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News updates

December 11, 2009

First, as a followup on my Ray Comfort post, I somehow failed to adequately highlight the role which the National Center for Science Education played in responding to Comfort’s release.  Not only did they play a role in publicizing Comfort’s “borrowing” of his biography of Darwin (here), but the organization also played a huge role in the organized response to Comfort’s release.  For example, Eugenie Scott did a pretty strong critique of Comfort’s introduction and editing job as part of a US News online debate (here, and here).  It’s also worth noting here that the organization has also developed a website, available here, dedicated to highlighting problems with the text.  These sources are well worth checking out!

Also worth noting is the recent leak of Kent Hovind’s PhD dissertation.  PZ Myers discusses it on his blog Pharyngula, here.  Myers even includes a link where it is possible to download a copy of the thing in pdf form.

Also, if you’re interested in seeing some of the original manuscript pages from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, you can now, at least digitally!  If you’re interested, check it out here.

fossil of the week #2

November 12, 2009

glyptodon at AMNH


This week’s fossil of the week is Glyptotherium texanum, a large extinct relative of the armadillo.  This particular specimen is on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  These guys likely went extinct between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago.  Charles Darwin himself actually discovered some glyptodont remains similar to this species while traveling on the Beagle.

In other news, currently working through the newest sequel, this time authored by William Dembski and Jonathan Wells. Released in 2008 , the webpage set up for this book states that its key message is that: “[m]aterialistic science is bankrupt; intelligence acts in nature, and its activity must feature in our scientific understanding of the world“.  As is often the case with the Intelligent Design Movement, there appears to be a key focus on defeating “materialism”.  I haven’t pored very deeply through the online text sample yet (available here), but plan to comment on it in a post once I have. As a text initially intended as a new version of Pandas, I don’t have much hope for it as a strongly convincing read, but I’ll wait until I’ve thoroughly analyzed the sections dealing with material I have a background in before condemning (or if its actually compelling perhaps openly considering) it.


fossil of the week

November 1, 2009

Pikaia, on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  One of the oldest known chordates, Pikaia featured prominently in Stephen Jay Gould’s book “Wonderful Life” and can be seen as perhaps an extremely distant uncle to our species.  Picture presented in black and white to highlight the fossil itself (Burgess Shale specimens are notoriously difficult to photograph, and I’m not a professional photographer).


T-Rex Soft Tissue and Young Earth Creationists

October 31, 2009

Anyone who’s followed the Young Earth Creationist movement and paleontology lately should know about the 2005 discovery of T-Rex blood vessels by Mary Schweitzer et al.  Young Earth Creationists have jumped on the find (here for example).  Creationists claim that the proteins preserved were far too fragile to have survived for “millions of years” and therefore must be only a few thousand years old.  However, this claim is flawed.
First off, there is the possibility that the Schweitzer soft tissue is the result of replacement (see here for more information on that possibility) of the material by other biological entities (ie bacteria). Other possibilities include that the proteins in question actually are preserved dinosaur remains (recent findings suggest this is a strong possibility).  It is worth noting here that we are looking at proteins, and not full strands of DNA.  Proteins are much more durable than actual DNA strands. Recently, work has been done which suggests that fossils may commonly preserve soft material when trapped in hard sandstone (which blocks oxygen deterioration).

The actual process of extracting the soft material from the bones can lead to a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the find.  The bone that Schweitzer worked with was soaked in acid for analytical purposes (this is a standard practice when working with rocks or fossils).  After being soaked in acid, the remaining “soft material” appeared pliable (see picture on pharyngula here).  However, being soft and pliable after being soaked in acid does not mean that the entire bone appears to be very young.  In fact, the bone looks just like any fossil.  The bone is on display at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies, so I’ve been lucky enough to see it up close.  Here are some pictures of it:

T-Rex femur

bone that soft tissue was extracted from

close up of site of extraction

location in bone where soft tissue was extracted from

As you can see, the bone itself does not look like something that just died; in appearance, it is extremely similar to most T-Rex bones one could find.  While the presence of blood vessels and cells being preserved in this bone is a surprise, it is not detrimental to the scientific interpretation of the age of this fossil.  Sure, it’s weird from a paleontology perspective, but unlike “Creation Science”, which forces everything to fit within its preconceived Biblical framework, paleontologists adjusted their position.  They asked the tough questions, and came up with plausible explanations for the existence of this material.  Yet Creationists are quick to jump on the find as proof of a young Earth.  Judging from the fact that the geologic evidence in general supports a very old Earth, and some hypotheses about the preservation of proteins and such have been tested (and shown promise), the Creationists appear to not have as strong a case as one would initially think.  But for Young Earth Creationists, the mantra stays the same:

