Weird creatures lurk in the depths

How odd — lots of people are sending me links to this video of a spindly-armed squid drifting through an oil-drilling site, but I’m pretty sure I posted this same video last year. I guess National Geographic just acquired rights to the footage.

It’s still a spectacular animal. And if that’s not enough, here’s a whole page of short clips of these Magnapinna squid in action.

Flaunting ignorance

Quiz time! What’s wrong with this paragraph?

Sometimes life takes a creative leap that’s almost miraculous. Nobody knows how this happens, and it can never be predicted. You’d never know, looking at a reptile’s round, hard, shiny scales, that they could genetically morph into feathers. Paleontologists know that they did, however, and finding the very first dinosaur that sprouted feathers is one of the great discoveries waiting to happen.

[Read more…]

Other people get email about me

Uh-oh. I’m in big trouble now — I’ve been ratted out to the governor. My nefarious schemes will certainly be foiled now! Here is the revealing letter; I’ve added a few comments in red to it.

Dear Governor Pawlenty

I am an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, having received my Ph.D. in Zoology in 1954 [We’ve gotten better since then].

I have for some time been concerned about the behavior of Paul Zachary Myers, Associate Professor of Biology at the Morris campus of the University. His rabid attacks on our most treasured institutions [What? The Discovery Institute?] give me great concern both for the University and for the citizens of the State of Minnesota [Since, as we all know, criticizing anything puts people in peril]. I have written to the Provost and received neither acknowledgement nor reply [I wonder why?]. I complained to the Board of Regents and received a reply from the Chancellor of the Morris campus supporting Myers’ right to say what he wants [I have heard of this custom, called “freedom of speech”]. Minnesota has become a center for Universal Atheism [I wish!] largely due to the pervasive influence of this man [Moi? Feel the power!] and his hundreds of devoted followers [Minnesota: population 5,200,000. Followers: hundreds. Yet we conquer!]. It shows in the presence of another foul mouthed atheist, Al Franken [I saw him campaign: he pointed out his Jewish religious beliefs frequently], poised to become a member of Congress [I wish, again…latest results show Coleman clinging to a slim lead]. I want you to know my feelings with the hope that you might use your influence as Governor and ex-officio member of the Board of Regents to expose and counter [How?], as I have and continue to do, Myers’ corrosive influence which I believe extends far beyond the borders of the State of Minnesota [My tentacles reach far]. It is especially important now that we have elected a man to the Presidency with extremely uncertain purposes [Delusional paranoid speaking there]. I see the future of the Republic to be in grave jeopardy [If Obama is Palpatine, do I get to be Darth Vader?].

Sincerely yours,

John A. Davison [Retired crackpot], Professor Emeritus of Biology

If I suddenly disappear after this, look for me in the dungeons below the Capitol in St Paul.

Egnor loses it, again

Creationists must live on a different planet. I just summarized this symposium I attended; I posted the schedule last week. In between, Michael Egnor takes this scrap of information and spins out a weird tale. He actually put up a post titled, “Is P.Z. Myers Attending a Conference on Eugenics?”. To which one can only mutter, “WTF?”

Here’s his “reasoning”:

I’m having trouble finding the program Myers is referring to (why wasn’t I invited!?), but Claudia Cohen Hall is on the medical campus at Penn, so I surmise that the presentations will be on eugenics (apologies for it, I hope), which is Darwin’s only legacy to medicine.

But of course eugenics won’t be mentioned, except perhaps brief exculpations (“Eugenics was the misuse of Darwin’s theory by a few rogue geneticists…”). No doubt the talks will be ‘Children Hate Vegetables Because of Ancestral Reproductive Advantage of Avoiding Toxins’ or ‘We Will Evolve Oiler Skin Because of Frequent Bathing’ or ‘X-Linked Color Blindness Evolved to Help Paleolithic Male Hunters See Camouflage.’ Believe it or not, these are actual cutting-edge evolutionary “theories.”

Do we need any further demonstration that creationists are divorced from reality, have no interest in pursuing the truth, and will make stuff up on the airiest of whims? No, it wasn’t a conference about eugenics, pro or con. No, it wasn’t about medicine. No, none of those very silly talks were given. No, since evolution contributes substantially to basic biology, all that stuff about how cells work and interact and change, evolution has contributed significantly to modern medicine — Egnor’s ignorance of the mechanistic underpinnings of what medicine does is no excuse.

Oh, and Dr Egnor, I can guess why you weren’t invited. It’s because you’re a babbling chowderhead.

Understanding Darwin: The legacy of evolution

As I’ve already mentioned, I was off in Philadelphia this past weekend, participating in a symposium entitled “Understanding Darwin: The legacy of evolution”. I was a bit amazed to be there, since this was primarily a history and philosophy event with several big names in those fields, and I’m an itty-bitty biologist with more of a popular following than an academic one, but I was also glad to be involved and learned quite a bit, hob-nobbing with the big shots. Here’s a short summary of the content of the talks.

John Beatty talked about Natural Selection of & Versus Chance Variation. He began with a discussion of Gould’s classic metaphor of ‘rewinding life’s tape’ and asking what would happen on replay. Recently, everyone thinks of Lenski’s experiments with bacteria in this context, and Beatty discussed those, but he also pointed out that Darwin’s studies of orchid morphology are also beautiful examples of developmental contingencies, of diversity by chance. That stuff is going to end up in one of my Seed columns soon, I think.

