The 2011 Richard Dawkins Award goes to…

Who else but Christopher Hitchens?

This year, Richard Dawkins himself will present AAA’s
Richard Dawkins Award to Christopher Hitchens, who may accept in person or in
absentia as his schedule permits.

Christopher Hitchens is one of the most prolific
modern writers and exponents of atheism; he has appeared on every major news
and political television show offering opinions on political and social
issues.  He has contributed to Vanity FairThe
Slate, the New York Times Book Review,
and Atlantic Monthly, among many other publications.  His
books include Hitch 22: A MemoirGod is Not Great: How
Religion Poisons Everything
, and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa
in Theory and Practice

Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England and educated
at The Leys School in Cambridge and Balliol College, Oxford. He holds an honors
degree in philosophy, politics and economics. Hitchens emigrated to the United
States in 1981 and became an American citizen in 2007.  In June 2010,
Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

The award will be given at the Texas Freethought Convention in October. I’ll be there, and I’m looking forward to it.

Paul Knoepfler has a blog

Hey, this is good news: Nature included a short opinion piece from a stem cell biologist on his experiences blogging, writing the Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog — I’ll have to start following it. He has some good general advice for scientists starting to blog, although I have some reservations about the first bit.

Here are some tips for beginners. Start slowly; wait a day after writing and reread your draft before posting. Try to avoid discussing your own institution, and critique papers or theories in the field in a constructive manner. It is important that you include your own opinions, but do not use your blog to broadcast your opinions about issues that are unrelated to science.

Update your blog regularly, because readers will not visit blogs that they perceive as boring or ‘old news’. Read and comment on other blogs, which will lead people to yours. Get a Twitter account to promote it and dabble with search-engine optimization. And do tell your colleagues about your blog.

Savvy scientists must increasingly engage with blogs and social media. A new generation of young researchers has grown up with an ever-present Internet. Publishers have been quicker than academics to react to this new world, but scientists must catch up. Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect that your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is — blog or be blogged.

I have to disagree with the suggestion that you avoid discussing anything but the science (obviously!) If you want to engage readers, you’ve got to go beyond the narrow domain of your field — you don’t have to embrace controversy, like some of us do, but blogs are a personal medium, and if you aren’t expressing yourself freely you’re not going to get a wide readership.

Knoepfler implicitly admits this: he has a low traffic site with a niche audience (and there’s nothing at all wrong with that; it’s a model for how most scientists would want to operate their lab blogs, I think).

In an entire year of blogging I have had to censor just six inflammatory or defamatory comments. Despite my blog taking on the anti-stem-cell community in the United States and the misinformation its members peddle, such as the meme that adult stem cells are a panacea that make embryonic stem cells redundant, I have received remarkably few personal attacks from them. I am grateful for that, if puzzled.

This is certainly not because my blog goes unnoticed. True, I started with just five readers a day, but one year later, traffic has increased more than 30-fold and continues to rise. The blog averages 150 visitors a day and sometimes up to 500 a day, made up of a veritable Who’s Who in stem-cell science, and beyond. How do I know? Senior figures in the field tell me in confidence that they read and enjoy the blog, although none has publicly contributed on it — perhaps a sign that there is still a way to go before scientists stop being nervous about blogs.

He shouldn’t be puzzled. I’m not trying to be disparaging, but 150 visitors a day is very low, and what it means is that he’s seeing a very small and specialized slice of the world — he’s got a quality audience, not a snapshot of the general public, and that’s why he’s not getting much pushback. The mention in Nature will get him more visitors, but largely of the kind that won’t disagree much with him; the mention here on Pharyngula will get him a broader audience, but without red meat for argument most of them probably won’t stay.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think there is a qualitative difference between a blog aimed at a specialized audience, and one aimed at wider public engagement.

Xiaotingia zhengi

A lovely new dinosaur fossil from China is described in Nature today: it’s named Xiaotingia zhengi, and it was a small chicken-sized, feathered, Archaeopteryx-like beast that lived about 155 million years ago. It shares some features with Archaeopteryx, and also with some other feathered dinosaurs.

(Click for larger image)

a, b, Photograph (a) and line drawing (b). Integumentary structures in b are coloured grey. cav, caudal vertebra; cv, cervical vertebra; dv, dorsal vertebra; fu, furcula; lc, left coracoid; lfe, left femur; lh, left humerus; li, left ilium; lis, left ischium; lm, left manus; lp, left pes; lpu, left pubis; lr, left radius; ls, left scapula; lu, left ulna; md, mandible; rfe, right femur; rfi, right fibula; rh, right humerus; ri, right ilium; rm, right manus; rr, right radius; rt, right tibiotarsus; ru, right ulna; sk, skull; ss, synsacrum.

