The growing irrelevancy of Behe


Michael Behe’s reputation is spiraling down the drain a little more. He denies the ongoing research on his favorite scientific examples, the flagellum and the immune system, and I think Les Lane has the right idea—his favorite icon, Mt Rushmore, needs a little more undermining, too.

That first link above includes an excellent quote from the prescient and thorough Charles Darwin; he had the Behes pegged over a century ago.

[I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Beckwith misses the point

You can always trust Francis Beckwith to get it all wrong. He’s arguing against the Dover decision on false premises.

Should religious motivations of a theory’s proponents disqualify that theory from receiving a hearing in the public square? It’s a point that has become a central issue in the Intelligent Design-evolution debate.

Francis J. Beckwith, associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and associate professor of church-state studies at Baylor University, told a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary forum that the striking down of a policy based solely on the religious motives of its adherents is “logically fallacious and constitutionally suspect.”

You know me—I’m brutally materialistic and uncompromisingly atheistic—and even so, I don’t think the quality of a science teacher is determined by whether they go to church on Sunday or not. The Dover decision slammed the creationists hard, not because the backers were religious, but because they had no scientific basis for their arguments and their goals were clearly religious. It didn’t help their case at all that their primary advocates so clearly demonstrated the intellectually vacuous nature of Intelligent Design creationism. It wasn’t shot down because its proponents were Christian, but because they were unscientific and had allowed their faith to mislead and misrepresent their dogma as science.

One more thing from that Beckwith article:

“Intelligent design is not stealth creationism,” Beckwith said.

Rather, ID is a name for a cluster of arguments that reasons the universe to be the result of intelligent agency rather than of unguided matter, Beckwith explained. The theory lacks the accompaniment of religious authority or sacred Scripture.

Renaming the “Creator” as an “intelligent agency” fools no one—it’s saying the same thing with different words. As Judge Jones could see, the theory lacks the religious component because the authors had consciously stripped out the overt religious references to skirt the letter of the law…it is stealth creationism. As we all could see, too, with no religious authority and no scientific evidence, there is absolutely nothing holding Intelligent Design creationism up.

The bottom line: show me the evidence. The ID advocates can’t and don’t, therefore their religious beliefs are irrelevant, and Beckwith is merely trying to refocus the complaints about the Dover decision on a trivial red herring.

Who’s “dorky”?

Take a group of seventh graders and ask them to draw pictures of and describe scientists: as you might expect, you get a bunch of pictures of lab coats and adjectives like “dorky”. Take those same seventh graders and introduce them to some real scientists, and the descriptions change.

OK, if I had been one of the scientists they might still use the word “dorky”, but in general, it’s true that meeting scientists will almost always change people’s perceptions of them.

Sir Oolius makes a good point: some of these cartoons of scientists suggest we ought to be rioting. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of calling for a jihad against 7th graders, though.

No thanks, MPR

I often listen to Minnesota Public Radio on my drives to Minneapolis and back—I’ve got the 3 stations memorized (88.5, 88.9, and 91.1), and know where each one cuts out and I need to switch to the closer transmitter. My only complaint is the annoying, chirpy fund drives, which always drive me to fumble for some ‘foreign’ station…and that’s difficult. Here in the western part of the state most of what you find are country western and gospel and horrid pop rock stuff.

Now I have another reason to be irritated at those repetitive pleas for me to fork over a hundred bucks for a travel mug and the undying love of a radio executive. I’m with Jambo, who isn’t going to cough up a dime to them.

On the 2004 tax return, MPR listed the names and salaries of 13 officers or trustees, 12 of whom earned more than $100,000. [President and CEO, William] Kling received $326,700 in salary, pension and benefits, and incentive compensation at MPR. He earns roughly an additional $218,000 from American Public Media Group, the parent company of MPR.

A salary of half a million dollars? At a non-profit?

Welcome, toad overlords


In yet another example of evolution in action, investigators have documented morphological changes in the cane toads (Bufo marinus) that infest parts of Australia. They’re an invasive species that was introduced in a misbegotten attempt to control beetles that were damaging the sugar cane crop; as it turns out, they are aggressive predators that eat lots of other native fauna, and they secrete toxins that kill animals that try to eat them.

Another feature that contributes to their unwanted success is their rapid dispersal. Individuals can move up to 1.8km per night, occupying new territory at a distressing pace. In the 70 years since they were introduced, they’ve taken over a million square kilometers of Australia. Since dispersal into virgin territories is a significant advantage for the toads, it was predicted that there would be selection for faster migration rates in the population. The authors have several lines of evidence to show that this is the case.

[Read more…]

As long as I’m feeling sick, let’s make everyone miserable

Just a suggestion: don’t browse weblogs when you’re trying to perk yourself up with a little cheery good news.


