Lamprey skeletons

Bone is a sophisticated substance, much more than just a rock-like mineral in an interesting shape. It’s a living tissue, invested with cells dedicated to continually remodeling the mineral matrix. That matrix is also an intricate material, threaded with fibers of a protein, type II collagen, that give it a much greater toughness—it’s like fiberglass, a relatively brittle substance given resilience and strength with tough threads woven within it. Bone is also significantly linked to cartilage, both in development and evolution, with earlier forms having a cartilaginous skeleton that is replaced by bone. In us vertebrates, cartilage also contains threads of collagen running through it.

These three elements—collagen, cartilage, and bone—present an interesting evolutionary puzzle. Collagen is common to the matrices of both vertebrate cartilage and bone, yet the most primitive fishes, the jawless lampreys and hagfish, have been reported to lack that particular form of collagen, suggesting that the collagen fibers are a derived innovation in chordate history. New work, though, has shown that there’s a mistaken assumption in there: lampreys do have type II collagen! This discovery clarifies our understanding of the evolution of the chordate skeleton.

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A challenge!

Here’s a request from gnosos:

“Dr” Hovind is giving a speech on my campus tomorrow night in a 450 seat auditorium. Usually, questioners only get 15 seconds at the mic at these kinds of things, and I’m trying to think of a question that approaches one of his many glaring errors in thought in a novel way. Do you (or your readers) have any ideas about what you (or they) would say to Kent Hovind given 15 seconds?

I’m cynical: I think the rapid-fire limitation is intended to prevent deep, thoughtful questions or any kind of considered rebuttal, and I also think he’ll just reply to anything with more empty-headed, rote creationist jingo, so I think it’s all an exercise in futility. But maybe someone here can come up with a simple stumper of a question.

Where’s your nearest Cafe Scientifique?

Via Jim Lippard, here’s a nice, positive article on the Cafe Scientifique movement, which tries to make science informal and accessible to anyone. We’re doing it again tomorrow, in which I get to be the presenter and talk about “Why all the fuss about evolution?” I hope I don’t turn anyone off with my atheist schtick, in which I clean, fillet, fricassee, and eat a baby on stage.*

*Well, actually, looking at my talk, I don’t seem to actually mention atheism anywhere. I suspect that when the audience notices my horns and tail, though, they might ask about it—so I’ll come prepared for the Q&A with a baby in my pocket. Hey, how about if I cook it over a fire from a burning Bible?

Our double standard

I’m sorry, Josh, but while you introduce the issue well…

There’s been a minor thing brewing in the last week or so between PZ Myers, Chris Mooney, and originally Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett (and by now the rest of the blogosphere) about “hiding atheists away” in discussions of evolution, the framing issues involved in calling atheists “brights” and other tangentially related topics. It taps into the deeper issues of the connection between evolution and atheism, how that impacts the Great Creationism Wars, and on and on.

…you then go on to perpetuate the usual misrepresentation of atheists in this debate.

If atheists make their atheism an issue in a discussion about evolution they’re playing the same game religious authoritarians are, and making it easy for the authoritarians to push their religion. Evolution isn’t a weapon to be wielded against religion, nor is religion a tool to be wielded against evolution, and the science class isn’t where atheists and theists should have their squabbles.

That just isn’t the way it works, and I’m feeling more than a little irritated at having to explain it over and over again.

You will not find me claiming that you must be an atheist to defend evolution, that only atheists understand evolution, or that Christians can’t be on our side in the evolution debate. I do not tie evolution to atheism or vice versa. I preface my talks to students on the subject with the explicit disclaimer that they are not required to abandon their faith to support good science. I do think religious credulity is the antithesis of the kind of critical thinking we should be encouraging, and that we ought to be working to reduce the role of superstition in our culture, but come on, give us atheists some credit—we are actually capable of generating a focused argument on a topic. We do.

So could everyone please stop pretending that the atheists in the scientific community are all making some fatuous “Evolution, therefore god is dead” argument?

