Darwin Day approaches

It’s almost Darwin Day!

I just learned that Cornell is going all out: 5 days of events celebrating Darwin’s birthday, on February 9-13. That’s darned good.

The University of Minnesota Twin Cities is doing something slightly smaller in scale on Friday, 10 February, in an afternoon event sponsored by the Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists. I don’t have all the details yet, other than the rather important fact (to me, at least) that I’m one of the speakers. I’m planning to talk on “What Darwin Didn’t Know,” giving a brief overview of some examples of the kind of evidence uncovered in the last 25 years that has greatly strengthened evolutionary theory. I’ll put up a schedule here as I learn more.

We aren’t having a specific Darwin Day event here at UMM…well, other than the traditional cake and ice cream I’m planning to have with the family on that Sunday. However, the Cafe Scientifique Morris for February is going to be me, talking about evolution and creationism. That’s also imprecisely scheduled at this point—we’re going to try out a new venue, I hope, and one of the things I have to do this week is run around and work that out.

I know, I know—Darwin Day is over a week away, and you just can’t wait. If you’re in the Twin Cities, here’s something to whet your whistle: a talk tonight on creationism.

7:00 pm – James Curtsinger – Ten things to know about creationism
James Curtsinger will give a presentation on “Ten Things to Know about Creationism”.

From the presentation: Creationists fall into young-earth and old-earth camps. The former include biblical literalists who believe that the geologic column was formed by a Noachian Flood. Their “scientific creationism” suffered major setbacks in the 1980’s. “Intelligent design”, conceived as a movement in the 1990’s, is smarter, better educated, old-earth creationism. I.D. has popular support, but is soundly rejected by professionals, and was embarrassed in the recent Dover trial. The important battleground for these issues is the public high school science classroom. Surveys show that 20% of MN public high school science teachers teach creationism. Evangelical atheists worsen the general problem. Universities house technical and scientific expertise, but do not generally cultivate the kind of outreach needed to address this issue.
Coffman Student Union Room 323

I’d love to attend myself, but I’m feeling that exhausted sensation that comes from the first few frantic weeks of classes, and I don’t think I can push another long drive to Minneapolis on my workload right now. If any of my readers go—send me a report! It sounds fun!

Texas isn’t all bad

There’s always Austin.

Check out the nice and lucid op-ed against Intelligent Design creationism published down there: it points out that ID is on a fool’s errand that will always allow it to be defeated in a scientific argument.

ID will be trapped in a morass of implausible and unscientific rationalizations, trying to explain why a designer did this or that, whereas evolution does not ascribe purpose to the process called “natural selection.” As Gould emphasized in his final public appearance here (in February 2002), it is unscientific and self-centered to think that our species—perhaps 160,000 years old, after 3.8 billion years of mostly microscopic unicellular life—represents the goal of evolution.

Server trial by fire

Now we’ll really get to see how well this new server provided by Seed holds up. Pharyngula just get linked by Slashdot, and I’ve seen a thousand hits come roaring in in 5 minutes. My lovely old Mac G5 server would have been screaming and shaking at this point, and you wouldn’t be reading this article, that’s for sure.

If ever you were curious about it, here’s a snapshot of the slashdot effect, taken at about 11:00 in the evening. This is just today’s traffic.


The other astounding part of the phenomenon was that the average IQ of my commenters was cut in half (data not shown). I’m hoping the dumb ones won’t be able to find me again once the link scrolls off the /. page, and I’ll trust that the new clever readers will be willing to come back.

Just a thought…I hope a few of the slashdotters felt a mysterious compulsion to buy a Subaru.

Behe: spanked again

Behe’s ideas have been rejected by his colleagues; it seems those ideas were also the subject of a public forum at his university, with essays on the issue available online.

During the fall semester, a Chaplain’s Forum held on campus to offer differing perspectives on the contentious issue drew a standing-room-only crowd. The six faculty members who participated addressed the implications of intelligent design for science and for religion. This series of essays, which grew out of the Lehigh forum, is intended to shed light on an issue that all too often engenders only heat.

