Cephalopod frenzy!

Several readers have alerted me to this artful cover from Play magazine.


Why must the videogames always be about the nasty wicked violence? Put away the weapon, young lady! The mysterious creature only wants to play.

But it does remind me…Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus is on TV in about an hour and a half, and I need to get ready. What snacks are appropriate for such a movie? The traditional popcorn and soft drink? Or is this more of a large jug of cheap hootch sort of event? And should I start drinking now, or wait for the absurdities to start?

A couple of gems from AiG

Our silly little friends at Answers in Genesis have said a few more stupid things. Hey, why aren’t you surprised?

The first is predictable and ridiculous: they have discovered the PR about finding a function for the appendix. The creationists are so happy! It confirms that Darwin was wrong (although I showed that it does no such thing, and Darwin’s infallibility is not a point of dogma with us anyway), and they get to claim that it’s not a vestigial organ again, because there is evidence that it has some subtle function. Only it still is vestigial: functionality isn’t part of the definition.

They also don’t understand the paper, since, as I warned, creationists should run away entirely from it. Its conclusion of functionality is derived almost entirely from a phylogenetic analysis. This paper cannot be used to vindicate creationism in any way. But I’ll make another prediction: it will be cited repeatedly by creationists in the future, because how you arrive at a conclusion doesn’t matter to them — only that you get a result that fits their preconceptions.

The second matter AiG brings up is something of a sore point with me. They don’t like Dawkins’ recent article, “Creationists, Now They’re Coming for Your Children”. The nonsense in the AiG article is just more of the same ol’ babble, and I suspect it was written by Jason Lisle, because it simply repeats their mantra of ‘same evidence, different interpretations’. They take exception to Dawkins writing about the fact of evolution, which they dispute; they claim they use the same evidence to come up with their belief that the earth is 6000 years old. This is completely false. AiG relies on selectively using only a tiny fraction of the evidence, and ignoring everything that contradicts their preconceptions.

That’s not what galls me, though. That’s all AiG ever does. No, it’s that they don’t notice that their own website confirms Dawkins’ title: the creationists are coming for your children. You have to read Ken Ham’s blog for a truly appalling example.

The bulk of it is a letter from some visitors. I include the whole thing below: I was disgusted by it.

Thanks so much for a day we will cherish. We are the family from Ohio [who came with] with Marine, our French exchange student with us who had received Christ a year ago. She gives her permission for you to share with supporters about how awesome God works. I pray that the testimony I leave with you about Marine encourages you.

In the summer of 2006 my wife, Karen, was excited about an ad in the local newspaper. She wanted to host a French student for a one-month cultural exchange. I was not as excited. I put it to prayer, and God gave a peace in the matter. We contacted the agency and let them know of our interest. They provided the information on some students for us to choose from. We again took the matter to prayer.

Karen and I agreed not to tell each other who we believed ‘the one’ was until we both knew. We then sat down and revealed our choice. We both chose Marine, and it was reaffirmation from God to us. Karen contacted the agency just before the deadline. ‘I’m sorry,’ the woman said. ‘But we only have one student left to place . . . her name is Marine.’ We laughed–and knew it was meant to be.

Marine came as a 15 year old agnostic from Paris, France to rural Ohio. We had been praying that she’d see Christ in us and receive His salvation while with us. Saturday night came (her first week with us), and we shared that as a family, we go to church together. She responded, ‘No thank you.’ We prayed and my wife cried.

It probably wasn’t the most tactful thing to do, but the next morning we said, ‘O.K., we’re going to church together as a family today.’ She agreed. I guess we really didn’t give much of an opportunity for her not to agree.

The month went very well. Marine grew close to our family, and she grew fond of visiting church. She even bought a crucifix necklace, but hadn’t received Christ as her Savior. We fervently prayed for her and her family. Marine invited us to visit her family the next summer in Paris. The next summer we packed up the family and headed to Paris.

The week-long visit to Paris was almost up, and Saturday night came. Marine said, ‘I know tomorrow is Sunday and you go to church.’ I said, ‘No that’s o.k., maybe I can just share with you the information we brought for missionary friends of ours in France. (Our missionary friends live only 30 minutes from Marine, and we brought many French Bibles and some French gospel literature to leave.) What an opportunity to share the gospel! I had frequently read Ephesians 6:19-20 in preparation to have boldness to share.

The next day we shared the gospel. The seed had been planted with them.