Seriously, we aren’t saying that. We are making an independent argument for reason and atheism and against superstition; and the people who object to that are in essence suggesting that people who argue for evolution should keep silent. I could understand the complaint if it were against making bad arguments for evolution and atheism, but that simply isn’t the case here.

I’m beginning to resent it. People who wouldn’t think of telling a Jewish or Christian scientist to “hey, could you tone down any mention of your religious belief, anywhere, anytime?” think nothing of informing atheists that they shouldn’t defend their unbelief, anywhere, anytime. I’m sure I’ll hear that that isn’t what Josh is saying, but it’s hard to interpret it any other way when there are these vague expressions of disquiet over the presence of assertive atheists in our midst.

What makes it worse is the double standard. I have to pick on Mike for saying this most clearly.

I’m not a complete idiot; I realize the ‘religious’ right introduces religion into the debate to a far greater extent than the pro-science side. However, responding to that is an issue of tactics and framing, and is not what I’m discussing here. Personally, I don’t think atheists should have to hide their beliefs. However, when explaining and defending evolution, getting into the ‘God conflict’ is not only bad tactically, but as I explained, simply not relevant. Tactically, the ability to shoot down the ‘godless evolutionists’ concept by proclaiming one’s religious beliefs is, regrettably, a useful rhetorical device.

Got that? Statements about god-belief, pro or con, are off the table in arguments about evolution, except when those statements are pro-religion. Those are OK. Ken Miller writes a book on evolution that’s also a defense of religion in general and Catholicism specifically, and do we hear these same people decrying the introduction of the theist/atheist “squabble” into the evolutionary argument? No, his book is recommended all over the place (even by me—the science is good, but the religion is bogus). We can praise the clergy for getting involved, but atheists? Regrettable. Tactically bad.


We also get arguments that criticizing religion hurts the pro-evolution cause. So what? You could also say that criticizing creationism hurts the pro-evolution cause, because it pisses off all those millions of creationists. The claim completely misses the point. Atheists reject religion, so we aren’t at all worried that the targets of our criticism dislike our criticism. We aren’t going to stop.

Now Josh and Mike and Chris are smart people; but it’s not at all clear what they hope to accomplish with these complaints. Is there some specific problem in mind, or is it just a general, fuzzy discomfort with all the vocal ungodly on your side? What is it that should change? Because I can guarantee that I’m not going to slack off on denying religion, loudly and proudly…and I doubt that Richard Dawkins or Steven Weinberg, a couple of rather more prominent opponents of religion, are going to back off either. So what’s the gripe? Why shouldn’t I feel that many who should be my allies are making excuses for a broader irrationality that undermines the more specific argument for evolution that they want to support? While utility in the short term is nice, I’m not in favor of losing to superstition in the long run.

Witch doctors

Bob Larson.

Pam has the story—he’s an evil evangelist whose scam is to snooker people into coughing up wads of cash for his “exorcism” services. He’s a first rate kook, a flaming wicked con artist who may well be so deluded that he actually believes in his own magic powers, but who cares? He’s nuts. His followers are nuts. Most Christians aren’t going to complain if you point out that he’s a loon—most are going to be vaguely embarrassed by these fringe quacks flourishing within their religion.

This picture, though, is not from the Bob Larson article.

Palms upraised and eyes closed, the workers sit in silent adoration around a conference table as religious music plays on a laptop computer. One member suddenly drops to his knees in rapt devotion.

That’s from the front page of today’s Star Tribune, part of a longish article on the growing practice of flaunting faith in the workplace. It’s a non-judgmental article that mentions that “The Twin Cities is becoming a leader in the application of faith at work,” gives lots of of space to the Christian advocates, and only briefly acknowledges that members of minority religions might find it somewhat oppressive. It fails to mention the central point: these people are nuts.

I don’t see anything to distinguish a Twin Cities CEO saying they need to “Lead like Jesus” and Bob Larson admonishing everyone to “Do What Jesus Did.” It’s people who believe in magical thinking and create an environment in the workplace to pressure other sheep to go along—they believe in stupid things and are spreading the Stupid Word. I think this is a bigger problem than the Bob Larsons of the planet; this is the work that paves the way for greater and greater foolishness, and it’s generally given a pass or even encouragement.

