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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Recent events in the intelligent design controversy - 6

Still cleaning out my inbox here. I should be doing something else, for reasons I hope I don't ever have to explain.

■ Here's Youtube on The Simpson's on evolution. Have fun, fun, fun, till your daddy takes your you-tube away.

■ Yet another paper claiming to explain the evolution of the giraffe's neck as a feeding strategy. Of course that is improbable for a number of reasons explained here, but briefly, a very long neck is a lot of trouble. The driving force is not likely to be the leaves at the top of a tree. He notes a recent, more reasonable suggestion is that male giraffes with longer necks get the girls, and pass on the trait (it's not an advantage, necessarily but giraffes can learn to live with it):
More recently, Simmons and Scheepers (1996) proposed that sexual selection has caused the lengthening and enlarging of the neck in males. These scientists place their ideas in relation to known facts and point out shortcomings in relation to larger contexts—a happy contrast to the other hypotheses we've discussed. They describe how male giraffes fight by clubbing opponents with their large, massive heads; the neck plays the role of a muscular handle. The largest (longest-necked) males are dominant among other male giraffes and mate more frequently. Since long-necked males mate more frequently, selection works in favor of long necks. This would also help explain why males have not only absolutely longer, but proportionately heavier heads than females.

But hen he points out the difficulties:
This hypothesis seems consistent with the difference between male and female giraffes. At least it gives a picture of how the longer neck of males can be maintained in evolution. But it doesn't tell us anything about the origin of neck lengthening in giraffes per se—the neck has to reach a length of one or two meters to be used as a weapon for clubbing. How did it get that long in the first place? Moreover, the female giraffe is left out of the explanation, and Simmons and Scheepers can only speculate that female neck lengthening somehow followed that of males. In the end, the authors admit that neck lengthening could have had other causes and that head clubbing is a consequence of a long neck and not a cause.

The essay is fun and well worth reading if you want to see the real difficulties in trying to understand the evolutionary origin of traits.

■ Did I mention The Scientist's take on the Rick Sternberg case?: "Smithsonian "discriminated" against scientist: Officials retaliated after publication of a paper supporting intelligent design, a Congressional report claims"

Sternberg was that Smithsonian paleontologist who became the target of a frenzy of Darwinist persecution when his journal published an ID-friendly paper. Apparently, he still has some rights, according to the government, but then Darwinism is not yet the only permissible official religion.

The Times Higher's Phil Baty reports a new move in Britain toward academic freedom in a story headed as the "right to be offensive." The title implies that the primary outcome of pointing out inconvenient truths or of fronting nonsense is that they give offense.
If adopted in law, it would give all academics the unfettered right to speak out on any issue, "both inside and outside the classroom", whether or not it was part of their area of academic expertise and "whether or not these [issues] were deemed offensive".

Most provocatively, this would give support to Frank Ellis, the Leeds University lecturer in Russian and Slavonic studies who took early retirement before a disciplinary case over his comments that white people were more intelligent than black people.

The statement would also offer backing to Andrew McIntosh, professor of thermodynamics at Leeds, who has been sharply criticised for claiming that the world is only 6,000 years old and that evolutionary theory is wrong.

The statement has been published by Academics for Academic Freedom ( Among the signatories as The Times Higher went to press were Steve Fuller, the Warwick University sociologist, and Simon Davies, co-director of the Policy Engagement Research Group at the London School of Economics.

What the statement will/should really do is return all such questions to the realm of evidence and banish the destructive nonsense about being "offensive." People who are offended by hearing views different from their own on topics that are important to them should either grow up or seek a less challenging environment than a university should be. Most of the people who foam at the mouth about Ellis or McIntosh could not in fact tell you in a factually satisfactory way how they know that these men are wrong. They will merely erupt, foam away, and demand that the political correctness co-ordinator extinguish the source of their seething rage. Wasting money on that and calling it higher education is a scandal.