Last summer Marine returned to America with her step-sister for another visit. We went to Washington D.C. and had a ball. Towards the end of the visit our church was having Vacation Bible School. Karen asked the girls if they would like to help with crafts, etc. (as she and our children would be there all week). The girls eagerly helped.

The week was based on the Creation Museum’s ‘Seven C’s of History’. The gospel was clearly given. By late in the week Marine said, ‘I have some questions for Pastor Drew.’ Thank God! We knew what this meant. Karen and I and our kids had been praying for the Holy Spirit to move. Marine received Christ after a thorough explanation and questions and answers. She came out and said in wonderful English, ‘My name is now in the Lamb’s Book of Life. We all busted out in tears. Praise God.

Her sister also trusted in Christ two days later. How awesome is our God? He is awesome!

Marine came back this summer to Ohio for two months. Yesterday we spent a wonderful day at the Creation Museum. As my wife and I were looking in the bookstore of the museum I smiled and said, ‘Isn’t this cool? God took Marine from being an agnostic to joyfully looking through this store with an armful of Christian books trying to decide which ones to get.’ God indeed is good.

May God bless you and the Creation Museum. God used His truth and AiG’s Seven C’s of History to change a life and bring Him glory.

–Scott, Ohio


I’ve done a little work with the American Field Service in my area, and we hosted a girl from Italy for a year. I am frankly horrified that someone would bring in an exchange student and slam them with religious proselytization; it’s a tough situation for these kids, who are isolated from familiar friends and family, who are often unfamiliar with the region and weak on the language — the goal of the foster family should be to provide a safe house for the student, not to prey upon their vulnerabilities.

Here’s the difference. They brought in an agnostic girl, and practically the first thing they do is put pressure on her to conform, praying over her and crying when she chooses not to go to church. Imagine yourself in that situation; it’s goddamned evil to do that to a young person. When our Italian daughter came to us, she told us she was Catholic, so we…wept and told her she was a gullible dupe? No. We showed her where the Catholic church was (just a few blocks down the street), and told her that when the weather was bad we’d help her get there.

That’s what decent people would do, anyway.

Consider this a warning to any European families planning to put their kids in one of the exchange programs (they really should be a good opportunity for everyone): screen the host parents carefully. You can express any preferences in writing, and you can legitimately demand that any host family take a hands-off attitude towards your child’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. AFS, at least, sets up independent advisors to the student who can field any concerns, and if your student finds themselves in a miserable situation, they can ask for a new host family.

The kind of behavior Scott from Ohio was engaged in is disgraceful, and is the kind of thing that can seriously damage exchange programs. I don’t know that I would have let my kids into an exchange program with some backward country where they were likely to get indoctrinated by lunatics, that’s for sure.

I’m embarrassed by the actions of my fellow Americans. I feel like telling everyone outside the US that maybe you should have second thoughts about participating in exchange programs with us.

But why would Dawkins want to win a copy of his own book?

Denyse O’Leary has a contest: provide a copy of the source code to Dawkins’ Weasel demo. The prizes are your choice of a copy of Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, or Meyer’s creationist apologetic, Signature in the Cell. It must be like that television game show where you get to choose door #1 or door #2, and one door hides a free vacation in the Bahamas while the other hides a goat.

It’s a very silly contest because a) only Dawkins could win it, and he conjures up Bahamas-quality books all the time, and probably doesn’t want a copy of Stephen Meyer’s rank little goat, and b) the question has already been settled.

The issue that has the creationists so worked up is whether the program used ‘latching’ or not. That is, this is a simple program originally written in BASIC that starts with a random string of characters, and changes them randomly, retaining the randomized versions that most closely match an arbitrary search string (in this case, “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL”). They are hung up on this claim that the program ‘cheated’ by protecting individual letters that matched the search string from further changes.

It doesn’t matter.

If the original program did commit such fudgery (and it clearly didn’t), it wouldn’t affect the state of evolutionary biology at all. It was a simple demonstration program to help teach a basic concept. Move on, people, move on.

This was also a very, very simple program. Anyone who can write even a simple program in any computer language can whip up a version of this program in hours, and if you have any significant programming skills, it will take you a few minutes. Try it with latching, try it without. Even without it, it works just fine in matching the search string in short order.

People have done just that, it really is trivial. Except, unfortunately, for the creationists at the Discovery Institute, who are still obsessed with and baffled by a short, elementary computer program written by a biologist in a short evening. It’s no wonder they’re stumped by a cell!

