February 2009

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ResearchBlogging.orgTodays issue of Science contains a report on the identification of bipedal hominin footprints found at Ileret in Kenya.  Of course older hominid footprints, probably of Australopithecus arafensis, were found some years ago at Laetoli and have become iconic images.

The new discovery is of fossil footprints which are morphologically distinct from the much older Laetoli footprints, and are thought to have been left by Homo ergaster or Homo erectus. These footprints were found on two distinct strata at the site.  The authors have analysed the prints in detail using laser scanning.  Stride analysis of the tracks suggests the originators were about 1.75 to 1.76m tall (though there are some sequences of prints from a smaller individual), considerably larger than A.afarensis.  Some of the footprints (see panel B in the figure below) show well-preserved imprints of individual toes. Read the rest of this entry »

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I just got around to reading Colin Blakemore’s article over at The Guardian (Science is just one gene away from defeating religion).  A nicely written article, though I thought he might have been a bit forthright about the “why” questions that religions try to reserve from themselves (my view is that many of these “why” questions aren’t worth asking…).  As usual, however, the under-educated religious loons appear to have been out in force among the 712 (!) comments.

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I recently picked up a copy of Jerry Coyne’s new book, Why Evolution is True.  You can also visit Jerry Coyne’s blog of the same

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name, Why Evolution is True.  This book review is being written as I make my way through the book – the first thing I need to point out is that I am a biologist, and like the vast majority of biologists I happen to consider that evolution is indeed true.  That being said, I’m also a little dismayed by the outpourings of religiously motivated twaddle-merchants who seek to place creationism on an equal footing.  It is these kind of anti-science arguments that the book is aimed at.

Coyne sets the scene in the preface: the ruling in the 2005 Harrisburg trial (Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District).  This was a resounding defeat for a group attempting to manoeuvre creationism into the science curriculum.  Despite this, similar shenanigans keeop cropping up across the USA.  And indeed, at least one UK state-funded school has gone down the same route (The Guardian – Top school’s creationists preach value of biblical story over evolution).  The brief introduction continues the theme of religious belief versus acceptance of evolutionary theory.

The first chapter proper is entitled “What is Evolution?”, and presents six “parts” or concepts that are important to evolutionary theory.  Firstly, the idea of evolution itself – that over time species undergo genetic change, and that this need not happen at the same rate (examples of horseshoe crabs and the ginkgo are given for slow-changing taxa).  The second part is that of gradualism – the notion that evolutionary change is slow, so slow that long periods of time are required.  In fact this can be one of the stumbling blocks for many people, for whom the short human lifespan doesn’t necessarily equip them to grasp deep time.  The third idea is of speciation – that lineages split to yield new species.  As Coyne observes, this is intimately tied to the fourth part, common ancestry, which can be seen at different levels, from molecular to anatomical.  The fifth part is the most significant element of Darwin’s theory – natural selection.  It does seem to me that this subsumes a number of concepts, including notions of variation and heritability, and so is the major Darwinian innovation here.  Finally, the sixth part is that of processes other than natural selection can cause evolutionary change – genetic drift for example.

Chapter one also deals with the issue of the word theory – possibly the most abused weapon of the creationists, who generally take the tack of using colloquial definitions of “theory” to suggest that supporting proof or evidence is lacking – as the book goes on to show, this is so far from the truth that the title of the book is most definitely not mistaken.  In fact, despite the study of evolution largely being a historical kind of science, evolutionary theory enables us to make predictions about what we might expect to see in the geological/palaeontological record or in the genomes of different species: these predictions are invariably confirmed.

The second chapter “Written in the Rocks” deals with the palaeontological record of past species.  It clarifies issues to do with the so-called “missing links” so beloved of creationists.  Documented examples of gradual change found in the fossil record include several invertebrates: transitional series demonstrating the evolution of birds, the evolution of amphibians and the transitions to the terrestrial habit and the evolution of whales are all given as examples where evolutionary theory has enabled scientists to make predictions of what the fossil record would show, predictions fully supported by later discoveries.  The ability of evolutionary theory to make testable (and disprovable) predictions is a recurrent theme in the book, and is really a good indicator of its superiority over creationist explanations.

