The mysterious origins of a creationist myth

Ken Ham was doing an interview, and he was asked a difficult question: “How did men get the dinosaurs to not buck them off of their saddles when people rode then? Were the dinosaurs more domesticated and well behaved because there wasn’t as much sin back then?” Good one. The creationists do tend to smuggle in a lot of rather unbiblical stuff into their mythology while simultaneously claiming to be strict literalists, so I’d like to see how they came up with that story, too.

Ham’s answer: Gosh, I don’t know. Where did you ever get that weird idea?

I don’t know where people get the idea that people rode dinosaurs. I mean, there’s no evidence in the Bible that that is so. When Job was looking at Behemoth, the description there… there’s nothing to do with people riding dinosaurs. We don’t know how people interacted with dinosaurs.

Go read the post, it’s hilarious. Where did people get that idea? From Ken Ham. He publishes books with illustrations of people riding dinosaurs, and he’s got a fiberglass dinosaur with a saddle on it in his “museum”.

He also distributes powerpoint slides for educators, loosely defined, to use in the classroom. Like these:



It’s rather disingenuous of him to declare that he doesn’t know where these wacky ideas come from, isn’t it?

More trivial excuses for the anti-choicers

Oh gob, the stupidity. The latest wave of anti-choice legislation is based on one trivial premise: it’s got a heartbeat! You can’t kill it if its heart is beating! So stupid bills have been flitting about in the Ohio, Mississippi, Wyoming, Arkansas, and North Dakota legislatures trying to redefine human life as beginning at the instant that a heartbeat can be detected. Here’s Wyoming’s story, for instance:

About two weeks ago, state Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R) introduced a measure to supersede the medical definition of viability. Current state law says abortions are prohibited after a fetus has “reached viability,” and Kroeker sought to replace those words with “a detectable fetal heartbeat.” The Republican lawmaker said the idea for his heartbeat bill just came to him one day because “it became clear that if a baby had a heartbeat, that seemed simple to me that it’s wrong to kill it.” On Monday, a House panel struck down Kroeker’s bill because it was too medically vague. But if Ohio and Mississippi are any indication, this likely won’t be the last time that fetal heartbeat legislation shows up in Wyoming.

It’s a step back from the inanity of declaring that life begins at conception — you can’t detect the heartbeat until 5-6 weeks of gestation — but still, it’s an arbitrary and ridiculous definition that relies entirely on folk knowledge about living things. If we’re going to do that, though, I propose that we go to the One True Source of knowledge and accept the Biblical definition of living creatures: they have breath in their nostrils. Therefore, abortion is legal right up to the instant that the baby draws its first breath.

Don’t argue with me! It’s in the Bible! Do you want to go to hell?

But the heart thing? Nonsense. Here’s what I routinely see:

Zebrafish embryos have a heartbeat one day after fertilization. That one above is a two-day embryo, and it’s even more special and sacred because it carries a heart-specific GFP, so it’s heart glows green. We don’t suddenly think of the organism as complete and inviolate because cardiac cells are twitching.

Or even better, you can dissociate the heart tissue of just about any animal, including humans, and culture single cells in a dish…and look! They beat!

If that were a human cell, does that means we could never throw that petri dish away? Speaking of human, let’s jack up the consequences. Here’s a clump of induced pluripotent stem cells, adult cells forced into an embryonic state by transfection with a few genes that reprogrammed this population into a cardiac cell state. It’s the religious right’s nightmare, transformed by the hand of scientists into living embryonic tissues, growing in a lab under a microscope…and it’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!

Is anyone seriously going to decide that that is human and deserving of all of the rights and protections we accord to adult people?

I suppose it depends on whether those cells are derived from a female or not.

I agree with this article

Islamic extremists have been destroying ancient manuscripts in an important library in Timbuktu. You know what that means? It’s time to chastise Richard Dawkins!

The latest furore comes after Islamist extremists burned down a sacred library in Timbuktu, Mali, during the ongoing conflict there. Prof Dawkins tweeted "Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu’s priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians."

Cue much clutching of pearls and fainting. "He’s been mean about a religion!"

The article makes a very good point: “if you burn down a library, ‘barbarian’ is probably the right term.” I’d also add that if libraries are burnt down, your priority ought not to be to wag a finger at the people protesting the vandalism, but to at least wag that finger in the right direction…at the vandals.

