Why stay in NY when you can visit Morris?

You wouldn’t know it to see it, but we aim to make Morris, Minnesota the Mecca of science blogging. How else to explain how we could draw Grrlscientist away from that boring dump of a town, New York, to visit our lovely prairie village for a week? It’s true: a whole two of us ScienceBlogs people are chattering away from this lonely outpost in the rural wilderness.

Any other science bloggers who want to stop on by, feel free. We’ve got a roomy house with a zippy wireless connection, and who needs anything more? Jay Manifold has been here, Radagast once drove by within a few hundred miles, and now we’re hosting Living the Scientific Life…I think that’s enough to qualify as a Mecca, right?

Anyway, we’re planning to cruise into Minneapolis tomorrow, see the Big City, and check out Drinking Liberally at the 331 Club around about 6—somebody alert the Power Liberal, Tild, and the Wege…we got some tough-talkin’, crazed scientists planning to crash their party.

We’re also hosting an event of our own here at Chez Myers on Friday, with the first
SOFA (Something On Friday Afternoon, a Morris tradition) of the semester at our place. If anyone wants to crash our party, just come on by.

Discovery Institute uses immense clout, kills Intelligent Design course

That school in California that tried to teach a creationist “philosophy” course was chewed out by Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute. Luskin’s statement consisted of the usual folderol, but the outright fraud of several statements leapt out at me.

My name is Casey Luskin and I am an attorney representing the Discovery Institute. The Discovery Institute is a think tank based out of Seattle, Washington that represents a large number of scientists who do scientific research into intelligent design.

A “large number of scientists”? How many?

Scientists “who do scientific research into intelligent design”? Name them. Tell us exactly where they are doing their research and what specific questions they are trying to answer.

But if you do not cancel this course, and if you let this lawsuit go forward, you are going to lose and there will be a dangerous legal precedent set which could threaten the teaching of intelligent design on the national level. Such a decision would also threaten the scientific research of many scientists who support intelligent design.

See questions above. What scientists? What research?

I’m really fed up with this phony baloney the DI keeps pushing. There are darned few scientists backing Intelligent Design, and those few don’t do any research, nor can they tell anyone else what research could be done.

Because of the young earth creationist history of this course, this course is not legally defensible and it should be cancelled. Thank you.

Casey Luskin got his wish. The course has been cancelled. Not without a final irony, though:

Sharon Lemburg, a social studies teacher and soccer coach who was teaching “Philosophy of Design,” defended the course in a letter to the weekly Mountain Enterprise.

“I believe this is the class that the Lord wanted me to teach,” she wrote.

This is really going to mess with Minnesota’s reputation

Jonathon The Impaler (our Minnesota vampire running for governor) is interviewed on the City Pages Blotter. I’m still not voting for him.

It’s interesting that his source of income is selling cloaks to covens. It’s also distressing that he needs that income because his wife got fired from her job after The Impaler gave a press conference, and her employer admitted it was because of her religious preference—she wasn’t a good “role model”.

Flame war in the Durango Herald!

A while back, a reader mentioned that my name (or some permutation thereof) was being taken in vain in the letters pages of the Durango Herald. Nothing new there, it’s just the usual half-truths of the Discovery Institute being disseminated.

Challenges to evolution met with scorn

I find that some of the brightest people in the world today (as with some of the brightest people throughout history) disbelieve the theory of evolution.

As Paul Bynum correctly noted in his letter (Herald, Nov. 20), it is true that folks who dare to challenge some of evolution’s claims are, indeed, often ridiculed and maligned. Note the remarks of University of Minnesota biology P.Z. Meyers: that opponents of Darwinism need to be subject to “some form of righteous fury, much butt kicking and the firing and humiliation of some teachers, many school board members and vast numbers of sleazy far right politicians.”

Gary Andersen, Durango

There was more in the letter; the usual protestation that “Darwinists” are afraid, that there are “volumes of evidence of design all around us” (backed up by mentioning that birds fly and cats take naps), and that chance is a “dreary thought.” I responded with a short note pointing out that my quote was taken out of context, and that I’m not against challenging evolution, but am against incompetent teaching.

Creationists weaken science teaching

In a letter by Gary Andersen on 1 Jan 2006, I was quoted misleadingly, in a way that the Discovery Institute has consciously propagated. Yes, I have called for the firing of teachers and politicians, but not because they are “opponents of Darwinism”–but for incompetence. If a science teacher cannot grasp basic concepts of biology, he or she has no place teaching our children in the classroom. We are not afraid of Intelligent Design creationists, but we are getting increasingly angry at the disservice they are doing to our kids by weakening the science curricula in our high schools.

Mr Andersen claims there are weaknesses in the theory of evolution. Yes, there are, but the fact of evolution is not in doubt; there is active argument and research on specific details and mechanisms. Intelligent Design creationists are not participants in that work, and are actively promoting discredited ideas that are not supported by any evidence. Science class is not a place for garbled anecdotes and wishful thinking, yet that is all Mr Andersen has to offer—I think we can do better by our children.

