A single insect can’t demonstrate evolution

I have to criticize the video below. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and the animal it shows is spectacularly well-adapted, but it does not demonstrate the fulfillment of a uniquely Darwinian prediction.

An orchid was found with a nectary that was only accessible by way of a long, narrow tube, and Darwin predicted the existence of an insect pollinator with an almost equivalently long tongue. However, an Owen or a Cuvier, scientists of that century who did not accept evolution, could have easily made the very same prediction, on the basis of created functionality: a god would not have made the flower that way unless he also, in his infallible foresight, also made a complementary pollinator. One could also make an argument based on an orchidized version of the anthropic principle: the flower is there, therefore it must have been produced by a parent flower that had been pollinated, therefore there must exist a long-tongued pollinator.

The special Darwinian character comes from the explanation of how such a phenomenon came to be; not by the fiat of some arbitrary creator, but by a set of processes that must still operate. It is to the advantage of the flower that the pollinator has to struggle a bit to reach the nectar reward, pressing itself against the flower and covering itself with pollen, while the pollinator would prefer to be able to reach in easily and without mess and fuss to get its dinner. This means that there is selection for flowers that have slightly longer nectary tubes than the insect tongues, while there is selection for insects that are able to reach all the pools of sweet nectar — but this is a race in which the insects will always be slightly behind.

What Darwin predicted was not a perfect match between nectary and proboscis, but that the insect proboscis would be slightly shorter than the nectary, and that’s what you find in his work On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and the Good Effects of Intercrossing. Another prediction that I haven’t found that he made explicitly is that there should be a range of heritable variation in nectary length — it could just be that that was so obvious in the collections he examined that it wasn’t necessary to state it.

Anyway, lovely as it is, a video of an insect with a remarkably long proboscis is not confirmation of Darwin’s theory. The key element of that theory is a description of a process which generates diversity over time in populations, which isn’t assessed by examining a single organism at a single moment in time.

(via Atheist Media Blog)

Molecular biology for babbling Christianists

I thought Jebons were supposed to be a joke … so what is this lunatic ranting about?

Warning: this is from GodTube, so unless you’ve got a fair amount of tolerance for crazy, deluded talk, you might not want to click on it.

Just in case you didn’t want to puke up your dinner by actually watching this kook, it’s an evangelical apologist teaching his version of molecular biology to his audience — he is immensely and undeservedly impressed by the fact that the cell adhesion molecule laminin is cruciform in diagrams. Forget the fact that it is a floppy glycoprotein, and the arms can fold around into many configurations; never mind that the Christian symbol is trivial, a mere two slashes, one across the other, and apparently anything with four arms will fit it (nobody tell them about tRNA!); it probably doesn’t even matter that there are many adhesion molecules, such as NCAMs, cadherins, and integrins that are not cross-shaped. Laminin is a secreted adhesion molecule that gets enmeshed in the extracellular matrix; it has 3 similar, short arms that adhere to other laminin molecules, which promotes their assembly into a feltwork.

From this feeble, pathetic, coincidental shape, the preacher spins out an incredible interpretation — Jesus holds us together! The audience of dumb yokels oohs and aahs over this nonsense. This is depressing, since this seems to be the level of comprehension we can expect from the public.

Also depressing: google for laminin, and aside from the Wikipedia entry, the top references right now are all to Christian kooks babbling about this trivial shape story. What a sad fate for a developmentally and evolutionarily significant molecule that has roots right down at the base of the metazoan family tree. I cringe to see these loons abusing molecular biology to cheerlead for superstition.

I was asked if there were any swastika shaped molecules in the cell. Sure.


That’s a potassium channel. Your brains are full of them.

Atheism is a condom for your mind

Matt Taibbi went off on a three day Christian retreat, and discovered how ridiculous they are…but he also discover the deep emotional, anti-intellectual pull of these kinds of events.

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to “be rational” or “set aside your religion” about such things as the Iraq War or other policy matters. Once you’ve made a journey like this — once you’ve gone this far — you are beyond suggestible. It’s not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that’s the issue. It’s that once you’ve gotten to this place, you’ve left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you’re thinking with muscles, not neurons.