Gay conversion works! If you ignore the data and the methods, that is

The fundamentalist community has a strong interest for some bizarre reason in converting homosexuals into heterosexuals. They consider homosexuality nothing but a bad personal choice, and therefore all gay people need is a little Jesus and they’ll switch back to finding the other sex more attractive.

It never seems to occur to them that that implies that their own sexual orientation would then be an arbitrary matter of a trained esthetic, and that that would imply that they should be easily flipped into homosexuality themselves (probably with a little Satan). It’s strange: I’d be rather upset if a group of Baptists tried to brainwash me into thinking Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was a hot dude I ought to fantasize about.

Anyway, the fundies love to cobble up ‘scientific’ studies that back up their claims of successful conversions. These typically defy common sense and the results of work by real psychologists, but that doesn’t stop them. Their latest result claims a program of Christian counseling has a 53% success rate. Unfortunately, even in the press releases that crow about this answer, they have to admit some bothersome details. Like that their sample size was less than a hundred, that over a third of their subjects dropped out and refuse to talk to them, and that even those they managed to retain in the study are very evasive and reluctant to talk to the researchers, all stuff you’d expect of a program that doesn’t work in any way other than instilling guilt in their subjects.

Worst of all, credible scientists don’t accept their results, for an amusing reason.

“They selectively apply rigorous scientific standards,” he said. “So when it comes to examining the evidence that sexual orientation change can occur, they apply extraordinarily rigorous standards, and those standards allow them to disregard significant evidence that sexual orientation change can occur. That’s what happens with our study. They, I think, invalidly applied several methodological concerns to dismiss our study.”

Curse you, Science, for your rigorous standards and methodological discipline that prevent us from getting the answers we wanted ahead of time!

Friday Cephalopod: Survivor: Cephalopod!

Tips for flourishing after a mass extinction. Ceratites nodosus (MCZ-7232) (A), from the Triassic of Germany, was similar to the ceratitid ammonoid species that thrived in the water column in the Early Triassic (1), while bottom-dwelling species languished. Key to the ceratitids’ rapid success after the end-Permian mass extinction were their ecological tolerances, which may be inferred by reference to their closest living relatives, the coleoids (squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish), including the low-oxygen specialist Vampyroteuthis infernalis (B).

This picture has a little story behind it. Over 250 million years ago, our world experienced the most massive extinction event known, with over 99% of all individuals on the planet dying out abruptly, and diversity was greatly limited for a few million years after that. One possible explanation for the Permian extinction is a correlated series of massive volcanic eruptions that burned through thick coal deposits and drowned the earth in CO2 — global warming on a massive scale. Even cephalopods suffered. The ceratatid ammonoids had been in decline for a long time, but the extinction nearly wiped them out, reducing them to only a few struggling genera.

But then something interesting happened. After the great extinction, the ammonoids exploded in diversity, radiating rapidly. Something about them had made some of them capable of riding out the disaster, and then exploiting the changed world afterwards.

(Click for larger image)

Total generic richness [Sobs; black bold line,
all ammonoids; gray lines, major ammonoid groups;
Permian dotted line, alternate data from Ammon
(16)] and mean Chao2 estimate of the overall generic
richness with its 95% confidence interval (large circles
with vertical bars) (table S1). PTB, Permian-Triassic
boundary; 1, Kasimovian; 2, Gzhelian; 3, Asselian; 4,
Sakmarian; 5, Artinskian; 6, Kungurian; 7, Roadian; 8,
Wordian; 9, Capitanian; 10, Wuchiapingian; unlabeled
successive intervals, Changhsingian, Griesbachian,
Dienerian, Smithian; 15, Spathian; 16, Early Anisian;
17, Middle Anisian; 18, Late Anisian; 19, Ladinian; 20,
Early Carnian; 21, Late Carnian; 22, Early Norian; 23,
Middle Norian; 24, Late Norian; 25, Rhaetian.

One speculative explanation for the secret of their success is the ability of some members of the cephalopod clade to survive in cold, nearly anoxic conditions, like Vampyroteuthis infernalis. They were able to rebound quickly because of their dismal metabolism and the general fecundity of cephalopods. They restored some ecological webs faster than previously thought and provided an environment for further growth of more severely crippled clades.

It just goes to show you that our current episode of global warming is a relatively minor event. Life will go on. Fast-living organisms with high metabolic demands like, say, humans, might suffer and die from the environmental consequences of a high CO2 atmosphere, but don’t worry — the cephalopods will live on. They might even get a happy surge in numbers from the changes.

