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Saturday, August 23, 2008


Convergence is a hot topic these days because several theistic evolutionists are using it as scientific evidence for the existence of God.1

The most prominent scientists to fall into this trap are Ken Miller and Simon Conway Morris. Both of them are impressed by certain similarities between Australian marsupials and mammals in the rest of the world. Nobody seems to have noticed that there are no antelope-like or elephant-like species in Australia and no kangaroo-like species in Africa. And what about primates? If primates are so important then how come there are no intelligent primate-like marsupials?

I was going to write a lengthy article about the teleological fallacy behind these attempt to prove intelligent design but, as usual, PZ Myers beat me to it. (Does he ever sleep? Is there more than one of him?) Check out We don't need teleology — so why bother?.

The bigger question is whether scientists like Ken Miller and Simon Conway Morris (and Francis Collins) are (mis)using science to try and prove the existence of God. I think they are.

1. Strictly speaking, they are using it as evidence that there's a plan or purpose that's built into the laws of chemistry and physics. They may not specifically mention that the "grand design" is the work of God but nobody is fooled.


Citation Classic: The Bible

This week's citation classic on The Evilutionary Biologist is the Bible. But it's not the bible you're thinking of.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Not Just Education

The Chautauqua Institution isn't just about education. It has outstanding programs in dance, art, theater, and music. Every night there's some kind of performance going on in the amphitheater. Here's the lineup for this week.

Monday: 4:00 Chautauqua Wind Quintet, 8:15 PHILADANCO: The Philadelphia Dance Company

Tuesday: 8:15 Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Stefan Sanderling, conductor; Julie Albers, cello

Wednesday: 8:15 '100th Anniversary of the Great Automobile Race of 1908'

Thursday: 8:15 An Evening with Jim Brickman

Friday: 8:15 Special Acoustic Evening with Vince Gill

I'm going to everything, even Vince Gill. After all, when else do you get a chance to experience these things? It's not just because Ms. Sandwalk makes me go.

I couldn't resist taking a photo of this lady painting a picture of the Hall of Philosophy. It's soooo Chautauqua. (She gave me permission to take her picture.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Monday, August 18, 2008

Science, Religion, and Separate Magisteria

In a recent interview, Daniel Dennett was asked about Gould's idea of non-overlapping magisteria. Here's his excellent reply [Daniel Dennett's Darwinian Mind: An Interview with a 'Dangerous' Man] ...

The problem with any proposed detente in which science and religion are ceded separate bailiwicks or "magisteria" is that, as some wag has put it, this amounts to rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which Caesar says God can have. The most recent attempt, by Gould, has not found much favor among the religious precisely because he proposes to leave them so little. Of course, I'm certainly not suggesting that he should have left them more.

There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can't consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—"beyond a reasonable doubt"—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions.

What does that leave for religion to talk about? Moral injunctions and declarations of love (and hate, unfortunately), and other ceremonial speech acts. The moral codes of all the major religions are a treasury of ethical wisdom, agreeing on core precepts, and disagreeing on others that are intuitively less compelling, both to those who honor them and those who don't. The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom—we wouldn't accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance—shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions.
Most people don't understand that Gould advocated a very small magisterium for religion.

[Hat Tip:]

Ken Miller at Chautauqua

The Chautauqua Institution is the ideal place for Ken Miller. Almost everyone here is religious and accepts science. I'm surrounded by theistic evolutionists.

Miller gave his usual talk about Intelligent Design and why it's not science. He described his role in the Dover trial. He spent some time explaining why Americans are more inclined to reject evolution. Basically it's the reason he explains in his book Only a Theory; namely that Americans are more independent than the citizens of other countries. This independence, and lack of respect for authority, is what makes America the greatest scientific nation in the world but, ironically, it also leads to the rejection of scientific authority by a majority of citizens. He didn't mention how scientists like Darwin and Linnaeus managed to do so well without ever visiting America.