Oh, and the name is Myers. One “e”. It’s bad enough to be misrepresented by the likes of the Discovery Institute and their minions, but they could at least spell the name correctly.

I am amused to see that the Durango Herald has published a reply. It shows the same level of incomprehension as the first letter.

Reaction shows evolutionists scared

In his letter (“Creationists weaken science teaching, Herald, Jan. 10) associate professor P.Z. Myers of Morris, Minn., suggested that anyone believing God created the universe “has no place teaching science in our classrooms.”

What an arrogant statement! Statements such as this reinforce the feeling that evolutionists are indeed quivering in fear.

Paul Bynum, Durango

Of course there is more ranting. I’m accused of “indoctrination and propaganda, and told that “All tyrants, Hitler, Stalin, etc., approve of and use this type of ‘education.'”

I think his argument is greatly weakened by the blatant quote mining of his very first sentence. You can rummage through the entire archive of my site, you can chase down every word I’ve ever said, and you can give me a Vulcan mind-meld and probe all of my thoughts, and you will not find me expressing or thinking that ridiculous sentiment anywhere. But of course, readers of the Durango Herald are most unlikely to even open up a week-old copy of their paper to assess the accuracy of the creationist’s claims. The creationists know their lies can spread faster than the truth, and they will continue to spout that kind of dishonesty shamelessly.

At least they learned how to spell my name properly.

Deficiencies in modern evolutionary theory

This is a post originally made on the old Pharyngula website; I’ll be reposting some of these now and then to bring them aboard the new site.

There are a number of reasons why the current theory of evolution should be regarded as incomplete. The central one is that while “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, some important disciplines within biology, development and physiology, have only been weakly integrated into the theory.

Raff (1996) in his book The Shape of Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) gives some of the historical reasons for the divorce of evolution and development. One is that embryologists were badly burned in the late 19th century by Haeckel, who led them along the long and unproductive detour of the false biogenetic “law”. That was a negative reaction; there was also a positive stimulus, the incentive of Roux’s new Entwicklungsmechanik, a model of experimental study of development that focused exclusively on immediate and proximate causes and effects. Embryology had a Golden Age of experimentation that discouraged any speculation about ultimate causes that just happened to coincide with the time that the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis was being formulated. Another unfortunate instance of focusing at cross-purposes was that the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis was fueled by the incorporation of genetics into evolutionary biology…and at the time, developmental biologists had only the vaguest ideas about how the phenomena they were studying were connected to the genome. It was going to be another 50 years before developmental biology fully embraced genetics.

The evolutionary biologists dismissed the embryologists as irrelevant to the field; furthermore, one of the rare embryologists who tried to address evolutionary concerns, Richard Goldschmidt, was derided as little more than a crackpot. It’s an attitude that persists today. Of course, the problem is mutual: Raff mentions how often he sees talks in developmental genetics that end with a single slide to discuss evolutionary implications, which usually consist of nothing but a sequence comparison between a couple of species. Evolution is richer than that, just as development is much more complex and sophisticated than the irrelevant pigeonhole into which it is squeezed.

In her book, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), West-Eberhard (2003) titles her first chapter “Gaps and Inconsistencies in Modern Evolutionary Thought”. It summarizes the case she makes in the rest of her 700 page book in 20 pages; I’ll summarize her summary here, and do it even less justice.

She lists 6 general problems in evolutionary biology that could be corrected with a better assimilation of modern developmental biology.