Now here’s why this particular fossil has some paleontologists in a dither. Systematics uses a set of objective, computer-based tools to objectively build phylogenetic trees: you plug a set of character parameters for a set of organisms into it, and it analyzes them and determines the most likely or most parsimonious tree to describe their relationships. Plugging in data from modern birds, Archaeopteryx, and dromeosaurs, for instance, generates trees in which Archaeopteryx clusters with the birds, and not the dromeosaurs. Archaeopteryx was not a direct ancestor of modern birds, but was thought to be related to the basal avians — so it was a kind of close cousin.

When Xiaotingia‘s data is tossed into the calculation, though, the results change. Xiaotingia doesn’t cluster so tightly with birds; it’s a more distant relative. However, Archaeopteryx shares enough significant features with Xiaotingia that they now cluster together, pulling Archaeopteryx out of the basal Aves and into a new classification. It says that Archaeopteryx is now a kind of second cousin, a little less closely related to the birds than previously thought.

(Click for larger image)

Archaeopteryx has historically been regarded as the most basal bird (avialan), but the discovery of the closely related Xiaotingia led Xu et al.1 to pull these archaeopterygids out of avialans (birds) and into deinonychosaurs along with dromaeosaurids and troodontids. This new grouping better accounts for the evolution of feeding strategies among bird-like dinosaurs. Previous research suggested that herbivory was common among this group, as reflected in the tall, boxy skulls of oviraptorosaurs and basal avialans such as Epidexipteryx. The triangular, sharp-toothed skull of Archaeopteryx was incongruous among basal avialans, but fits better among the carnivorous dromaeosaurids and troodontids.

I have to say that I think it’s extremely cool that we have a new fossil from down around the roots of the bird family tree, and it does sharpen our knowledge of what was going on down there in the middle and late Jurassic. There was a whole assortment of delicate-boned, feathered, bipedal dinosaurs that were flourishing and diversifying in that window of time, and we’ve now got enough data that we can distinguish details in the family tree, which is absolutely fabulous.

However, a lot of the fuss over the specimen as somehow radically changing the importance of Archaeopteryx is a bit overblown. The relative status of Archaeopteryx and Xiaotingia is a bit of taxonomic detail — important details in working out the specific history of life — but it’s the equivalent of deciding that a fossil belongs in one pigeonhole rather than the pigeonhole next to it. Its shift in status means that there’s a bigger gap in the early history of the true birds than we thought, and it also means that there was a greater diversity of bird-like forms than we expected in the Jurassic. One other suggestion is that removing the carnivorous Archaeopteryx from the base of the bird family tree opens up the possibility that modern birds might have descended from the vegetarian side of the family — if the last common ancestor of birds was an herbivore, that has interesting implications for the paths evolution took.

But don’t worry, Archaeopteryx still represents a beautiful example of a transitional form. This new fossil is just another transitional form discovered. Creationists cannot take any consolation from it: Archaeopteryx isn’t suddenly gone, it’s become a part of a richer picture of bird evolution.

Xu X,
You H,
Du K
Han F (2011) An Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China and the origin of Avialae. Nature 475, 465-470.

More right-wing distortions of Breivik’s ideology

Jon Stewart of the Daily Show did a marvelous job of showing how right-wingers were desperately straining to get out from under the taint of Breivik’s clearly extremist nationalist/rightist/Christian/anti-Muslim ideology. They’re clearly in denial.

But here’s another case. The Discovery Institute, under the name of that wretched ‘scholar’ John West, has gone through Breivik’s manifesto and somehow come to the conclusion that the reason he went on a killing spree was — I bet you can guess — Darwinism. How? Because Breivik was not the familiar anti-science fundamentalist Christian that we are so familiar with here in the US, he was moderate in his piety and wedded it to an acceptance of modern science and a vicious hatred of Muslims…and contra West, it wasn’t science that compelled him to kill, it was xenophobia and nationalism and apparently, an inhuman lack of empathy.

Nick Matzke does an excellent job of showing that a warped Christianity provided a more significant rationale for his actions than did ‘Darwinism’.

I’d add one more thing. West’s hobby horse is eugenics, and Breivik did endorse a nasty interpretation of eugenics in his tirade. However, you can’t use that to tar modern science with guilt for his crimes; we aren’t going to be saying, “Oh, Breivik was right in this one thing,” because only fringe characters within science endorse killing undesirables as he did; this guy was no friend of science. West cites one fellow, Lee Silver, who does promote the idea that emerging technologies in molecular genetics will allow people to voluntarily modify the DNA of their children; this has absolutely nothing to do with culling or ejecting whole ethnic groups as inferior, and I’m sure Silver would condemn that interpretation of his work.

