Welcome back!

I hope you all had a pleasant holiday—I had the strange experience of having all three kids come back to our house for the weekend. We’d just gotten rid of them all, and here they were, hangin’ about, being normal people, having a quiet couple of days together.

It’s a good thing none of the kids have kids of their own yet, or I’d start feeling all patriarchal, and we can’t have none of that.

Anyway, everything is getting back to normal now.

Intelligent Design creationism is fundamentally wrong

Via Sandwalk, this is a clip of Paul Nelson praising Jonathan Wells and his godawful gemisch of bad scholarship and lies, Icons of Evolution. They were making a big to-do over the ten-year anniversary of publication of this ghastly hackwork, and here Nelson is piously praising the premise.

It’s infuriatingly dishonest. Notice what he repeats over and over: the textbooks “diverge from the actual evidence,” they’re “out of touch with the actual evidence,” we “need to take these standard stories back to the evidence.” This, from the Discovery Institute, a propaganda mill with no evidence for their fantasies about design at all. There is such an egregious disconnect between what Nelson says and what he and his cronies do that I half-expected his sanctimonious head to explode. If you’re an intelligent design creationists, you do not have the privilege of hectoring others about evidence.

Furthermore, he’s spewing this nonsense in praise of Icons of Evolution, a book to which honesty and evidence are words in a strange foreign language…yet Nelson claims the message of that book is that textbook authors need to be “scrupulous about accuracy” — and yet those scruples are never applied to Wells, and further, Nelson is more than a little self-serving here: he is co-author on another awful DI production, Explore Evolution, which is little more than a warmed-over edition of Icons, and which has also been panned in reviews.

And then Nelson says the “response was much more hostile than I would have guessed.” He claims the hostility was because they were airing “dirty laundry,” which is simply wrong. The hostility derived from the fact that it was an appallingly bad work of misrepresentation and misleading innuendo, all on the service of an intellectually bankrupt theology.

On top of Icons of Evolution and Explore Evolution, Wells rehashed the same lies again in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. It’s become obvious that the Wells has gone dry: he’s simply repeating the same errors and phony arguments over and over again. This is not a man or work that warrants praise, but only condemnation and contempt.

In the past, I’ve focused on one specific issue that Wells repeatedly brings up, the idea that Haeckel’s embryos are some kind of ongoing problem for evolution. There are a lot of articles on Pharyngula on this subject, but I’ll just point to this one omnibus summary of links to articles on Haeckel and Wells, and briefly explain the nature of this ‘controversy’. There is a 19th century observation, made by multiple scientists and easily replicated today, that embryos go through a period called the phylotypic stage (and in vertebrates, called the pharyngula stage), in which species within a phylum exhibit a remarkable degree of similarity to one another. This is simply a fact: stop by my lab and I can pull out a series of slides of birds and mammals and reptiles and fish and show you how they all exhibit a set of characters, the presence of a tailbud and pharyngeal arches and somites and so forth, that are the hallmark of this relatively well-conserved stage. Now in the 19th century, Haeckel over-interpreted them to postulate a recapitulation of evolution within the development of an embryo, an idea now known to be false; Wells strategy has always been to point to an obsolete and falsified explanation for the similarities to argue that the evolutionary relationships are untenable. It’s a sleazy sleight of hand. Recapitulation theory is not in any way endorsed any more, but the similarities at the phylotopic stage are undeniable…yet Wells condemns any textbook that even shows photos of embryonic similarities.

That’s the central problem here. We have a phenomenon, the similarities between embryos at one stage of development, for which the creationists have no explanation, so they’re reduced to frantically denying the phenomenon. This isn’t the way science should work. The phenomenon is real; that these common similarities between embryos is better explained by common descent than by design may make creationists uncomfortable, but what a scientist should do is find an answer, not try to wave the problem away (or worse, accuse everyone who has seen these similarities as guilty of fraud).

I’d go further than to argue that the creationists are trying to hide data that defies their ideology. They’re trying to bury something that is almost paradigmatic of juicy, exciting science. There are a couple of properties of significant scientific questions that I consider emblematic of exactly the kind of work that is of great value.

  1. It has to address a universal phenomenon. The problem of phylotypy isn’t representative of all of life by any means, but it seems to be a near-universal within the animal kingdom. Why do organisms as diverse as insects and mammals exhibit this morphological bottleneck in their development? It’s a great question; it doesn’t deserve to be swept under the rug as the creationists would like to do.

  2. It has to be a non-trivial problem. Trying to figure out exactly what is going on in phylotypy isn’t easy, because the current best hypotheses all involve interactions within complex gene networks, not the most tractable problem, and solving it will require both comparative and computational tools. It’s the complexity of the subject that makes it both challenging and rewarding to solve.

  3. One thing guaranteed to spur interest if the postulated mechanisms are controversial. Proposed mechanisms for phylotypy are non-Darwinian: they involve selection for intrinsic properties of networks of developmental genes that establish large scale properties of embryonic patterning. Notice that it isn’t anti-Darwinian, or the creationists would be happy with it; the mechanism fits within the context of our understanding of evolution, but extends it somewhat to include conservation of a kind of sophisticated, modular array of genes that work together to build the body plan. It’s not just the alleles that matter, but the connections between them.