Behe’s essay is the only one that defends ID, and it’s more of the usual nonsense from the Church of the Butt Propellor*, an argument from incredulity in which he brings up both Paley’s watch and the bacterial “outboard motor”. (Does he think if he calls the flagellum an “outboard motor” enough, he’ll fool everyone into thinking it was manufactured by Evinrude?)

The other five all dismiss it, even the one from the university’s chaplain.

(via A Concerned Scientist)

*“Church of the Butt Propellor” is my new favorite name for the Discovery Institute and their minions (here’s the source).

President panders to anti-manimal lobby! Dr Moreau flees country in rage!


I didn’t listen to the State of the Union Address last night, preferring to maintain my equanimity by attending a talk on quantum physics, but I knew I could trust my readers to email me with choice weird science bits. I’m getting a lot of “WTF?” email about this statement from Bush:

Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research, human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.

It’s pure political calculus. He throws away the mad scientist and pig-man vote, and wins the religious ignoramus vote…and we know which one has the majority here.

But guess what? Creating chimeras is legitimate and useful scientific research; it’s really happening. Of course, it isn’t with the intent of creating monstrous half-animal/half-human slaves or something evil like that, and scientists are well aware (or should be well aware) of the ethical concerns, and it’s the topic of ongoing debate. Let’s consider one recent example of such an experiment.

Down syndrome is a very common genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21. That kind of genetic insult causes a constellation of problems: mild to moderate mental retardation, heart defects, and weakened immune systems, and various superficial abnormalities. It’s also a viable defect, and produces walking, talking, interacting human beings who are loved by their friends and families, who would really like to be able to do something about those lifespan-reducing health problems. We would love to have an animal model of Down syndrome, so that, for example, we could figure out exactly what gene overdose is causing the immune system problems or the heart defects, and develop better treatments for them.

So what scientists have been doing is inserting human genes into mice, to produce similar genetic overdoses in their development. As I reported before, there have been partial insertions, but now a team of researchers has inserted a complete human chromosome 21 into mouse embryonic stem cells, and from those generated a line of aneuploid mice that have many of the symptoms of Down syndrome, including the heart defects. They also have problems in spatial learning and memory that have been traced back to defects in long-term potentiation in the central nervous system.

These mice are a tool to help us understand a debilitating human problem.

George W. Bush would like to make them illegal.

He’s trusting that everyone will think he is banning monstrous crimes against nature, but what he’s really doing is targeting the weak and the ill, blocking useful avenues of research that are specifically designed to help us understand human afflictions. His message isn’t “We aren’t going to let the mad scientists make monsters!”, it’s “We aren’t going to let the doctors help those ‘retards.'”

Once again, the ignorance and the bigotry of the religious right wins out over reason and humanitarianism. I think I know who the real pig-men are.

O’Doherty A, Ruf S, Mulligan C, Hildreth V, Errington ML, Cooke S, Sesay A, Modino S, Vanes L, Hernandez D, Linehan JM, Sharpe PT, Brandner S, Bliss TV, Henderson DJ, Nizetic D, Tybulewicz VL, Fisher EM. (2005) An aneuploid mouse strain carrying human chromosome 21 with Down syndrome phenotypes. Science 309(5743):2033-7.

I know this irritates my critics…

…but my university actually supports me. There’s a profile of yours truly that’s part of a random rotating collection of links on UMM’s main page (if you don’t see it there, reload the page; it’ll appear eventually.)

I am aware that I am slightly harsher and more radical than many of my colleagues on some issues (others have their own domains of expertise and radicalism), but one of the great things about UMM is that even if they don’t explicitly endorse all of my opinions—and that acknowledgment on the main page is not an admission that this university is a hotbed of militant atheist evilutionists—they are appreciative of the diversity of ideas that make up a great university.