He mentioned that he is religious and that science is compatible with religion (in his opinion). He did not explain his version of theistic evolution.

Monday's Molecule #84

Continuing with our Olympics theme, this is another molecule that many athletes fear. As with last week's molecule, the competitors in Beijing do not want to be caught with too much of this in their bodies. You probably won't recognize this molecule from the structure so there's a really big clue below.

You need to identify the specific molecule shown here and explain why this might be an important molecule at the Olympics. Be careful to get the name correct as there are several close relatives that might confuse you.

The connection between today's molecule and a Nobel Prize is quite indirect. The Nobel Prize was awarded for developing a very sensitive assay to detect these types of molecules. We don't know if the same assay is being used in the Olympics—probably not.

The first person to correctly identify the molecule and name the Nobel Laureate(s), wins a free lunch at the Faculty Club. Previous winners are ineligible for one month from the time they first collected the prize. There are three ineligible candidates for this week's reward. You know who you are.


Nobel Laureates
Send your guess to Sandwalk (sandwalk (at) and I'll pick the first email message that correctly identifies the molecule and names the Nobel Laureate(s). Note that I'm not going to repeat Nobel Laureate(s) so you might want to check the list of previous Sandwalk postings by clicking on the link in the theme box.

Correct responses will be posted tomorrow. I reserve the right to select multiple winners if several people get it right.

Comments will be blocked for 24 hours. Comments are now open.

UPDATE: This week's winner is Mike Fraser who wrote, "The molecule is human growth hormone 1, which can be (mis)used to enhance
muscle mass and strength in athletes. Obviously, this would constitute
illegal doping at the Olympics; athletes would not want to be caught with too
much hGH.

The Nobelist is Rosalyn Yalow, 1977 (Medicine) for the development of the
radioimmunoassay of peptide hormones, such as hGH."

Congratulations Mike!

Classroom at Chautauqua

This is Hultquist Center where many of the classrooms are located. It's also the headquarters of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, a book club that's more than 120 years old.

Chautauqua Bookstore Is Ready for Evolution

The Chautauqua bookstore is ready for a week of evolution. There's going to be a lot of talk about the compatibility of science and religion so it's a bit disappointing to see that the atheist perspective isn't represented. A few weeks ago they had The God Delusion and God Is Not Great on display but now they are missing.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ready for Church

Sunday morning in Chautauqua and almost everyone goes to the main amphitheater for a Protestant church service. This is the amphitheater where morning lectures are held. Here's what it looks like from the outside.

Here's a view of the inside—it holds about 1500 people.

The choir is assembling ...

Intelligent Design Creationism Is Just Anti-Evolutionism

Intelligent Design Creationists are fond of telling us that they have a real scientific theory. They are not just attacking evolution, they are providing real evidence for intelligent design.

Yeah, right.

Let's see how one of the leading advocates of Intelligent Design Creationism actually performs when given the chance to make her case. Denyse O'Leary has an op-ed piece in yesterday's issue of The Calgary Harald [ My op-ed piece in The Calgary Herald - Albertans are right to reject Darwinian evolution]. To me it looks like the typical anti-science rant that we've come to expect from creationists. I don't see any attempt to promote the virtues of Intelligent Design Creationism. Am I missing something?

Evolution at Chautauqua

I'm at the Chautauqua Institution for a week on Darwin and Linnaeus: Their Impact on Our View of the Natural World.

It's going to be a busy week. From 9-10:30 every morning I'm teaching a course, and leading a discussion, on evolution for a group of 35 Elderhostel students. Then there's the morning lecture from 10:45-12. In the afternoon I teach a course called "What Is Evolution." This is followed by the afternoon lecture. From 3:30-5 I'm taking a course on "Evolution and Christianity."

Here's the line-up of speakers. I'll try and blog something every day on what they had to say but given the busy schedule I'm not making any promises.