Where have all the usenet kooks gone?

You youngsters may not recall the golden age of usenet kookdom, but back in the distant past (like, the 1990s) usenet was the medium of choice for internet chatter, and there was only the roughest of partitioning of ideas, so the usenet groups were these great egalitarian shouting matches of noise — and you could be a total nut and have just as much of a voice as the most cautious scientist. In fact, being loud and weird gave you an edge in being heard.

It was a great time for some strange people, and Charles Stross just mentioned that Archimedes Plutonium is still around, and now he has a Science Website, sorta. It’s really just a wall of badly formatted text in which he talks about himself in the third person…but yeah, that’s Archie.

One nice thing about it is that it does have the most succinct summary of the Plutonium Atom Totality Theory I’ve ever seen.

Plutonium’s claims: In late 1990, Plutonium claims to have had the realization of his Plutonium Atom Totality Theory, a theory he claimed to be the most important breakthrough in scientific history. According to this theory, the Universe is a giant plutonium atom, and the part of the universe we are able to observe from Earth, including Earth itself, is somewhere in its outer electron shells, the 5f6, and where galaxies are pieces of the last electron of 231Pu. As Mr. Plutonium calls it: where dots of the electron-dot-cloud are galaxies.

               ::\ ::|:: /::


                    _ _


                    - - 


               ::/ ::|:: \::

The above is the ascii art of the 5f6 electron orbital of plutonium where the dots are dots of the electron-dot-cloud and each dot represents a galaxy.

Biographical notes In his autobiography (entitled at one point Ludwig Plutonium: the Chosen One, and claimed to be 2200 pages), Plutonium claims he started posting to Usenet on August 12 of 1993 under the name of Ludwig Plutonium. He posts and cross-posts mostly in the sci. (science) hierarchy. Other than the Plutonium ATOM Totality Theory, one of his most noteworthy announcements was that he has a single plutonium atom at the center of his brain in his Brain Locus Theory, which makes him a super genius. He claims this follows from the Plutonium Atom Totality Theory according to which thoughts and ideas do not originate in our own minds but are created in the nucleus of the atom-universe by the Nuclear entity and shot out as photons or neutrinos where the brain acts as a radio antennae forcing the new thought or action.

He was impressively persistent and consistent for many years, and impervious to all criticism and laughter. It is simultaneous sad and gratifying to see that he’s still plugging away.

A reply to Steven Novella

Steven Novella has written a post taking exception to some things I’ve said, specifically on the issue of the overlap of science, skepticism, and religion. I have to say, though, that what his post actually does is confirm my claim: that a lot of skeptics strain to delimit the scope of skepticism in ways that are not rational, but are entirely political and emotional.

But there’s also a lot I agree with. He has a lengthy introduction in which he lists many of the core elements of skepticism, including for example, promoting science and critical thinking, opposing pseudoscience, etc. (he also includes “methodological naturalism”, a claim I’ve grown disenchanted with…but that’s something for another day. Here’s something from Larry Moran for a contrary view.)

[Read more…]

It took Scientology to wake you up?

I was a bit bemused by this opinion piece in a Canadian paper. It’s a good article, no quibble there, but it’s just so striking that it has taken the emergence of an obviously weird religion like Scientology to make someone notice that this is a general problem of all religions.

…after reading Lawrence Wright’s searing new investigative book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, my usual indifference has given way to concern.

On second thought, make that fright. And not just about L. Ron Hubbard’s secretive army of adherents.

Because Wright’s book demonstrates in granular detail what an organization with enough money and zealous acolytes can do once it has wrapped itself in a religious cloak: assault, conspire, burgle, forge, perjure, spy, bully and intimidate anyone who gets in its way.

Convince your flock that they are above earthly laws, and they go about their task with, well, religious ferocity.

And the real problem is that religions are by their nature “above earthly laws” — reality is no check against their excesses, so they can easily spin into dangerous lunacy, sucking their proponents into an ever-expanding cloud of the absurd. How can they believe our criticisms when the almighty all-powerful all-knowing Master of the Universe has personally told them the Holy Truth?

But at least this guy is expanding his consciousness a little bit. If Scientology promotes evil, what about, say, the Catholic Church?