P.S. As you’ll see in the comments, the sources for those last statistics aren’t just wobbly, they’re downright dishonest. Never mind.

An updated book list for evolutionists

A few disclaimers: I do get kickbacks from affiliate programs when you purchase books after clicking through those links. If you’d rather not fund a perfidious atheist’s book addiction, just look up the titles at your preferred source—I don’t mind. This list is not a thinly-veiled attempt to get readers to buy me presents, either; I’ve read all these, so please don’t try to order them for me. Get them for a creationist instead, they need them more.

A while back, I presented a book list for evolutionists. Now I’ve updated it, adding a few recommendations and adding links so you can choose your favorite book vendor. Celebrate the birth of your favorite deity, the astronomical alignment of your choice, or any other traditional historical excuse for a midwinter party by passing along the gift of knowledge.

For the kids:

The Evolution Book (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sara Stein. A fine book, but not for the lightweight science kid: this one tries to cover just about everything encyclopedically, so give it to the truly dedicated bookworm.

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Steve Jenkins. Another encyclopedic illustrated summary of evolutionary history for the younger set.

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David Norman. Not really intended for kids, but packed with full-color illustrations and detailed descriptions of many dinosaur groups. My kids would spend hours leafing through this one; it’s the dinosaur book I wish I’d had as a 12 year old.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Lisa Westburg Peters. Excellent, simple summary of evolutionary history, for the K-3rd grade set.

The Tree of Life : Charles Darwin(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Peter Sis. Nice picture book biography of Darwin for the kids.

From the Beginning: The Story of Human Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David Peters. An older book that may be hard to get, but worth it for the wall-to-wall drawings of the organisms scattered along the human lineage, from single-celled prokaryote to modern humans.

For the grown-up layman:

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sean Carroll. A phenomenal book; if there’s one book you should pick up for an introduction to evo-devo, this is the one.

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Matt Ridley. Orac says, “It’s a downright poetic look at each of the 23 chromosomes and what sorts of biological and disease processes genes from each of them are involved in, along with a nice dollop of evolution of the genome.”

Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Kenneth Miller. Danny Boy says, “A Christian debunks creationism and shows how evolution can be compatible with Christianity.”

Charles Darwin: Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and Charles Darwin : The Power of Place(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Janet Browne. This is the best biography of Darwin out there.

Science As a Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). John A. Moore. This is part history book, part philosophy of science book; if you know someone who doesn’t understand the scientific method, this one will straighten him out.

The Darwin Wars(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Andrew Brown. Much as we aspire to the pure search for knowledge, scientists can be testy and political and vicious, too—this is a study of the sociology of evolutionary biology.

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Carl Zimmer. If you want a general survey of the history and ideas of evolutionary biology that isn’t written like a textbook, this is the one you want.

At the Water’s Edge: Fish With Fingers, Whales With Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Carl Zimmer. The focus in this one is on macroevolution of tetrapods and cetaceans. Excellently written, with a very thorough overview of the evidence.

Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Fortey. Everything you need to know about the basics of trilobytes, with a chatty and often amusing introduction to the world of paleontologists.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Jonathan Weiner. A Pulitzer-winning account of the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant in documenting the evolutionary changes occurring in Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos right now.

Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the evolution of bird flight(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Pat Shipman. Chris Clarke says, “an excellent and readable treatment of current thinking at printing on bird evolution and the evolution of that instance of powered flight.”

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Dawkins. Mrs Tilton says, “both as a general explanation of evolution and as a particular refutation of what has come to be known as intelligent design.”

The Ancestor’s Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard
Dawkins. A step-by-step account of human evolution, working backwards through time.

What Evolution Is(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Ernst Mayr. A survey of the theory by an opinionated master.

Evolutionary Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Douglas J. Futuyma. If you don’t mind reading a textbook, this is one of the best and most popular texts on the subject.

An Introduction to Biological Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Kenneth Kardong. Another textbook, but less weighty and less expensive then Futuyma’s; a book I’d use in a freshman non-majors course.

For the more advanced/specialized reader:

From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals) (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Charles Darwin, Edward O. Wilson (Editor). I’ve read these books, but I don’t own this edition…so this is one I’ll be hinting to my wife might make a nice present. It collects the four in one volume, with introductions by Wilson, so if every you’ve wanted these seminal works for your bookshelf, here they are in an inexpensive edition.

On Growth and Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. I’m afraid no developmental biologist can list important books without mentioning this one.

From DNA to Diversity: Molecular Genetics and the Evolution of Animal Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sean B. Carroll, Jennifer K. Grenier, Scott D. Weatherbee. Like it says…molecular genetics, evolution, developmental biology. A good textbook describing the new cutting edge of evolutionary biology.

Shaking the Tree : Readings from Nature in the History of Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Henry Gee. GirlScientist says, “This is a collection of scientific papers that were influential in the field for one reason or another.” (I don’t think she intended that her recommendation come out sounding so tepid.)

Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David M. Raup. A little statistics, a lot of paleontology, a good introduction to how we try to puzzle out what the world was like from a sparse data set.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Stephen J. Gould. Massive. Indulgently written. But full of interesting ideas.

Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mary Jane West-Eberhard. Also massive. If you’re already comfortable with the conventional perspective on evolutionary theory, though, this one twists it around and comes at it from the point of view of a developmental biologist.

Biased Embryos and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Wallace Arthur. A slim and readable book about evo-devo.

The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Lewontin. A slender book that lucidly summarizes the non-reductionist position on modern biology; it’s a call for greater breadth in science.

The Shape of Life : Genes, Development, and the Evolution of Animal Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Rudy Raff. Hardcore evo-devo. A little out of date, but very influential.

For the anti-creationist:

Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Barbara Carroll Forrest, Paul R. Gross. The best summary of the sneaky political strategy of the creationists of the Discovery Institute.

Unintelligent Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mark Perakh. Nice, blunt dissection of the pseudo-science of creationism.

Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Matt Young, Taner Edis, eds. A team-takedown of Intelligent Design’s bad science.

Republican War on Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Chris Mooney. Here’s my review; all you need to know about the current political attack on science.

The Counter-Creationism Handbook(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mark Isaak. Here’s a brief review, but it’s enough to say that this is an indispensable tool for dismissing creationist arguments.

The Triumph of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Niles Eldredge. Chris Clarke says, “useful and inspiring, both as a survey of evolutionary thought and a clarion call against creationism.”

Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Massimo Pigliucci. Michael Feldgarden says, “It definitely falls into the category of “anti-creationist” and “specialized reader.” I don’t know if it’s a little too complex for the lay reader (I don’t think so). It’s an excellent and well-written rebuttal of creationism and definition of science and the scientific method as it relates to evolutionary biology.”

The Creationists(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Ronald Numbers. Sean Foley says, “For an overview of the growth and role of the creationist movement in America.”

Defending Evolution : A guide to the creation/evolution controversy (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Brian J. Alters, Sandra Alters. An excellent guidebook on how to handle creationism in the classroom, specifically for biology teachers.

I’ll also add that Coturnix has a book list, too, and if you want a more specialized list, Mike has a list of books just for birders.

Just in case your favorite evolutionist has already read everything in the list, here’s another possibility: bones! Here are a couple of sources of bones, fossils, and casts:

These kinds of lists can go on forever. Please do mention any other possibilities in the comments, and maybe they’ll make it into the next edition.

Tangled Bank, etc.

The Tangled Bank

I haven’t been doing much today—I’m afraid I’ve got some bug that had me wrestling with my digestive tract all day yesterday (bad news: it won), sweating and freezing all night, and now today I’m just an exhausted lump. Fortunately, there’s lots of other stuff to read.

Tangled Bank is up at Kete Were. That’ll keep you busy for a while.

Then we’ve got a Teaching Carnival and a Carnival of Education, a Carnival of the Liberals, and a History Carnival. The Skeptics’ Circle is looking for submissions, as is I and the Bird.

I’m going to go huddle in my bed for a while now.

The image of scientists


Carl Zimmer reviews A Flock of Dodos, and also brings up that worrisome issue, the image of scientists in this country. Cosmic Variance is talking about image, too. Scientists get called “inarticulate”, “high-handed”, “stiff” and “arrogant”. “Arrogant” is terribly unfair as a criticism—a bit of arrogance is a virtue, and is exactly what you need in someone who is going to stick his neck out…and the creationists from Gish to Behe have possessed a superabundance of arrogance themselves.

As for inarticulate, that’s not quite right either. Listen to a talk by a scientist, and while there are many who are wooden, there are also many who are enthusiastic and passionate and funny. I’ve heard Gould and Crick and JZ Young and Ted Bullock and Dawkins and Mike Land talk, and they were terrific; a good science talk is a good story with it’s own rhythms and rules. The problem is that if you put those same speakers in front of a lay audience, the listeners don’t know the language, and the speaker is deprived of a large chunk of their vocabulary. They can charge ahead and speak over the audience and get accused of arrogance, or try to gear down and struggle to explain basic words and concepts that they usually invoke simply by naming, and then they get accused of being inarticulate. Teaching undergraduates is helpful practice, but the majority of our hot, well-known scientists are famous for their research, and typically have light teaching loads. Those of us who do invest a lot of time in explaining things to freshman don’t often have the research clout to warrant the popular speaking invitations.

I sure don’t know where the answer lies. I do know that being a good communicator to people other than your peers or students has just about zero influence on promotion and tenure for scientists. Zimmer mentions the blank stare he got from scientists when ID was brought up, and there’s a good reason for that: it just isn’t an important focus for most of us.