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Friday, June 27, 2008

Birds: What you thought you knew about their evolution is ... wrong?

From both Science Daily and New Scientist comes the word that, in the words of New Scientist's Bob Holmes (June 26, 2008),

A new study – the largest analysis of birds to date using modern genetic methods – has turned up numerous surprising relationships that will force biologists to reevaluate much of what they thought they knew about avian evolution.

[ ... ]

This new tree contains several notable surprises. For example, falcons are more closely related to songbirds than to other hawks and eagles. The closest kin of the diving birds called grebes turn out to be flamingos. And tiny, flashy hummingbirds, according to the new tree, are just a specialised form of nighthawks, whose squat, bulky bodies make them an unlikely cousin.

and in the words of Science Daily, whose drudges toil nameless (June 27, 2008):

The results of the study are so broad that the scientific names of dozens of birds will have to be changed, and biology textbooks and birdwatchers' field guides will have to be revised. For example, we now know that:

Birds adapted to the diverse environments several distinct times because many birds that now live on water (such as flamingos, tropicbirds and grebes) did not evolve from a different waterbird group, and many birds that now live on land (such as turacos, doves, sandgrouse and cuckoos) did not evolve from a different landbird group.

Similarly, distinctive lifestyles (such as nocturnal, raptorial and pelagic, i.e., living on the ocean or open seas) evolved several times. For example, contrary to conventional thinking, colorful, daytime hummingbirds evolved from drab nocturnal nightjars; falcons are not closely related to hawks and eagles; and tropicbirds (white, swift-flying ocean birds) are not closely related to pelicans and other waterbirds.

Shorebirds are not a basal evolutionary group, which refutes the widely held view that shorebirds gave rise to all modern birds.
And, summing it up,

"With this study, we learned two major things," said Sushma Reddy, another lead author and Bucksbaum Postdoctoral Fellow at The Field Museum. "First, appearances can be deceiving. Birds that look or act similar are not necessarily related. Second, much of bird classification and conventional wisdom on the evolutionary relationships of birds is wrong."
Yeah. Wrong.

Or maybe not. This analysis depends on certain assumptions about bird genomes - and the assumptions may not be correct.

Here is what we now know for sure: No one living has any sure idea how different types of birds originated. Fanatics of one method clash with the fanatics of another.

And people wonder why there is an intelligent design controversy ...

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Governor Bobby Jindal passes Louisiana bill to permit critical thinking about Darwin, and such

Big fun on the Bayou:

I see where Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has signed the Science Education Act On Evolution and Education, according to which

Upon the request of a local school board, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will be required to "allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." Assistance from the State Board in this area now will "include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied."
I wonder if this law will result in an expensive Supreme Court challenge for Louisiana.

I understand what drives all this. I would love to see the Selfish Gene cult, the St. Darwin of Down House League, and the You Gonna Fry! You Gonna Die! School of Ecology off school premises for good.

Still ..., I have mixed feelings about the whole "law" business.

What I understand: Having shuffled through tons of materialist sludge in textbooks and teachers' guides (and succeeded in red pencilling at least some of it into hell), I would love to help write sludge-free material. For example,

- we don't have any idea how life began, so we will act like Darwin and discuss subjects on which we have reasonable (though not by any means unassailable) information, rather than useless speculation.

- lots of what we are now learning about life's development does not conform to theories that were widely accepted even in the recent past. But that is what happens when we study a dynamic field. We see changes. That is what a dynamic field is: One in which we see changes. If you want to study a field in which you will not see changes, move to a planet where nothing changes.

- despite the vast changes in life over time, there is still no free lunch. That fact has implications beyond biology. Learn it here and you will not need to learn it elsewhere.

All that said, I hate government interference in education.

Unofficial history of government interference in education: 2500 years ago, the government of Athens forces Socrates to drink poison. Things have gone on pretty much the same from there, except that paperwork now replaces poison: Every student a project. Every teacher a bureaucrat. Every headmaster a snitch ... O brave new world, that has such people in it ...

Bayou, blue bayou, surprise me, will you?

Here is why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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Chaos theory: If order just somehow emerges from chaos, why aren't we all young and beautiful?

And rich and famous?

In "High Mouth-To-Brain Ratios And 'Fact Free' Science", Robert Deyes has helped answer a question I have off and on wondered about: What on earth happened to self-organization theory (sometimes called emergent complexity theory), which was supposed to explain
... everything from the sizes of families in Bangladesh to the origin of the first living cell and the long term, million year stability of animal species.
In short, the idea is that within chaos order emerges spontaneously without intelligence intervening.

That has never happened in any publishing enterprise with which I was associated over the last thirty-five years. Order emerged when intelligence was imposed. Of course, to get results from self-organization, maybe I should give it thirty-five billion years. (The universe is about 13 billion years old, so ... ths can't be a rush project, okay?)

Self-emergence theory is precisely the sort which prompts, at least in me, a fundamental question: If order emerges spontaneously from chaos, why aren't we all rich and famous and eternally young? Shouldn't entropy work backward too?

Well, Deyes offers a bit of history:

1995 was to be a year of celebration for the Santa Fe Institute [self-organization central]. The museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe hosted a dinner to bring together scientists from all over the United States for a celebratory toast of success. This dinner was attended by all the big names of the Institute - Brian Arthur, Chris Langton, Stuart Kauffman and Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Man famous for his work on quarks and particle physics. David Liddle, the chair for the board of trustees, ushered in the celebrations with a speech of much optimism and hope. And yet behind Liddle's introductory note lay a growing restlessness over, "the gap between such rhetoric and reality"
Gap's still there, and wider than ever. And we all grow older and disorder increases.

Actually, Stu Kauffman is now at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, actually. And last I was in touch with him, he was promoting a new book, which sounds interesting.

Welcome to Canada, Stu. For your own safety, don't diss any Professional Grievance Bunnies. Not till we chase them back to their forlorn wilderness of picket signs and plight.

The image is from Chaos Review and you can comment on it here.

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