Ask yourself this: If it were proved that senior employees of Microsoft, or Bank of America, had been sexually assaulting minors worldwide for decades, overwhelmingly young boys in their care, and senior company management had been complicit, either ignoring the abuse or actually taking steps to cover it up in order to protect the company’s image, how long would it be before that company would be facing a Justice Department strike force? Or bankruptcy?

Yet the Roman Catholic Church was, at most, dented by such horrific revelations. Individual priests have been charged worldwide, yes. But efforts to hold the church hierarchy responsible for the crimes that were covered up have been exceedingly rare.

Inevitably, that is because of the severe pushback that any large religious organization can command if it feels threatened.

Let’s not just pick on the Catholics and Scientologists, though. Billy Graham, the National Prayer Breakfast, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Moral Majority, Liberty “University”, the Republican Party…notice how religion is reaching out to grasp secular power and influence?

What I taught today: Position and Polarity

You really can’t teach a class by lecturing at them…especially not an 8am class. But sometimes there is just such a dense amount of information that I have to get across before the students know what to ask that I have to just tell them some answers. My compromise to deal with this eternal problem is to mix it up; some days are lecture days, others are discussion days. And today was a discussion day.

I’ve been talking at them for the past two weeks, basically working to bring them up to a 1950s understanding of the field of developmental biology, with a glimmering of the molecular answers to come and some of the general concepts, so that they’re equipped to start thinking about the contemporary literature. So I had them read this paper before class:

Kerszberg M, Wolpert L (2007) Specifying Positional Information in the Embryo: Looking Beyond Morphogens. Cell 130(2):205–209.

And then today they got into small groups and tried to explain it to each other. I primed them by suggesting that they try to define the terms positional information, gradient, morphogen, and polarity, and mentioned that I was playing a dirty trick on them, giving them a paper to introduce a basic concept that at the same time was pointing out some of the difficulties and problems of the idea, so I expected them to also do some critical thinking and question the concepts.

So they went at it. It went well; they had some lively conversations going on, which I always worry won’t happen with early morning classes. I find it helpful to ask students to try to poke holes in an idea, rather than just recite by rote what the paper says — it sends them hunting rather than gathering.

Several students noted that having a simple continuum of a molecule begs the question of how that gets translated into many discrete cell types; why does having one concentration of a morphogen make a cell differentiate into a thorax, while a very slightly lower concentration means it differentiates into an abdomen? It’s all well and good to suggest that a couple of overlapping gradients can specify position, like laying out a piece of graph paper with coordinates on it, but it doesn’t explain how that gets translated into position-specific tissues. I was most pleased that several of them, while groping for an answer, related it to the lac operon in E. coli, and brought up the idea of thresholds of gene activation. Yay! That so sets up future discussions about early fly embryogenesis, where that is exactly the answer.

I think they also got the idea that an explanation for general specification of body parts, for example, may not apply for explaining polarity within a body part; we may have to think about some kind of hierarchy of regulation, where we progressively partition the embryo into smaller and smaller units, with different mechanisms at different scales. They might be catching on to the depths of the problems to come.

Another way the paper primed the students was that it very briefly introduces a whole bunch of specific molecules: dpp, bicoid, sonic hedgehog, activin. They got a very general idea of the broad roles these molecules play, all part of my devious grand plan. When we start talking about the details of how animals set up dorsal-ventral polarity, for instance, and dpp/BMP start coming up in more specific contexts, I want them to be familiar old friends — molecules they already knew casually and informally, and now see doing very specific things, and interacting with another set of molecules, which now also joins their circle of pals. Before I’m done with them, they’re all going to regard these developmental signals and regulators as part of their family!


Gomer Pyle is gay? Well, that’s going to cause a few wingnut heads to explode. Jim Nabors, the actor who played the southern hick in his own show and on that classic of old-time rural Americana, the Andy Griffith show, was so happy to see gay marriage approved in several states that Nabors hopped on a plane with Stan Cadwallader, flew to Seattle, and got hitched.

"I’m 82 and he’s in his 60s and so we’ve been together for 38 years and I’m not ashamed of people knowing, it’s just that it was such a personal thing, I didn’t tell anybody," Nabors said. "I’m very happy that I’ve had a partner of 38 years and I feel very blessed. And, what can I tell you, I’m just very happy."

That’s sweet.