Chapter 3, “Remnants: Vestiges, Embryos, and Bad Design” shows how evolution leaves its mark in occasional atavisms, in patterns of embryonic development and in the “molecular legacy” revealed by the large scale genome sequencing projects.  Interestingly, I can recall being taken to task at a conference in around 1989 by Richard Lewontin, Coyne’s PhD supervisor, over our then non-existent plans to sequence the Drosophila melanogaster genome (he was concerned by what would be chosen as the standard “wild type” genome).  Now we have the sequence of 12 different Drosophila species (see my post on the polytene chromosomes and genome sequences of the Drosophilids over at Flies & Bikes).  It’s also worth looking at my recent article on the Genome Sequence-based Tee of Life).

Biogeography is the subject of the fourth chapter, “The Geography of Life”, which shows how the evidence of both extant and fossil taxa across continents, continental islands and oceanic islands clearly argues against creation, and instead makes a logical fit to evolutionary theory.  Patterns of distrbution of animals and plants across the world were something that puzzled Victorian naturalists – ideas of plate tectonics had not been formulated.  Clearer perhaps were the explanations of diverse species on recent oceanic islands, such as Hawaii and the Galapagos.  The theme of testable predictions is raised again here, with the nice example of Glossopteris, a fossil tree found in the southern hemisphere, and which was predicted would be found in Antarctica.  It was, and indeed 30 odd pounds of Glossopteris fossils were carted back by Scott’s ill-fated polar expedition. Chapter 5, “The Engine of Evolution” includes a clear statement of why “Intelligent Design” fails as an explanation of the world around us: “Since ID itself makes no testable scientific claims, but offers only half-baked criticisms of Darwinism, its credibility slowly melts away with each advance in our understanding”.  Unfortunately, this is probably untrue of the religiously-blinkered.

Darwin was possibly more troubled by peculiar (and on the face of it inexplicable) structures auch as the peacock’s tail than he was by the mechanisms by which eyes evolved.  He did of course invoke sexual selection as a mechanism, and the sixth chapter, “How Sex Drives Evolution” deals with this.  And convincingly.  I was particularly interested to see mention of an experiment that my colleague Tim Halliday and colleagues conducted using the peacocks at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire, which demonstrated the sexual selection pressure on peacock tails.  Interestingly this settled a matter that had been discussed by both Wallace and Darwin: an experimental demonstration of  sexual selection.

The Origin of Species is, perhaps surprisingly, not really covered at length by Darwin in On the Origin of Species – here, Coyne devotes an entire chapter to the subject, and covers the issue well.  Good examples are given, which clearly provide evidence of how speciation processes operate, including experimental recapitulation of a polyploidy-related speciation event in plants: that of Welsh groundsel, in which it’s origin as polyploid hybrid of two other species was confirmed by laboratory crosses between those two species in which the hybrid species was synthesised.   Human origins are covered in the eighth chapter, “What About Us?”, and the question of whether human races reflect a meaningful biological reality is dealt with.

Why Evolution is True is an excellent little book – it clearly states why the author, and indeed the vast majority of biologists, accept evolutionary theory as true.  It takes an excellent strategy of illustarting the deifference between the scientific and colloquial use of the word “theory”.  In particular I felt the running theme of how evolutionary theory makes testable predictions makes celar distinctions between this scientific explanation for the diverstiy of life over archaic supernatural explanations was particularly effective.  But of course in this reader, Coyne is preaching to someone with a pretty good grasp of the biology.  And while I was particularly interested in comparing the material covered in this book with the kind of arguments advanced by the creationist in The Big Question TV programme (see this recent article -The Big Question – The Bible and Evolution), what kind of impact is this going to have on the evolution vs creationism debate?  I worry that the creationist side is so undereducated in science, and unlikely to read beyond a cover (witness the recent furore over the dreadful “Darwin was Wrong” New Scientist cover – Darwin was right), and certainly aren’t going to be swayed from their religious “truth”.  Still, the book does offer clear arguments against many of the lies and misrepresentations proffered by the creationists.  And it’s an enjoyable read.

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The other week I received an email enquiring whether I would be interested in appearing on the live Sunday morning programme “The Big Question” (it’s made by an independent TV station for BBC TV) debating whether a belief in the bible could be reconciled with a belief in evolution.  As someone with no experience in live TV, I declined.  Daniel Florien has posted  a link to a YouTube video on his excellent blog Unreasonable Faith (Is Evolution and the Bible Compatible?).  Oh I am so glad I declined the invitation!