Rasmus Winther gave an overview of systems thinking in a talk titled Systemic Darwinism. He made the case that there are three different kinds of evolutionary thinking: evolutionary genetics, where we’re concerned with gene frequencies over time, cladistics, which is all about changes in character state distributions over time, and self-organization, or change in the organization of parts over time (that last, I thought, was a rather peculiar definition). Darwin, while lacking the specifics of modern fields like genetics, seems to have been a good systems thinker, who tried to address different modes of thought in his own work.

This guy PZ Myers rambled on about Haeckel, embryos, and the phylotypic stage. He tried to make the self-evident case that there are some simple facts, observations of embryo similarities, and that there are interpretations of those facts, which ranged from Haeckel’s recapitulation to von Baer’s differentiation from the general to the specific to more modern models of global gene regulation, and that we have to be careful not to let models overwhelm the data (Winther phrased it succinctly: watch out for the reification of abstractions). I contrasted the errors and excess of zeal of someone like Haeckel with modern creationist mangling, which is malicious and unscholarly, and tries to deny the observations.

Jane Maienschein discussed Embryos in Evolution and History. I had already run roughshod over a chunk of her talk—we both talked a fair bit about Ernst Haeckel—but she had much more breadth to her story, since she also brought in Entwicklungsmechanik and 20th century embryologists and developmental biologists. Rather than railing against the affront of creationism in contemporary science, she focused on stem cell research, and how it is changing earlier preconceptions about the nature of differentiation.

And now for something completely different — Janet Browne talked about Charles Darwin and the Natural Economy of Households. She has this wealth of information about Darwin, one of the best documented figures in modern history, and she was intrigued by one peculiar observation. Francis Galton had sent out a questionnaire to many prominent people, surveying attitudes and backgrounds, and one question asked the respondents to list their special talents. Darwin’s answer was surprising. He said he had none, except for business! He regarded himself as an extremely successful businessman, first of all. It actually was true: all of Darwin’s account books are extant, and he was a guy who wrote down everything, from the purchase of a toothbrush to major railroad investments, and it’s all there.

At his wedding, the Darwin family financial seed was £10,000 granted to Charles and £10,000 to Emma. From this grew a fortune that, in the year before his death, was about £282,000. That’s a lot of money: Darwin’s expedition on the Beagle cost his father about £5,000, which was enough to buy a very nice house in those days, so Darwin was the equivalent of a modern multi-millionaire.

Browne argued that this talent was put to good use in his science. Like his accounts, he was a meticulous observer, noting everything. Further, accountancy taught him important principles of organization and abstraction. He kept day-to-day books of all expenses, which he then transcribed to books organized by category of expenses, which were further abstracted into yearly account books that summarized the totals. This is the same kind of methodology he used in tracking observations in natural history. She also noted that his diligence also reflected a common Malthusian sentiment of the times, that virtue was found in the proper management of money and resources.

I wondered whether this gradual and seemingly inevitable accumulation of wealth might also have colored Darwin’s perception of how evolution might work, but Browne was careful to say that she was only focusing on the application of Darwin’s business skills to his scientific methodology, and wasn’t saying anything about it’s application to his theory.

It was a great and stimulating meeting, and special appreciation has to go to Michael Weisberg of the University of Pennsylvania, who organized it all. At least 4 of the 5 talks were excellent. And really, people, tune in to your local universities — these kinds of events are going on all the time, and they’re often open to the public — you can get a marvelous education for free just by watching for the public seminars that university departments put on. We’re the opposite of elitist, we welcome everyone who wants to learn.

They have delusional crazy towns in the Arab world, too

Time for us all to give up. We’ve been defeated by Harun Yahya.

A fierce opponent of Darwinism, Yahya takes the credit for defeating the theory of evolution. “First, we offered Darwinists around the world 100 million fossils, which prove that this world came into being as a result of God’s creationism and not because of evolution. Second, Darwin wrote in his books that people have to find transitional forms to prove the theory of evolution, but nobody has been able to find a single transitional form. Third, Darwinists claim that the first cell came into being as a coincidence. But it is impossible for even a single protein to be formed by chance. Fourth, we have proved that the skulls that were displayed as evidence of evolution are fake. Darwinism cannot explain how we can see or hear or sense with the support of our brain.”

Polls conducted by newspapers in Germany, France, Switzerland and Denmark showed that 85-90 percent of Europeans no longer believed in the theory of evolution.

Wait, maybe we don’t have to surrender. 1) Yahya doesn’t have that many fossils; he has a book in which he plagiarized photos of fossils, and ignored any that represent non-extant forms. 2) We have lots of transitional forms, Yahya just closes his eyes to them. 3) The first cell was the product of chemical evolution, not coincidence. 4) The majority of the hominin skulls we know of are definitely genuine; the few fakes, like Piltdown, were exposed by scientists. 5) I don’t even understand what he’s trying to say with that comment about senses; Yahya is a gibbering moron.

That last sentence is contrived of imaginary statistics. Was Baghdad Bob representative of Islamic journalism or something?

Jam this signal, stat!

The Christian Coalition of America has created something called the 2008 American Values Survey. It is why we crash polls.

This particular poll is supposed to produce results that the Christian Coalition will present to congress as if it is a serious and representative sample of “American values” … which must be why they toss it out onto the web on a conservative website. This is not how you do a legitimate poll. This is how you bias your results.

So let’s all show them that American values include atheists and agnostics and humanists. More importantly, churn this badly designed poll so that either the results are far more ambiguous than they hope, or they have to start throwing out answers they don’t like selectively, further demonstrating the invalid nature of this method.