Don't stop believin'



Coelacanth at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

October 30, 2009

I visited the museum this summer, and after walking through the paleontology displays (which were phenomenal, especially the Burgess Shale displays), I ran across this thing:


Coelacanth at NMNH

It took me a minute to process the display.  I subconsciously knew what it was likely, since I became extremely excited and practically ran up to the display.  However, it took me a minute to fully realize that I was standing face to face with a taxidermy specimen of an actual coelacanth.  Not sure how many people have seen pictures of an actual coelacanth, so I figured it’d be worth sharing (sorry about the relatively crappy quality; had to work around kids and curious people to get the shot).  If you’re ever in DC, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum is well worth checking out; its free, and they have a decent amount of material on display. The building gets a bit crowded (after all it is a free museum), but its well worth the time spent.

Icons of Evolution?

August 24, 2009

I spent the day yesterday in New York City. On the ride from Albany to NYC, I pulled out an old copy of Jonathan Well’s Icons of Evolution.  I purchased the book as a high school student (10th grade, if I’m not mistaken), when I was first getting into paleontology and evolution.  The title of the book looked interesting, and glowing reviews from people who I once thought might be well-respected mainstream scientists (these “mainstream scientists” were Philip Johnson, Michael Behe, and Guillermo Gonzalez) due to lack of scientific background on my own part led me to purchase the book, hoping to see an exposure of big gaps in evolutionary theory.  As you can tell, the book did not convert me.  I read the book, although something about it seemed fishy (as I now know, there are major scientific inaccuracies within the book which I will not address here; for more on them, click here).  I wasn’t some dogmatic, atheistic Darwinist hoping to squash opposing views; I was a highschooler who engaged opposing views just in case there was something to them.  I still hold the same practice today; when faced with opposing views, I do what every truly curious person does…I look at the facts.

However, a book such as Icons of Evolution can be confusing to a highschooler or even an open-minded adult with little or no scientific background.  I picked up the book thinking, at least for a moment, that there must be some sort of “controversy” over evolution (I had the same initial reaction to Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box as an 11th grader).  After a deeper analysis of the books and also available refutations of them, I realized that the supposed “controversy” was really only skin-deep.  Evolution isn’t a “theory in crisis”, but a well-developed and well-supported scientific theory.   However, looking back to this youthful stage, it is entirely concievable that I could have walked away from Behe and Wells with the idea that evolution really is a scientifically controversial issue.  If I had not been deeply interested in paleontology and evolution already, perhaps I would have just read Behe and Wells and then concluded that evolution is indeed a “theory in crisis”.  After all, their books were found in the science section of a major bookstore. 

I think that this is an important issue with regards to public perceptions of evolution (or science in general).  Anyone with an interest in a scientific topic can walk into a bookstore and pick up the first book on a topic to catch their eye.  Unfortunately, not all books are of the same quality.  In popular writings, there is no peer-review process to make sure that books on science are scientifically sound.  Major errors can slip right through the editorial process into print, and also into the hands of readers.  Yet the popular realm is where pseudoscience makes its push for credibility.  The general public, relatively lacking in scientific literacy (as I was as a highschooler), is often perceptive to pseudoscientific ideas.   If you look at an issue such as climate change or evolution, you will find a much larger percentage of the general public in opposition to the idea than you will for scientists.  Pseudoscientific ideas are often presented side-by-side with valid science (in bookstores, newspaper articles, and so on), thus implying a sense of equality between them.  Often, people do not have the time (or interest) to do a background check on the ideas to distinguish between valid and invalid ideas.  Due to this phenomenon, I would suggest that some sort of philosophy of science course (one that deals with the science/pseudoscience divide as well as what science is and isn’t) has a place in high school curricula in America. While there are numerous complaints against the American educational system, a course such as this could at least expose the general public to the difference between science and pseudoscience and equip them with the tools to tell the difference.

Also, on a relatively unrelated note, I recently read an interview on the ActionBioscience site with Philip Gingerich on the origin of whales.  It’s pretty good. If it’s an area you’re interested in, here’s a link to the interview.