I imagine from the title of the clip, that the segment on evolution has been split into two sections, this being part one.  The creationist guy is so wilfully ignorant it hurts.  The creationist arguments are the same tired old crap.

The bottom line for is that yes, it is possible to believe in the bible and evolution, because some people do.  Personally, I find it had to see how they can be reconciled, but some evidently do.

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Home Secretary Jacqui Smith gets pretty short shrift from me on my other blog, but that’s really about the typical Home Secretary attributes of draconian databases and drug control etc.  She recently banned  a Dutch politician (who had made an anti-Islam film) from visiting the House of Lords, and now a band of loony-tune baptists from Westboro Baptist Church.

Phelps, who runs the Primitive Baptist Westboro church in Topeka, Kansas – most of whose congregation are members of his family, including his 13 children wanted to object to a school in Basingstoke (or as Phelps puts it, Bassingstoke), who planned to stage a play about the murder of a a homosexual.  Phelps and co are real nut-jobs, and have a real hatred of homosexuals.  I hadn’t realised quite how much of a nut-job he is until I saw this video at YouTube:

This is just awesome stuff, particularly the website URLs touted at the end of this insane video.  If he wasn’t preaching such vile hate, this’d be a comedy gem. And in case you are wondering, Phelps does claim that the UK has banned God (hence the title of this post).

(Hat tip to the New Humanist)

See also The Guardian – Anti-gay American cleric banned from UK for inciting hatred

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So it appears that the loopy Christian Party have coughed up for a riposte to the Atheist bus adverts, as previously promised.  Apparently the text reads: “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.”  Which is of course interesting – I look forward to hearing George’s proof that there is indeed a bearded sky dude looking over us.  Or indeed any Invisible Magic Friend.

In the meantime, reports indicate that the Christian party offices got their windows broken (Christian Party offices trashed after bus adverts).  It’s not clear to me from this and other reports on the internet quite why this is thought to be a reaction to the bus adverts and not just to the Christian Party per se and their batty policies, but I suppose one might not expect a bunch of fundamentalists to have the best understanding of cause and coincidence.

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The Guardian’s ever-lively online Comment web page poses the question: “Are Christians persecuted in the UK?“.  This one looks like it’s set to run.  For what it’s worth, I don’t actually think so.  However, the opening salvo from that article is as follows:

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has called on the silent majority of Christian Britons to stand up for their heritage, in a climate of mounting, if petty persecution. He cites the cases of Jennie Cain, suspended as a primary school receptionist after asking friends to pray for her when her five-year-old daughter was upbraided for “talking about Jesus” in school; and of Caroline Petrie, a nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient. He also mentions a foster mother struck off because one of her charges converted from Islam to Christianity. Other cases include the Bible relegated to the top shelf of Leicester libraries, and the primary school head in Sheffield who took early retirement after a row involving separate assemblies for Muslim children.

I have only been aware of a few of the cases cited in that article.  However, from what I’ve read online.  So, for example, here is The Freethinker’s report on the Jennie Cain case (The truth about ‘persecuted’ Christian Jennie Cain), in which the incident doesn’t sound terribly cut and dried in favour of case of a Christian persecution.  Apparently her daughter “Cain’s darling little angel had scared the s*** out of a classmate with threats of eternal damnation”, and Cain herself was suspended for firing off a wild series of accusatory emails.  The case of Caroline Petrie was one that upset a number of people.  The fact was that nurses find themselves in a position of power over their patients.  They are apparently prohibited from making offers of religious actions like this – I suggest partly because patients might be upset, either because of what it might be meaning in terms of disease progression, or because if they make a fuss it might impact on the future relationship with the healthworker.  Either way, the nurse knew, or should have known the rules and ought to have obeyed them. Again, there’s The Freethinkers take on the story: Christian nurse Petrie’s problem was a pickle of her own making.  Both Cain and Petrie seem to be pushing their belief system on others who may not share it, and in so doing created their own problems.

The fostering story is interesting.  As I understand it, fostering is a more temporary arrangement than adoption, and one might have thought that children would firstly be fostered in a culturally relevant environment, and secondly ought not at the age of 16 be exposed to influences that would their cultural belief.  I’m not of the opinion that conversion from Islam to Christianity is necessarily a good thing, particularly if the individual child ultimately is to be returned to her family, and I don’t think the protests indicate persecution of Christians.