■ Some New Age authors are beginning to talk about intelligent design, including Kazmer Uvjarosy. Nte especialy, his "In seach of the designer of intelligent design." While I'm here, Deepak Chopra seems to be holding his own. Chopra notes,
I remain fascinated by orthodox defenders of Darwinism, who believe that the success of a scientific theory proves its infallibility. As a passing note, I have never denied natural selection, but the holes in current evolutionary theory are glaring. Mitch and others can catch up on earlier posts where I detail these holes, or they can consult many other writers on the subject.

I wish Chopra well in this matter, but would note that to the extent that Darwinism (current evolutionary theory) is actually held as a religious belief, under the guise of science, its adherents cannot in fact see any holes in it. What he thinks are holes are to them mere tests of faith that will be filled in - we ar asked to believe - by later science. Or talked round. Now, none of that would matter except for the demand that the current approved version of their beliefs be taught as "the truth" in the science classes of publicly funded schools, funded by large numbers of people who do not share the beliefs and do not agree that it is impossible that there could be any flaws in them.

■ Here's an interesting and free article on the "Hobbit", Flores man, which is far more likely to be a family of midgets than an extinct species of tiny human.
is Homo floresiensis? The tiny hominid bones, which a joint Australian-Indonesian team unearthed in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores, have quickly become as celebrated (and derided) as any find in the tempestuous history of human paleontology. The mystery that shrouds these ancient skeletons, nicknamed hobbits after the diminutive characters in J. R. R. Tolkien's novels, seems to deepen with every study published. Two main camps have emerged, each certain they can settle the question. But many other paleoanthropologists confess they still have no idea.

Their diminutiveness has been called "island dwarfing" (apparently, they lived on an island). But they needn't have. For what it is worth, I always doubted that Flores was a new species because I have often seen tiny, well-formed people on the streets of Toronto. They tend to find each other, as you might expect, and so ....

■ Moths not as deaf as previously thought?
Current understanding of the co-evolution of bats and moths has been thrown into question following new research reported today in Current Biology.

Dr James Windmill from the University of Bristol, UK, has shown how the Yellow Underwing moth changes its sensitivity to a bat's calls when the moth is being chased. And in case there is another attack, the moth's ear remain tuned in for several minutes after the calls stop.

Dr Windmill said: "Because the moth cleverly tunes its ear to enhance its detection of bats, we must now question whether the bat in turn modifies its calls to avoid detection by the moth. In view of the vast diversity of bat calls, this is only to be expected.

"To date, this phenomenon has not been reported for insects or, in fact, for any other hearing system in the animal kingdom. These findings change our understanding of the co-evolution of bats and moths and have implications for the hearing of many other animals."

There are no simple organisms, it seems. The average moth turns out to have a better sense of how to avoid bats than the average scientist who studies moths. But shouldn't we expect that?

■ Researchers from the University of Indiana at Bloomington have announced that the human and chimp genomes actually diverge not by one percent but by six percent:
The researchers paid special attention to gene number changes between humans and chimps. Using a statistical method they devised, the scientists inferred humans have gained 689 genes (through the duplication of existing genes) and lost 86 genes since diverging from their most recent common ancestor with chimps. Including the 729 genes chimps appear to have lost since their divergence, the total gene differences between humans and chimps was estimated to be about 6 percent.

Hahn said any serious measure of genetic difference between humans and chimps must incorporate both variation at the nucleotide level among coding genes and large-scale differences in the structure of human and chimp genomes. The real question biologists will face is not which measure is correct but rather which sets of differences have been more important in human evolution.

Well, if you do not know the whole history, who really knows?

Personally, I have always thought that the 98% chimpanzee stuff was vastly overblown. Anyone can tell the difference between a human and a chimpanzee, which only shows that if the genome shows great similarity, it is not part of the key difference. That's too bad, but it is nobody’s fault.

■ And finally, the thinkquote of the day: From Berkeley computer prof Robert Wilensky, "We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true."

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God , my backgrounder about peer review issues, or the evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin and of academic ID publications.

My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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