Let’s stop, OK? Can we please start asking pointed questions of all these rubbish spreading clowns and make them feel at least a little bit uncomfortable about their foolishness?

Another new URL to fix

Update those blogrolls for Creek Running North, which is now located at While you’re fixing that one, remember to also set Pharyngula’s new address to—it’s been over a month and I see via Technorati that the old address has about ten times as many links as the new one!

We’re all Dakotans

Just a thought…but you know, my town isn’t far from the South Dakota border, and there really isn’t that much difference between my neighborhood and that of some small South Dakota town 50 miles away. I think the piggish prigs who are pushing the legislation to criminalize abortion are contemptible, but does that mean we people of the progressive state of Minnesota are any better? That got me wondering—I’m a fully entitled, blissfully unaware, card-carrying member of the Patriarchy, after all, so I’ve never had to consider what it would be like to be female, 17, and worried that I might be pregnant.

I tried to imagine it.

I can get a pregnancy test kit from the Pamida down the road. I’d feel a bit weird about it, though: this is a small town. We know everyone and they know us, and those are high school and college kids working the cash registers there. Everyone is going to know about it if I buy one…I suppose I could try shoplifting it, but jeez, if I got caught shoplifting a pregnancy test, I might as well just die.

If I somehow got the test and it were positive, the next step would be difficult. There is a sign on the edge of town here that purports to be helpful— it says “Pregnant? Need advice?” with a phone number on it—but it’s put up by some of the local religious wackos, and all they’ll do is tell you to keep the baby and slap you upside the head with a Bible, so they certainly aren’t to be trusted.

The phone book isn’t much help. I wouldn’t trust the Morris hospital either…locals again, and they have a reputation for being very conservative. They don’t do abortions anyway. The
nearest Planned Parenthood clinic is 45 minutes away, they don’t do abortions either, but they do provide emergency contraception…except that they’re only open on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. WTF? Do a lot of people get knocked up on Monday and Tuesday nights or something?

As it turns out, the only abortion providers in Minnesota are all in Minneapolis. Three hours away, by car; to get there by bus requires a shuttle to Alexandria, then taking Greyhound the rest of the way. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. Once there, though, there’s more. Minnesota has a parental notification law, so at least one parent has to come along, and the other has to send along a notarized letter granting permission. Then there is a state-mandated 24 hour waiting period: at the first appointment, they have to counsel the person against getting an abortion, and can only do the procedure the following day…as if a young lady who has had to struggle that much just to get there hasn’t already thought things through thoroughly. Spending a night in the Big City is going to cost.

Did I mention that the procedure itself is going to cost $500+?

I’m beginning to realize that the only young women who will be able to get abortions in my part of the state are the ones with a supportive family, or who are old enough and prosperous enough that they can afford the rigamarole and hassle. The ones who are going to be most distressed by a pregnancy, who are least able to cope with it, are the ones who are going to be excluded.

I’m feeling a bit ashamed of being a male and not having thought much about this before. That little Y chromosome does confer some privilege in this regard, and it seems petty and cruel that we should so unthinkingly impose a greater pain on those who have already had more than their share.

Right now, a few scrofulous boars in South Dakota have raised their snouts and squealed loudly, asserting their selfish rule over women, and it’s easy to condemn them. But there are only about 750,000 South Dakotans, so most of us don’t live there anyway; it seems to me that maybe what we ought to be doing is also looking to our own states’ laws on abortion. Our pigs might be a little more muted, but they’ve been busy for years, planting a lot of little restrictions that add up to a substantial hurdle.

“I think the stars are aligned,” said House Speaker Matthew Michels, a Republican. “Simply put, now is the time.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe now is the time to wake up and do something about this everywhere, not just South Dakota.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: South Dakotans disapprove of the law by a large majority. How do these morons get elected?