Brayard A, Escarguel G, Bucher H, Monnet C, Brühwiler T, Goudemand N, Galfetti T, Guex J (2009) Good Genes and Good Luck: Ammonoid Diversity and the End-Permian Mass Extinction. Science 325(5944):1118-1121.

Marshall CR, Jacobs DK (2009) Flourishing After the End-Permian Mass Extinction. Science 325(5944):1079-1080.

Shame on Washington state

My home state! In a region with some of the highest percentages of godless people in the country! And they have this awful law on the books.

Washington’s law specifies that a person treated through faith healing “by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care or abandoned.” Other religions are not mentioned.

Christian Science is not science, and it is definitely not medicine. I presume some religious lobby got this evil exemption on the books years ago, but now it’s time to remove it—it’s killing people. The mention of the law comes from a story about a young man, Zachery Swezey, who died a slow, painful death from a ruptured appendix, with his parents looking on.

The day his son died, Greg Swezey told sheriff’s investigators he knew Zakk would die 10 or 15 minutes before the teenager passed away. His condition had gotten much worse about an hour and a half before Zakk died, he told the investigators, and he realized Zakk was exhibiting some of the symptoms of death he’d seen when older church members died.

He did not consider calling an ambulance, he told them.

Who did he call instead? Elders of his church, who showed up to splash oil on the poor kid and pray.

I can only imagine what that was like. I had severe appendicitis as a child, and their description of it is mild: sure, there was vomiting — like an acid geyser firing up your throat. They don’t even mention the agony and the fever and the intermittent loss of consciousness. And I didn’t even get to the point of having a rupture, because my parents did the sensible, reasonable, intelligent thing that any decent human being would do, and rushed me to the doctor, and then to the hospital.

I’m very happy to say that my parents loved me more than some insane primitive dogma, although, you know, that really isn’t saying much.

I’m very sorry that young Zakk isn’t around to say the same.

Change the law, Washingtonians.

By the way, you can find out more about this lunatic cult, The Church of the First Born, on their web page. They’re incoherent and nuts. Warning: the page fires up religious music as soon as it loads. Yeah, one of those.

Wikipedians might want to take a look at their Wikipedia entry, too. It’s pretty clearly written entirely by one of their acolytes — you can tell by all the exclamation points.

Church of the Firstborn – A Phrase/Title found in Scripture! – (Hebrews 12:23).

Not a Denomination! Not an Organization!Founded Much Earlier than any of the groups mentioned below!

The Head of This Church/Assembly is The Very One that you read about in The Holy/Qodesh Scriptures! (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15, Colossians 1:18) Members in This Church/Assembly Serve Him & His Father (To Whom we regard as Our Heavenly Father and HIS Son – The Messiah/Our Master & Savior) The First Born from the Dead – Leading the Way for all those that Believe & Follow Him/HIM, Never To Die Again!

It Is Not A Denomination! And It Is Not An Organization In Scripture!

Here’s our problem

I know, you can’t use reason to talk someone out of a position they didn’t use reason to arrive at, anyway. But this result at least tells us the depth of the problem.

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who think that way, and the really mind-boggling part of this is that they consider this attitude to be a virtue. That’s where early education in critical thinking is important: children shouldn’t grow up believing that stubbornly clinging to an idea despite all the evidence against it makes them look heroic. It makes them look stupid.

Religion as a refuge for the criminally insane

Phillip Garrido was a man of God with a joyful story to tell.

“If you take this a step at a time, you’re going to fall over backward and in the end you’re going to find the most powerful, heart-warming story,” he said.

“I tell you here’s the story of what took place at this house and you’re going to be absolutely impressed.

Oh, right. Here’s his heart-warming story: in 1991 he and his wife kidnapped an 11 year old girl; they imprisoned her in their backyard; he raped her repeatedly; and she eventually gave birth to two children, who are now 11 and 15, and who were also confined to that small yard for their entire lives.

I am not impressed. I presume that what he thinks makes this a happy tale is that he was an enthusiastic god-walloper who was caught while handing out religious tracts, but you can read his blog and see that he was just nuts.

Minnesota State Fair put to shame

One of the claims to fame of midwestern fairs is the food — usually deep fried, and on a stick. Minnesotans must be expressing their inner Thai.

In Thailand, food I have eaten on a stick includes squid, squid tentacles, insects, jellyfish, quail eggs, and every part of a water buffalo including spleen, kidney and testicles.

Squid eggs…onna stick? I’d go for that.

I might pass on the water buffalo testicles on a stick, though.