are held by not only the Discovery Institute’s scientists, but also those from the world acclaimed Biologic Institute in Washington State. Among the “many” – which I counted as three – are Dr. Stephen Meyer, Dr. Richard Sternberg and Dr. Douglas Axe. Incidentally, did I mention that the world acclaimed Biologic Institute, like Discovery Media (the producers of Darwin’s Dilemma), is funded by the Discovery Institute? But unlike Discovery Media, the Biologic Institute is tax exempt as it is a chartable organization!

Regardless of their employers and obvious unscientific motives, if these three ‘esteemed scientists’ have conducted valid research there is no reason to discredit their work. Their individual publications should be evaluated on the merits of established protocol and peer review. For example, just because the intelligent design article credited to Meyer was published to the journal of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington by then editor RICHARD STERNBERG during his last day on post doesn’t mean that the research is necessarily invalid… Of course, the subsequent statement released by the Biological Society of Washington’s Council doesn’t help Meyer’s or Sternberg’s case very much:

The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories, in vol 117, no 2, pp 213-239 of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, was published at the discretion of the former editor, Richard Sternberg. Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The Council…would have deemed the paper inappropriate… subject matter represents a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content…”

As for the momentous work by Douglas Axe that was published in THE JOURNAL OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY… Well, it doesn’t actually say anything about intelligent design, or divinely driven biological processes. The paper, titled Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds, essentially reports that mutational rates found in an enzyme that breaks down penicillin (beta-lactamases) are very rare. The exact rarity of these mutations, as estimated by Axe, is determined to be in a range with a high-end value of about 10 to the 74th power- very rare indeed. From this estimation of a rare mutation rate, Axe makes inferences (far reaching) to the evolution of proteins. Once these findings are sifted through the god-filter of creationists, the end result is a pronouncement in Darwin’s Dilemma that the chance of mutation is so rare as to prohibit the process of evolution from occurring. So rare, that in fact the only possible explanation for life is divine creation. Wow, now that’s an impressive leap! The total destruction of modern biology in a single paper; I’m curious as to why thousands of independent researchers the world over continue to study evolution… Must be a conspiracy!

And then, having decimated the fossil record, slandered Darwin, Simon Conway Morris, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen J Gould, AND having misrepresented the whole of modern scientific understanding, the tale of Darwin’s Dilemma comes to an end. Fin.

To draw this novel length critique of Darwin’s Dilemma to a close, let me re-emphasize that although lacking historical accuracy, scientific legitimacy and professional integrity the film’s production value and underlying truth-manipulating strategy make it a dangerous opponent to education and reason. The people behind the film are dishonest, unethical and immoral; they lie, doctor evidence and misrepresent science as a whole. In the process of attacking evolution, they falsify history and tear down the sciences of geology and chemistry.

Though they are fundamentalists and propagandists, they are also cunning and well funded… Take caution.

Axe, D. (2004). Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds Journal of Molecular Biology, 341 (5), 1295-1315 DOI: 10.1016/j.jmb.2004.06.058

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Part 3 - Darwins Dilemma, Creationist Propaganda and Corrupt Christians

The previous post is available here.

Having ‘proved’ that fossils predating the Cambrian radiation are non-existent, and that all modern animal phyla appeared out of nowhere - in what the narrator describes as a “burst of creativity” - Darwin’s Dilemma the movie, then proceeds to ridicule Darwin the scientist. In their distorted reasoning, the creationist filmmakers think that if they can discredit a scientist that lived 150 years ago in Victorian England, somehow the audience will be convinced that the whole of modern science is erroneous. To initiate the strike against their biology bent Beelzebub, another carefully cropped quote is thrown to screen;

“Nothing distressed him more than the Cambrian explosion…” - Stephen J. Gould

For some unknown reason, creationists love Stephen Gould. Their infatuation may have something to do with a distorted view of Gould’s ‘punctuated equilibrium’ model; perhaps somehow the idea of a long stasis followed accelerated change translates to divine creation in the minds of simpletons? At any rate, Stephen Meyer or some other failed scientist from the Discovery Institute must have gotten this Gouldian morsel shorthand in a text message. They certainly didn’t get it from the page 238 of The Panda’s Thumb, the book in which Gould uses it to illustrate the lack of discrepancy between long past Darwinian predictions and modern paleontology.

It is certainly true that Darwin struggled with the lack of fossils predating the Cambrian radiation, speaking to intermediate fossils in Chapter 10 of the Origin of Species he wrote;

“Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against my theory.”