By the end of that weekend, Phil Fortenberry could have told us that John Kerry was a demon with clawed feet, and not one person would have so much as blinked. Because none of that politics stuff matters anyway, once you’ve gotten this far. All that matters is being full of the Lord and empty of demons. And since everything that is not of God is demonic, asking these people to be objective about anything else is just absurd. There is no “anything else.” All alternative points of view are nonstarters. There is this “our thing,” a sort of Cosa Nostra of the soul, and then there are the fires of Hell. And that’s all.

Insulating yourself against the taint of all religion is a kind of psychological, informational hygiene. Abandon all rigor and requirement for reality-based evidence for one’s ideas, and you open the door wide for the kind of conditioning in dogma modern religion promotes.

The latest atrocity to spur right-thinking Christians to action!

What fresh horror could drive the American Family Association to call out the troops? Evil, repulsive soap operas.

Procter & Gamble has resumed using explicit, open-mouth homosexual kissing in their soap opera, “As the World Turns.”

So stop buying soap and shampoo, Christians! If you aren’t dingy, greasy, and stinky, we’ll know you’re an advocate of boys kissing.

Helpfully, AFA includes a link to the “repulsive” video, so if you’re a good Christian you can also watch these two attractive young men being affectionate with one another. You can watch it over and over. You can watch it until those strange, funny feelings drive you to embrace Jesus.

A temporary palliative

So you’re pining away for ERV, hoping either that her site will be restored or that she’ll bring her new site up quickly. Don’t sit there weeping and wailing, she’ll be back online soon enough. Cheer up and laugh! Here are a few links to help you out.

You feel better already.

Two cultures?

My fellow academics, have you ever noticed that when our science students have problems with writing, we send them off to get tutorials from the people who know better, over in the English department? Our campus has a writing room where students can get advice from experts before they hand in their work to the science nerds. Unfortunately, there is no reciprocal arrangement: when English majors write about science, almost any claptrap can pass muster, we science nerds don’t provide remedial science education, and they don’t send their students to us to get their assertions vetted. This leads to distressing situations, like this account of a student who wrote a paper on evolution for a history class. The history TA marked up her paper with painfully stupid comments about the science of evolution. What can be done about this sort of thing?

Well, my first thought was that the next time I get a set of term papers (next week! Oh, no!) I’m going to grade them by insisting that “it’s” always gets an apostrophe, verb tenses are irrelevant and changing them frequently spices up a paper, and that anything written before the date of the author’s birth is old timey history and doesn’t need a citation, since they make it all up anyway. Sentences optional are. Speeeling ireluhvent. We is always at war with humanities and social sciences.

But no! Let’s acknowledge that both sides of the campus divide have essential contributions to make to one another! This is a case where Science ought to put on its best lab coat and stomp on over to History and set them straight, while recognizing that it would be a good thing for History (and Philosophy and English and Art usw) have grounds to tromp over and assail us over our philistine ways. Silence is the worst approach we could take.

Which actually makes this a nice segue into my announcement for the Café Scientifique, which represents an attempt to bridge the two cultures. It’s our last Café of the year, and we’ve got a couple of people from those buildings on the other side of the campus mall to join us in talking about how to communicate science. I’m really looking forward to this one; it’s not too late for the rest of you to book a flight and rent a car and make the trip on out to Morris for a splendid evening.


Consuming information: Translating science for the rest of us
Barbara Burke (Speech) and Tisha Turk (English)

“Consuming information: Translating science for the rest of us” describes and explains the journalistic practices that occur when research about science topics gets translated into headlines and news stories. By examining recent news stories about the dangers of coffee consumption, we illustrate the progress of information from an article in the American Journal of Ob/Gyn to a ten-second spot TV or a two-inch news story in a daily paper. Drink up while we discuss coffee research findings!

So, for that history TA who is ignorant of evolution, I’d say that one response ought to be that the science disciplines at that university make a routine effort to offer introductory lectures and discussions on core topics in the field, aimed at a general audience. I’d also like to see more explanations for us geeks on basics in other disciplines — if someone offered an evening “Idiot’s Guide to Post-modernism”, or similar grossly misunderstood topic, I’d go.

As always, the answer is more speech. Talk and share ideas.