I was amused to see that Breivik is a fan of Joseph Farah and World Net Daily. Now there’s a connection West was afraid to draw.

They’re like lice — you can’t just shake them off

It takes real effort to purge yourself of parasites, and Australia’s got ’em: rabbits, cane toads, and now…chaplains. In a nation that prides itself on its secular government, Australia has this bizarre and inappropriate relic, the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP), which somehow manages to suck large sums of money out of the government to pay to infest the schools with useless little leeches whose sole purpose seems to be the indoctrination of nonsense into the brains of children.

Being subject to individual State and Territory education policies, since its introduction, the NSCP applies varying degrees of religiosity across Australian state schools. NSCP federally-funded state school chaplains within Queensland conduct Christian prayers on all-school assembly and at significant school ceremonies while holding lunchtime prayer/Bible ‘clubs’, activities and study sessions. Chaplains enjoy ‘access all areas’, wandering in and out of classrooms, work as de facto teacher aides and freely engage with students in the playground, on school excursions, school camps and sport. Chaplains co-ordinate, oversee and conduct Religious Instruction classes and on-campus church-designed and run programs including Hillsong ‘Shine’ for girls, and ‘Strength’ for boys which ‘connect’ children with evangelistic off-campus clubs, programs and intensive ‘Jesus’ boot camps. Correspondence from hundreds of concerned parents in every Australian State and Territory reveals that occurrences of the federally-funded National School Chaplaincy Programme being blatantly utilised as a Christian evangelic ministry are the norm within the nation’s state schools.

During his keynote address at the Australian Christian Lobby annual conference in November 2009, then Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered high praise to the NSCP and school chaplaincy in general while claiming responsibility for the introduction of Scripture Union provided state school chaplaincy in Queensland during the early 1990s when working within the Goss government. During his speech, Kevin Rudd pledged an ‘investment’ of $42m to extend the NSCP to 2011.

Not only is it contrary to the mission of an educational system to have wandering jesters in the schools, teaching stupidity, but it drains real money from resources that should be used, for instance, to hire more teachers.

Ron Williams was not happy with this situation, and he’s fighting back. He has a case being tried before the Australian high court to end this ridiculous program nationwide, and he needs help, since he’s now opposing the highest officials in the land.

After years of correspondence and meetings with then federal Education Minister Julia Gillard, state education and DEEWR executives as well as personal meetings with two Education Ministers and their Directors General, in 2009, a frustrated Mr. Williams sought advice regarding a possible High Court challenge to the constitutional legality of the Commonwealth providing treasury funds to the National School Chaplaincy Programme. In February 2010, Horowitz & Bilinsky accepted the case. Consequently, Horowitz & Bilinsky appointed Bret Walker SC, Gerald Ng Barrister to the case. The case is now proceeding.

Ironically, in August 2010, the newly appointed Labor Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard, while endorsing and awarding high praise to the NSCP, pledged a further $222m toward extending the programme to at least 1000 more Australian schools. This sum was to represent almost one third of Labor’s 2010 pre-election four-year schools policy education pitch of $704m. At the time, when questioned regarding the Christian faith-based nature of the National School Chaplaincy Programme being maintained, Julia Gillard was adamant that the NSCP would continue as a ‘chaplaincy’ programme “with everything that that implies”, thus echoing John Howard’s sentiments of 2006.

Ron Williams has made a plea for your assistance in fighting nonsense.

If you’d like to donate, visit his High Court Challenge site. Come on, Williams is also the guy who wrote this song — secularism with a sense of humor deserves some reward.

Botanical Wednesday: Hey, those aren’t buffalo hides!


This is the traditional ivy-covered teepee at the Morris Horticulture Gardens, which is having an event tomorrow night.

Pack up the whole family and come to the Garden for the 41st annual Horticulture Night at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris on July 28 from 5 to 9 p.m. This yearly event has something for everyone: garden tours, horticulture demonstrations, educational displays, kids activities; plus food, fun, and entertainment.

This year, there are more than 11 different demonstrations and garden tours. They include: Annual Flowers, Raspberry High Tunnel Production, New and Emerging Tree Diseases, Azaleas, Beating the Beetle with Genetics, Adding Green to our MN White Months, Garlic Makes it Good: Grow it, Secrets of Spectacular Containers, Vegetables-“Putting Down Roots, Language of Flowers, and Drip Irrigation for the Backyard. In addition to the tours and demonstrations we are providing five hands-on family activities; including Plant Heads, Wind Turbines, Pizza Garden, Face Painting, and Aquatic Robotics. Special activities include trade and educational show, food booths, music, and farm tours.