Of course, as with the Richard Dawkins quote yesterday and the Gould quote above, Darwin is here using the presupposition of a question as a lead to his explanation. And although the film in question is in the habitat of mining only the presumptive portions of these literary tools, the authors’ answers usually follow. In the case of Darwin’s true dilemma alluded to in the Origin of Species quote, he explains later in chapter 10 that,

“The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record…. we continually overrate the perfection of the geological record, and falsely infer, because certain genera or families have not been found beneath a certain stage, that they did not exist before that stage. In all cases positive paleontological evidence may be implicitly trusted; negative evidence is worthless, as experience has so often shown…
Those who believe that the geological record is in any degree perfect, will undoubtedly at once reject my theory. For my part, following out Lyell's metaphor, I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced. On this view the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished or even disappear.”

Basically stated, what Darwin was implying was that, due to erosional processes, fossils are rare in the first place, and the oldest of all-the-fossils on Earth are rarer still. And he further predicts that despite these natural conditions, predecessor fossils are there and will be found as time proceeds and paleontological excavations are made. Darwin was right on-target with this prediction. In the 150 years since publication of the Origin of Species, numerous fossils have been unearthed, including those of the Ediacara biota, some from the Doushantuo formation and even the fascinating Markuelia fossil embryos – all predating the radiation vent! But, alas I guess these fine fossils don’t count… After all, as Paul Chien the head of the Discovery Institute’s paleontology section tells us in the film,

“to the paleontologist, the lack of intermediate fossils is well known.”

And Paul Chien should know, because he’s Chinese! As he later explains, “the Chinese community is honest about these problems and tries to explain them outside of Darwin.”

In addition to having an Asian heritage on his side, Paul Chien is a fellow of the Discovery Institute where he helps ‘spread the good word’ by translating Christian pseudo-science into the Chinese language. The worst part of Chien’s resume is that he’s also a biology professor at the University of San Francisco – tsk tsk San Fran.

Chien’s appearance marks a second transition point in the film’s diabolical plot. Leaving the fossils in the past, the modern sciences of evolutionary development and molecular genetics take center stage. In concert with this changeover is implementation of a new strategy – drawn the audience with science-ish jargon and convince them of life’s irreducible complexity. Leading this new front is Steven Meyer himself; holstered at his side is information theory. Brandishing this weapon he aims to shoot down “Neo-Darwinist storytelling” – by showing that modern genetics has nothing to do with evolution…


Condon, D. (2005). U-Pb Ages from the Neoproterozoic Doushantuo Formation, China Science, 308 (5718), 95-98 DOI: 10.1126/science.1107765

Dong, X., Donoghue, P., Cunningham, J., Liu, J., & Cheng, H. (2005). The anatomy, affinity, and phylogenetic significance of Markuelia Evolution Development, 7 (5), 468-482 DOI: 10.1111/j.1525-142X.2005.05050.x

Morris, SC (1995). Ecology in deep time Trends in Ecology & Evolution , 10 (7), 290-294

Monday, December 7, 2009

Part 2 - Darwins Dilemma, Creationist Propaganda and Corrupt Christians

Before picking up with the Richard Dawkins quote used to close yesterday’s post (Part 1 Available Here), I’d like to provide a little more background on some of the nefarious figures that contributed to bringing the fundamentalist film Darwin’s Dilemma to my living room.

The movie was produced by the Discovery Institute’s associate organization ‘Illustra Media.’ In this instance I use the phrase ‘associate organization’ very loosely because for all practical purposes Illustra Media is synonymous with the group known as ‘Discovery Media.’ Both media groups, Illustra and Discovery, receive the bulk of their funding from the Discovery Institute and both have Stephen Meyer as a lead consultant. Meyer is one of the Discovery Institutes original founders, and a key organizer of the intelligent design faction. For those readers unfamiliar with the Discovery Institute itself, I’d strongly encourage you to view Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, which details a 2004 federal court case in Dover, Pennsylvania. The NOVA documentary is provided free online by the Public Broadcast Service and very accurately summarizes the Discovery Institute’s deceitful and underhanded attacks on science education. To provide a little insight as to the Institute’s shameless objectives, consider that their mission statement outright states that the “point of view Discovery brings to its work includes a belief in God-given reason;” and that Discovery Media includes in its mission “to utilize every form of available media to present the reality of God's existence through compelling scientific evidence and academic research". Irrespective of one’s personal religious beliefs, sound scientifically minded inquiry can not be born of blatant biases and preconceived notions of causation. This is simply not how science works. To say that the Discovery Institute may be susceptible to high rates of confirmation bias is giving them too much credit. Speaking of biases, yesterday I reported that my in-home showing of Darwin’s Dilemma was courtesy of the Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN). Although you might be inclined to think that TBN suffers from the same religious biases as the Discovery Institute, that doesn’t appear to be the case; TBN has an altogether different bias – one that favors cold hard cash.