Julia Robinson, the Sheffield head teacher, resigned (or may have been pushed) after moving to abolish separate assemblies for muslim kids.  In actual fact it seems to be that the legal requirement is for assemblies of a broadly christian nature, and any devaiation needs special permission – usually for cases where the majority of kids are islamic (or presumably some other faith).  One might actually suggest that the time has come to lose all religious assemblies in schools, though I imagine the C of E and RC schools would receive suggestions they cease indoctinating kids rather poorly.

All this makes it seem as though really Christians aren’t particularly picked upon, let alone persecuted.  Certainly not enought to justify the final paragraph in that piece: “No one who reads these threads can doubt the existence of anti-Christian hatred in this country.”  Surely a bit strong?

As several comments on the Guardian site point out, as the established church the C of E enjoys several advantages not open to other faiths, including the Head of State, their seats in the House of Lords, access to government funding, having the opportunity to run all the best schools on a religious basis, tax breaks, compulsory acts of religious worship in various venues…I suggest the complaining Christians give it a rest, and recognise what real persecution is.

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Well, I see that Julie Buchill (who’s greatest contribution to literature may have been her teenage tirade about rock music, The Boy Looked at Johnny, co-written with Tony Parsons), has been pontificating that the charitable sector is declining with the decline of religious belief (The Times – How volunteering can stave off depression).

Middle-aged women were historically the backbone of the voluntary services; now, it’s overwhelmingly a Christian contribution. (Those wonderful atheists are obviously too busy doing something intellectual to be bothered with helping others.) Of course, there’s a crossover, but the Christian presence has stayed constant as middle-aged women have been tempted into more self-regarding activities. And as this has happened, their levels of depression have risen, because religious faith and voluntary work are the twin tried-and-tested pillars of happiness.

Ho-hum, here we go again, let’s bash the atheists, who <sarcasm> obviously can’t have any moral compass </sarcasm>.  Tiresome or what?  And I do like the concept of religious faith and voluntary work as the tried-and-tested pillars of happiness.  Personally, I find doing my job, donating to charities, helping out with local schools, riding my bike, understanding how the natural world works (without the need for a bearded sky-dude), and many other things make me happy.  Heck, even reading silly articles by professional commentators makes me happy!

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Wonderful Life has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.


One of the exciting things about American politics, it seems to me, is the grass-roots politics.  When visiting Detroit shortly before last year’s Presidential election, it was striking how many public offices are filled by election.  There is a down-side of this, as evidenced by repeated attempts of school boards to enforce teaching of creationism within the science curriculum – it is presumably relatively easy to “pack” school boards with politically and/or religiously motivated individuals.

In January, the State of Louisiana passed a bill to permit teachers to have freedom to teach non-scientific material in school science classes.  This was reported in the Science website on 15th January (Louisiana Creates: New Pro-Intelligent Design Rules for Teachers).  from that article:

Last year, Louisiana passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, a law that many scientists and educators said was a thinly veiled attempt to allow creationism and its variants into the science classroom. On Tuesday, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted a policy that sharpens those fears, giving teachers license to use materials outside of the regular curriculum to teach “controversial” scientific theories including evolution, origins of life, and global warming. Backers of the law, including the Louisiana Family Forum, say it is intended to foster critical thinking in students. Opponents insist its only purpose is to provide a loophole for creationists to attack the teaching of evolution.

In response to this insidious law, The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology has reversed plans to hold its 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans, and will now hold it in Salt Lake City, Utah (Chronicle of Higher Education blog: Biologists Won’t Meet in Louisiana Because of State Law on Teaching Evolution).  Here is a direct response to laws permitting the teaching of religion (in the shape of creationism and “Intelligent Design”) in science classes.  This seems inappropriate, no matter what one’s religious beliefs may or may not be, and presumably violates the consitutional separation of religion and state (though as a non-American, don’t quote me on that).

With that in mind, it is interesting to read the comments for young earth creationists following that article.  Spectacularly ignorant as these people always are, they focus exclusively on the evolution/atheism vs creationism/religious divide and not on the pedagogical issues, endlessly rehashing the tired old lies and misrepresentations.

So, business as usual in the good old God-fearing USA.  For my part, I’m not convinced that boycotts have much political effect, but it’s good that this action has raised the profile of this appalling law.

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