My Friday with Darwin

OK, people, this is too cruel. I was gone all day yesterday, traveling to the Twin Cities for this Darwin Day event, and the site gets 37,000 visits. Are you all trying to tell me it’s better when I’m not around to clutter it up? If I take off for a week will traffic climb to Daily Kos-like proportions? (There was a link from fark that might actually explain the sudden surge.)

Anyway, I’ll give a quick summary of what I was up to yesterday.

I started with a 3 hour drive to Minneapolis, which was very exciting. High winds, blowing snow, near whiteout conditions. The weather was bad enough that they canceled public schools in the area.

When I got there, we set up in the Bell Museum auditorium. We had about 50 or 60 people show up.

The first talk was by Mark Borrello, a historian of biology, who gave a very good overview of Darwin’s life.

I’ve put a copy of my talk online (pardon the bloated format: blame Microsoft). Since I don’t use much text in my powerpoint presentations, I’ll give a rough overview of the content here. In my introduction, I pointed out a creationist accusation—that we’re “Darwinian fundamentalists” or “Darwinists”—and a claim—that there is no evidence for evolution. The point of my talk was to show that, much as we respect and admire Darwin as a founding father of an important scientific discipline, his theory has been expanded upon in ways he couldn’t even imagine, and that the addition of new information is an ongoing pursuit. There are major themes in evolutionary research—genetics, molecular biology, bioinformatics, genomics, evo-devo—that simply weren’t even on the horizon in Darwin’s day.

I gave a lightning quick, superficial overview of examples of new developments in evolution.

  • New fossils, new transitional forms in whale and human evolution.
  • Fry et al.‘s work on venom evolution as an example of integrating molecular systematics, analysis of gene expression, and morphology to produce 3 overlapping lines of evidence that support an evolutionary story.
  • Suzuki and Nijhout’s work on laboratory selection in Manduca as an example of observed evolution.
  • Okabe and Graham’s study of parathyroid origins: combining the use of molecular markers and comparative embryology to demonstrate homology of an organ system.
  • Resolving core differences in the body plans of arthropods and chordates, and showing common descent by the shared patterns of Hox gene expression.

My conclusion was to show a pretty squid picture as an example of exotic beauty in nature, and explain that evolution is currently the only explanation that simultaneously explains the diversity and unity of life, and that it is the only explanation we have that is soundly based on the evidence.

The session closed with very short overviews of current research by three biologists in the ecology and evolutionary biology department: R. Ford Denison, Peter Tiffin, and Cynthia Weinig. They were very good, but I think the format was a bit much—after over two hours of talks, it was probably a mistake to put the most technically challenging talks at the very end, when the audience was exhausted.

Finally, I had a short planning discussion about Cafe Scientifique with the Bell Museum organizer, got in my car, cussed out rush hour traffic, got to western Minnesota to discover the roads were still invisible with blowing snow, and got home after a few exciting slides and twirls on powder-covered streets.

Today I’m planning to take it easy, read a bit, and attend the Prairie Home Companion show which will be broadcast live from UMM. You can find out more on the Prairie Home page, listen to it on your local station, and if you’ve got the real audio player, you can listen to it live between 5 and 7 pm Central time today. I doubt very much that he’ll say anything about evolutionary biology or science, but he may poke fun at my university, which is always entertaining.

Where will I be today?

This afternoon, I’ll be at the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus, celebrating the birth of Charles Darwin. Everyone is welcome, so come on down!

1:00P – Lecture by historian of biology Professor Mark Borrello, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, on the history of Darwin and evolutionary theory.

2:00P – Lecture by biologist and blogger Professor P.Z. Myers, University of Minnesota—Morris, on evidence for evolution.

3:00P – Panel discussion of University of Minnesota evolutionary biologists on their cutting-edge research at the U of M titled “My Life’s Work in Three Minutes”. To be followed by a cake reception.

Charles Darwin achieved fame and infamy for his theory of evolution by natural selection, now the foundation underlying all biological sciences. Darwin Day is the anniversary of his birthday, whose exact date is February 12, 1809. The date is celebrated internationally.

For more information, contact:
Mike Jones
Publishing and Editing Committee Manager
Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists

Bell Museum of Natural History (Directions|Google Map)

Mmmmm-mmm. Cake. You can’t possibly miss this.

Deutsch speaks!

…and makes a total ass of himself.

In the interview, Mr. Deutsch said that Dr. Hansen had partisan ties “all the way up to the top of the Democratic Party,” and that he was “using those ties and using his media connections to push an agenda, a worst-case-scenario agenda of global warming.” He said that anyone who disagrees with Dr. Hansen “is labeled a censor and is demonized and vilified in the media — and the media of course is a willing accomplice here.”

And how does he know Hansen was a mere partisan flack peddling bad science? Because Deutsch almost has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas A&M.