The Trinity Broadcast Network is the largest Christian television network provider in the United States and has media holdings in more than 70 other countries. I can sum up TBN credentials in six words- “It was founded by Jim Bakker.” Yes, Jim Bakker the televangelist, Jim Bakker the accused rapist, and yes Jim Bakker the convicted felon. If more evidence of the TBN’s ill repute is needed ponder that they are proud proponents of the religious practice known as the ‘prosperity gospel.’ Basically, the prosperity gospel teaches that a sinner can be forgiven for her/his wrongs if she/he donates money to the network. Yes, TBN is selling admission into heaven! I’m not sure what the price is though… And unfortunately, I can’t tell you how much income TBN makes from selling moral amnesty, because they refuse to disclose financial information for public inspection, or for that matter to Christian watchdog groups. So, in addition to dumbing-down its adherents with fake-science, TBN also steals their cash. In the science community this is referred to as a positive feedback cycle; the more dumberest you become, the more money you lose.

Getting back to the science…

Yesterday, I described how the high production quality of Darwin’s Dilemma allows for a visually exciting and even captivating viewing experience. As scary as this may be to admit, it’s absolutely true. The film is by far the ‘best’ anti-science propaganda film I’ve ever seen. The animation, narration and scene transitions are smooth and coherent; pseudo-science and misinformation aside, the film is good enough to rival most any that would appear on National Geographic or the History Channel. In regards to the science content presented in the film, at least up to the Richard Dawkins quote, a skeptic with some understanding of evolution and paleontology will see it for what it is – creationism; however, if seen through an uncritical eye it would appear wholly informative. Indeed, even those with a general understanding of science may at first be drawn to accepting the film’s premise; this in large part due to the awe and wonder inherent to the Cambrian Radiation itself. However, at about forty minutes into the feature the film takes a creationist turn; this happens right around the Dawkins quote. After Simon Conway Morris’s critique of the pre-radiation fossil record, the screen gives itself to the quote;

“It is as though they were just planted there without any evolutionary history”

-Richard Dawkins

In my assessment, this snippet is the first serious indicator of the film’s underlying evil purpose. Not only does the above Dawkins line – while out of context - seem to suggest the existence of a ‘planter’ and a shortfall in evolutionary knowledge, but it also happens to be one of the most frequently ‘abused’ evolution quotes in existence. It has been used and reused by creationists and fundamentalists the world over. This assertion can be verified by simply copying and pasting the whole sentence into a Google search engine; undertaking this exercise, I got back more than 10,000 hits. Incidentally, the quote itself has been clipped from page 229 of Dawkins’s 1996 book The Blind Watchmaker; when in context the quote is used in explaining that both he (Dawkins) and Stephen Gould agree that one, the pre-radiation fossils are few, and two, that the thin fossil record is no way indicative of divine intervention. Far from an admission of divine creation, the quote is used in The Blind Watchmaker to affirm that even biologists with differing perspectives on evolutionary mechanisms (see the citation below for an independent assessment of their incompatibilities) wholeheartedly endorse evolutionary agents as instigators of the Cambrian Explosion. At any rate, in Darwin’s Dilemma the Dawkins quote is used simply as a cap to Simon Conway Morris’s testimony, from there the film moves on to Creationism’s most hated of scientists – Charles Darwin. There we learn about the origins of Darwin's 'dilemma.'


Shanahan, T. (2001). Methodological and contextual factors in the Dawkins/Gould dispute over evolutionary progress Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 32 (1), 127-151 DOI: 10.1016/S1369-8486(00)00025-X

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Darwin’s Dilemma, Creationist Propaganda and Corrupt Christians

Earlier this week the Trinity Broadcasting Network aired the Discovery Institute’s film ‘Darwin’s Dilemma: the mystery of the Cambrian fossil record.’ The feature length, allegedly-documentary movie has been promoted as an exploration “of the Cambrian explosion and the scientific controversy that still surrounds it.” Because of the evolutionary and science-based subject matter dealt with by the film, I thought that a private screening was in order, so when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I parked myself on the couch with a couple slices of cold pizza and hit play on my DVR’s remote…

Wow, the film really blew me away! To set the stage, let me first explain that being an enthusiast of science and nature documentaries, my DVR is pre-programmed to search and record all shows that include certain key words in their descriptions or titles. Occasionally, these key words, like ‘evolution’ or ‘fossils’ for example, result in the unintentional recording of creationist crap, and more often than not, this crap comes from the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). About twice a week, the TBN broadcasts ‘science education’ programs with devious names like “Teaching Origins Objectively;’ but these shows don’t usually pose much of an inconvenience. They’re not a problem because I’ve conditioned myself to delete these recordings the very second that a party line or half-truth is identified – thus I rarely need to endure more than five minutes of these mostly low quality, poorly produced and obviously disingenuous shows.