  1. The problem of unimodal adaptation. You can see this in any textbook of population genetics: the effect of selection is to impose a gradual shift in the mode of a pattern of continuous variation. Stabilizing selection chops off both tails of the distribution, directional selection works against one or the other tail, and disruptive selection favors the extremes. This is a useful, productive simplification, but it ignores too much. Organisms are capable of changing their specializations either physiologically, in the form of different behaviors, morphologies, or functional states, developmentally in the form of changing life histories, or behaviorally. Evolution is too often a “theory of adults”, and rather unrealistically inflexible adults at that.
  2. Cohesiveness. There is a long-standing bias in the evolutionary view of development, that of development imposing constraints on the organism. We can see that in the early favor of ideas like canalization, and the later vision of the gene pool as being cohesive and coadapted, which limits the magnitude of change that can be permitted. It’s a view of development as an exclusively conservative force. This is not how modern developmental biologists view the process. The emerging picture is one of flexibility, plasticity, and modularity, where development is an innovative force. Change in developmental genes isn’t destructive—one of the properties of developmental systems is that they readily accommodate novelty.
  3. Proximate and ultimate causation. One of the radical secrets of Darwin’s success was the abstraction of the process away from a remote and unaccessible ultimate teleological cause and to a more approachable set of proximate causes. This has been a good strategy for science in general, and has long been one of the mantras of evolutionary biology. Organisms are selected in the here and now, and not for some advantage many generations down the line. Evolutionary biology seems to have a blind spot, though. The most proximate features that affect the fitness of an organism are a) behavioral, b) physiological, and c) developmental. These are the causes upon which selection can act, yet the focus in evolutionary biology has been on an abstraction at least once removed, genetics.
  4. Continuous vs. discrete change. This is an old problem, and one that had to be resolved in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner in order for Mendelian genetics (an inherently discrete process) to be incorporated into neo-Darwinian thought (where gradualism was all). Many traits can be dealt with effectively by quantitative genetics, and are expressed in a graded form within populations, and these are typically the subject of study by population geneticists. We often see studies of graded phenotypes where we blithely accept that these are driven by underlying sets of graded distributions of genes, such as the studies of Darwin’s finches by the Grants, yet those genes are unidentified. Conversely, the characters that taxonomists use to distinguish species are usually qualitatively distinct are at least abruptly discontinuous. There is a gap in our thinking about these things, a gap that really requires developmental biology. Wouldn’t it be useful to know the molecular mechanisms that regulate beak size in Darwin’s finches?
  5. Problematic metaphors. One painful thing for developmental biologists reading the literature of evolutionary biology is the way development is often reduced to a metaphor, and usually it is a metaphor that minimizes the role of development. West-Eberhard discusses the familiar model of the “epigenetic landscape” by Waddington, which portrays development as a set of grooves worn in a flat table, with the organism as a billiard ball rolling down the deepest series. This is a model that completely obliterates the dynamism inherent in development. Even worse, because it is the current metaphor that seems to have utterly conquered the imaginations of most molecular biologists, is the notion of the “genetic program”. Again, this cripples our view of development by removing the dynamic and replacing it with instructions that are fixed in the genome. This is bad developmental biology, and as we get a clearer picture of the actual contents of the genome, it is becoming obviously bad molecular biology as well.
  6. The genotype-phenotype problem. Listen to how evolutionary explanations are given: they are almost always expressed in the language of genes. Genes, however, are a distant secondary or tertiary cause of evolutionary solutions. Fitness is a collective product of success at different stages of development, of different physiological adaptations, and of extremely labile interactions with the environment. Additionally, a gene alone is rarely traceable as the source of an adaptive state; epigenetic interactions are paramount. We are rarely going to be able to find that a specific allele has a discrete adaptive value. It’s always going to be an allele in a particular genetic background in a particular environment with a particular pattern of expression at particular stages of the life history.

One unfortunate problem with discussing these issues in venues frequented by lay people is, you guessed it, creationism. Any criticism of a theory is seized upon as evidence that the theory is wrong, rather than as a sign of a healthy, growing theory. The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis is not wrong, but neither is it dogma. It was set up roughly 70 years ago with the knowledge that was available at the time, and it is not at all surprising that the explosion of new knowledge, especially in molecular biology, genetics, and developmental biology, means that there are radically different new ideas clamoring to be accommodated in the old framework. The theory is going to change. This isn’t cause for creationists to rejoice, though, because the way it is changing is to become stronger.

MLK on fighting the fight

Hey, Norbizness is supposed to be a funny guy. So what’s he doing posting an excellent excerpt from a Martin Luther King letter?

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

If only he were alive today, I’d have to politely toss that one back in his face and remind him of what freethinkers think of the progressive Christian community. Confrontation and forthright expression is always going to be preferable to meek appeasement by a minority to an oblivious majority.

Let’s all pretend New Orleans will be OK!

Chris Clarke sees that we’re Abandoning NOLA in Orion:

“[W]hile encouraging city residents to return home and declaring for the media audience that “we will do whatever it takes” to save the city, the President… formally refused the one thing New Orleans simply cannot live without: A restored network of barrier islands and coastal wetlands.”

Leiter reports on the human catastrophe and the same shortsightedness:

The Army Corps of Engineers is still not doing anything on stopping the loss of the coastal littoral. Before Katrina, Louisiana lost some 40 miles of coastline over the last three decades. Congress has only appropriated $200 million for a coastal restoration study when $14 billion is required for coastal restoration and another $25 billion is needed for Category 5 hurricane levee preparation.

It’s all a hollow shell. The Bush administration throws a pittance at a problem, enough to put up a façade of actually caring, while letting the infrastructure rot and the underlying problems grow. They’re all bluster, and why should they care? They’ll reap their profits now, and let future generations pay for it.

Open Thread

This is the place to bring up any old thing that strikes your fancy. I’m also asking some of the commenters from The Panda’s Thumb to bring their gripes about the ludicrous management of Uncommon Descent, that bastion of Intelligent Design close-mindedness, over here, just because the outrage is spilling over into far too many irrelevant threads.

But don’t let that stop you from mentioning anything else of far more interest than Dembskian dogmatism…