Awfully vague article about Dave Eaton

Eaton was the Minnetonka school board member and advocate of Intelligent Design creationism who abruptly resigned, shortly after his attempts to weaken his school district’s science standards were quashed. You wouldn’t know anything about that bit of backstory from this puff piece on Eaton, which has little but praise for the man and explains his departure by quoting him as saying he is “not leaving for any health, family or career reasons.”

C’mon, Strib. Come clean and say it. We know why he left: it’s because his brand of creationism was decisively crushed in Minnetonka, and he knew he was marginalized and isolated.

Pssst. Want a thousand dollars?

Take the geocentrism challenge from Catholic Apologetics International! They’re offering $1000 to the first person who can prove that the earth revolves around the sun. They claim that good Catholics really do have to believe that the earth is the center of the universe.

Scripture is very clear
that the earth is stationary and that the sun, moon and stars
revolve around it. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, “flat-earthers”
are not accepted here, since Scripture does not teach a flat earth,
nor did the Fathers teach it). If there was only one or two places
where the Geocentric teaching appeared in Scripture, one might
have the license to say that those passages were just incidental
and really didn’t reflect the teaching of Scripture at large.
But the fact is that Geocentrism permeates Scripture. Here are
some of the more salient passages (Sirach 43:2-5; 43:9-10; 46:4;
Psalm 19:5-7; 104:5; 104:19; 119:90; Ecclesiastes 1:5; 2 Kings
20:9-11; 2 Chronicles 32:24; Isaiah 38:7-8; Joshua 10:12-14; Judges
5:31; Job 9:7; Habakkuk 3:11; (1 Esdras 4:12); James 1:12). I
could list many more, but I think these will suffice.

I don’t think you stand much of a chance of winning though. Not only are they vague on how it will be judged, but looking over the site, it’s hard to believe it isn’t a satire.

If you have a few hours, take a look at the Fixed Earth page. This is High Crackpottery of the First Order—the author doesn’t believe the earth moves, that it is billions of years old, or that evolution occurred. NASA has been faking its planetary missions, and is engaging in spiritual warfare, driven by Pharisaic Kabbalism.

Easterbrook belongs on the Onion staff

I am not a fan of Gregg Easterbrook. He’s a pretentious twit who lectures Hawking on physics, calling him “kooky”, yet thinks Townes is wonderful and believes in an “invisible plane of existence: the spirit”. He makes ill-informed rants against atheists and Richard Dawkins, and has gone off on evolution before —he likes Intelligent Design.

His qualifications for these tirades on science? He’s a sports writer.

In the past, he’s been clear on finding this whole business of natural selection inadequate, preferring to preach that there is a loving god who has directed evolution.

The latter biological possibility is actually one of the reasons TMQ believes that human beings were made by a God who loves us. Why would natural selection have cared about reducing a person’s trauma at death? All natural selection cares about is fitness in passing down genes; if after replicating its DNA an organism dies in pain or panic, what’s that to evolution? In Darwinian terms, there would be no “selection pressure” favoring the peaceful death over the horrible death. Yet there appear to be biological mechanisms that help most people die peacefully. Why are such mechanisms in our physiologies? Maybe because somebody loves us.

Now Easterbrook has a post-Superbowl column in which he takes on evolution again. He’s got a new argument, though: that general evolution and selection stuff that he was arguing against before? It’s to be taken for granted.

That organisms evolve in response to changes in their environment is well-established—anyone who doubts this doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

I think that’s what a sports commentator would call an “own goal”. Yeah, all that stuff Easterbrook has written on the subject before shows he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

His “new” argument is to insist over and over again that evolution provides no information on the origin of life, accompanied by much protestation that those other ID advocates, who must not be as smart as he is, don’t know how to use the word “theory” and are misstating everything.

Now a know-nothing Utah state representative has proposed this bill that “requires the State Board of Education to establish curriculum requirements and policies that stress that not all scientists agree on which theory regarding the origins of life…is correct.” Hey, Utah state legislature, there are no theories on the origin of life. A few biologists have made wild guesses involving RNA, clay or hot ocean vents, but no scientist has offered anything nothing remotely near the level of a testable theory. (The details on that point) Given the presence of life is so mysterious, a creator God may be why we are here. But please, science illiterates, stop attempting to enact rules about intelligent design; you are ruining the idea.

Oh, and the “details on that point” about models of abiogenesis? He references an article by himself in The New Republic. He’s wrong. There are good theories on the origin of life, and there are scientists working on them…this isn’t a matter of wild guesses.

Easterbrook is hardly worth dissecting, but as I was reading his column, the breathless tone, the skewed point of view, the clueless but confident statements that are almost right but have all the details wrong and show he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about…they reminded me of someone.



I think Gregg Easterbrook is the Jackie Harvey of the Intelligent Design movement.

I’m flattering him. Guess who looks the more intelligent of the two?