Getting back to ‘Darwin’s Dilemma,’ as I started to watch, I was instantly caught off guard by the film’s production quality! The imagery was great; at the opening there was a well-animated Anomalocaris swimming happily in the Cambrian sea, and then after failing to out-swim an undersea avalanche, he was vividly buried and fossilized. Anomalocaris was an ancient animal that resembled a cross between a trilobite and a modern shrimp; it inhabited the world’s oceans about 520 million years ago. Comforting me through the Anomalocaris’s life and death drama was a spirited music score and a narrator that spoke with clarity and ease, like a wise grandfather detailing a long forgotten tale. As I continued to watch the paleontological spectacle unfold, I listened carefully to my knowledgeable patriarch, waiting for mention of a god, intelligent design or other clue to the movie’s shifty agenda – but it didn’t come.

I continued to watch...

Then a quote appeared on the screen;

"The Cambrian Explosion was the most remarkable and puzzling event in the history of life…” -Stephen Jay Gould

At first glance I thought that the creationist gig was up; but then, after a moment’s thought, I found myself in agreement with statement. The Cambrian Explosion was a pretty significant event, and although Stephen Gould’s quotes are often mined and used out-of-context by religious evil-doers, this wasn’t the case in this situation… The Cambrian Radiation was – and is – puzzling. I kept watching.

The story line moved from the demise of the introductory Anomalocaris to the history of the famous Burgess Shale. The narrator, while seamlessly transitioning between historic black and white photographs, elaborated on the rarity of unearthing quality fossils from geologic strata, he then verbally underlined the scientific value of those recovered from Canada’s Burgess Shale. He discussed Charles Walcott’s field seasons and the paleontological digs key to uncovering the mysteries of the Cambrian metazoans.

Then the film flashes to Cambridge University where we meet evolutionary biologist and renowned Cambrian expert Dr. Simon Conway Morris, whom promptly describes the Burgess fossils as “miraculous.”

I cringed.

I’d be willing to wager that Morris didn’t intend the word “miraculous” in the same sense that it is frequently used by the religious minded, but non-the-less I felt a deepening sickness come over me. Simon Conway Morris is a widely respected scientist, and he has openly explained that he participated in the ‘Darwin’s Dilemma’ film while unaware that it was to be torqued and twisted into pseudo-science. Unfortunately, had I not known about Morris’s plight, his cropped dialogue in the film would seem nothing short of fully endorsing the Intelligent Design scheme - truly a shame.

As the Cambridge interview proceeded, Simon Conway Morris went on to congenially list many of the questions and difficulties surrounding the study of the Cambrian Radiation Event. As I listened to his enthusiastic detailing of a lacking pre-Cambrian fossil record, poorly understood Proterozoic ecology and complications arising from the embryological development of animal body designs, I became aware that although Morris has hundreds of published articles to his credit - most of which offer answers to the very questions he lists in the film - none of his studies or findings are being mentioned. As one example of many, I recall a 1998 piece in which he specifically criticized “blanket assertions” about the Cambrian radiation. In the film Morris was being portrayed as an expert with no answers; furthermore, in the process of describing the past blockades to science’s Cambrian comprehension, he was actively shooting down out-dated notions about the radiation event. The end result of the exchange was a sneaky, almost imperceptible ‘time shift’ during which Morris’s critiques of science-past are superimposed on science-current. His onscreen persona is presented as asserting that modern biology has no way of explaining what happened during the Cambrian Radiation. In primary support of this false-claim is a reported lack of fossils predating the Cambrian diversification – a lack of intermediate fossils between pre-Cambrian protozoa and the rise of the Cambrian’s multicellular animals.

Just as Morris’s on-film character convinces the audience that the Cambrian fossils are “miraculous” and without predecessors, a new quote takes the screen;

“It is as though they were just planted there without any evolutionary history…” -Richard Dawkins


Morris, S. (1998). The evolution of diversity in ancient ecosystems: a review Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 353 (1366), 327-345 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.1998.0213