  4. Maybe I should have mentioned this one first. A key quality of good science is that it is doable — we have to be able to sit down and do measurements and experiments. Truth be told, a lot of ordinary science doesn’t engage the first three principles I listed above as much as it permits the rapid and routine collection of data. The phylotypy hasn’t been quite so tractable, and to move beyond a kind of morphological phenomenology that has characterized much of the work so far, requires comparative analysis of large dataset of developmental gene expression data. Until recently, that kind of information simply hasn’t been available.

I used the past tense there: that data hasn’t been available. But that’s changing fast now with new techniques in molecular and developmental biology, and later today I’ll summarize a couple of beautiful recent articles that have revealed some of the underpinnings of the phylotypic stage. The creationists weren’t just wrong, they’re on the wrong side of history, and day by day they are bing shown to be increasingly far off base.

Well, won’t that cheer us all up

The CBC has one of those awful year-end countdown shows, and this one is rather appalling. It’s a countdown of the top 10 miracles of 2010. Hey, there, Canada, I thought we were supposed to be the crazy country, while you were supposed to be the polite, serious brother! What happened?

It gets worse. As Canadian Cynic points out, they’re devaluing the word “miracle”. Among the tripe they’re promoting is a statue of the Madonna that weeps oil (fake!), and the usual business of people going in for treatment of serious medical ailments, and ta-daaaa, the doctors fix them. But the #1 top “miracle” of the year was a plane crash—a plane that carried 104 people, 103 of whom died instantly, bloodily, with shattered bodies and splintered bones. Isn’t it wonderful that one person survived?

I don’t know whether the people who toss around that artless, useless word “miracle” are freakin’ ghouls or simply stupid. It’s Christmas, and I’m feeling charitable, so I guess I’ll go with stupid.

The grand old traditions of the holidays

Did you know that if you decorate your Christmas tree with squids and octopuses and cuttlefish, like ours:


…that on Christmas Eve, you’ll be visited by Santa Squid?


We have our nets and harpoons and great big barrel of formaldehyde waiting by the fireplace, in hopes that the Tentacled One will stop by.

We’re also expecting all three of our kids to be here for Christmas dinner, which will be groovy. Right now, the house is resounding with the traditional sounds of Christmas, the gunfire and zombie growls of Black Ops on the home theater system.

Merry Christmas to all of you, too!

Congratulations, Great Britain!

The country has passed a significant threshold. Christians, you’re officially a minority now.

Every year, researchers from the British Social Attitudes survey ask a representative sample of British people whether they regard themselves as belonging to any particular religion and, if so, to which one? When the survey first asked these questions in 1985, 63% of the respondents answered that they were Christians, compared with 34% who said they had no religion (the rest belonged to non-Christian religions).

Today, a quarter of a century on, there has been a steady and remarkable turnaround. In the latest 2010 BSA report, published earlier this month, only 42% said they were Christians while 51% now say they have no religion. Admittedly, some other surveys – including the last census – have produced different findings on these issues, usually to the advantage of the religious option. There is also a margin of error in all such exercises. All the same, and particularly since the trends in opinion over time seem well set, it is hard not to feel that this latest finding marks a cultural watershed.

This Christmas, for perhaps the first time ever, Britain is a majority non-religious nation.

The article notes that it only took a generation to shift from 34% non-religious to 51% non-religious. There’s hope for the United States yet; I don’t think we’ll see a majority non-religious in my lifetime (but surprise me!), but we can make a relatively rapid change.

8-10 year old children can be trained to solve scientific puzzles

It really isn’t that hard to learn to think scientifically — kids can do it. In a beautiful example of communicating science by doing it, students at Blackawton Primary School designed and executed an experiment in vision and learning by bees, and got it published in Biology Letters, which is making the paper available for free. It’s nicely done, an exercise in training bees to use color or spatial cues to find sugar water, and you can actually see how the kids were thinking, devising new tests to determine which of those two cues the animals were using. They were also quite good at looking at the data from different perspectives, recognizing an aggregate result but also noting that individual bees seemed to be using different algorithms to find the sugar water.

The kids also wrote the paper, sorta. They gathered them together in a pub (ah, Britain!) and had them explain what was going on, while one of the adult coauthors organized the text from their words. The experiment itself isn’t that dramatic, but it’s very cool to see the way the students’ brains are operating to understand the result…so really, the experiment was one of seeing how 8 year old children can process the world scientifically. It’s an awesome piece of work.

You know what we need now? A professional journal of grade school science (down, Elsevier, down — we don’t want you involved) that can get a network of schools and science teachers involved in putting more of these efforts together. Role models are important, and kids seeing that other kids are doing real science would be an incredibly powerful tool for bringing up a new generation of scientists.

Another charming part of this story is that a gang of grade school kids have done something grown-up creationists haven’t: they’ve done good science and gotten it published.