Monday, August 18
10:45 Kenneth Miller, prof. of biology, Brown University; author, Finding Darwin's God

2:00 Rev. Bruce Sanguin (Evolution and Christianity)
Tuesday, August 19
10:45 Beth Shapiro, asst. prof. of biology, Penn State Univ.; researcher in field of ancient DNA

2:00 Carl Zimmer, science journalist, author, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
Wednesday, August 20
10:45 Edward Larson, prof. of law, Pepperdine Univ; Pulitzer Prize-winner for Summer for the Gods

2:00 Barbara J. King, prof. of anthropology, College of William & Mary; author, Evolving God
Thursday, August 21
10:45 Spencer Wells, population geneticist; director of Genographic Project

2:00 Eugenie C. Scott, executive director, National Center for Science Education
Friday, August 22
10:45 Mattias Klum, National Geographic Society photographer; documentary filmmaker, "The Linnaeus Expedition"

2:00 Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy, Florida State University; director of program in history and philosophy of science, Bristol Univ.

Superstition vs Rationalism Charts


[Image Credit: My[confined]Space via Friendly Atheist]

Friday, August 15, 2008

Dust-Up in Dover

The Devil in Dover by Lauri Lebo, The New Press, New York (2008)

This is a book about the recent trial in Dover, Pennsylvania (USA) between a group of parents (Tammy Kitzmiller et al.) and the Dover Area School District (Kitzmiller v. Dover). The school board decided to introduce intelligent design creationism into the high school curriculum by requiring students to listen to a statement that was to be read to them by their science teacher when evolution was covered in class.1 The statement said, in part,...
Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origins of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually offers.
In the USA, the introduction of intelligent design, or any other form of creationism, into the schools is blocked on the grounds that it is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment prevents the establishment of religion by government, and by extension, the public school system. You can't teach religion in public schools.

All proponents of Intelligent Design Creationism know that the intelligent designer is God and that IDC is an attempt to demonstrate scientific proof of the existence of God. Similarly, all science supporters know that Intelligent Design Creationism is religious. The court case consisted of Intelligent Design supporters pretending that this wasn't the case while science supporters attempted to prove that IDC was based on religion. It was hardly a surprise that the creationists lost. After all, they were promoting a lie and everyone knows it.

The Devil in Dover is an entertaining and highly readable account of the events leading up to the trial and of the trial itself. The author, Lauri Lebo, was a reporter for a local newspaper and her account of the trail is greatly enhanced by her knowledge of the participants—many of whom, on both sides, became her friends. She also takes us on a journey of personal discovery as she moves farther and farther away from the religious convictions of her childhood. We follow the conflict between her and her fundamentalist father as the trail approaches.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the evolution/creationist controversy. Ms. Lebo devotes most of her story to the conflict within the community and the mentality of those who back creationism. It is fascinating to read of school board members who talked openly of God and creationism while denying that their motives were religious. We are introduced to Christian fundamentalists who are absolutely convinced that science is wrong and evolution is a lie. Nobody in the community is confused about the fight—it's science vs. religion and no amount of pretending by the lawyers for the school board was going to change that.

For those who are expecting a blow by blow description of the trial, this is not the book for you. Ms. Lebo tells us all we really need to know: the lies of the school board members were exposed and intelligent design creationism was shown to be based on religion and, incidentally, completely non-scientific.It's interesting that the author only picks out a few salient bits of testimony and one of them is Kenneth Miller's response to a question from the lawyer for the plaintiffs (the good guys). The lawyer asked whether science considers questions of meaning and purpose. Miller replied,
"To be perfectly honest,no," Miller said. "Scientists think about all the time about the meaning of their work, about the purpose of life, about the purpose of their own lives. I certainly do. But these questions, as important as they are, are not scientific questions."

"If I could solve the question of the meaning of my life by doing an experiment in the laboratory, I assure you, I would rush off and do it right now. But these questions simply lie outside the purview of science. It doesn't say they're not important, it doesn't say that any answer is necessarily wrong, but it does say that science cannot address it. It's a reflection of the limitation of science."
Lauri Lebo knows that this is the issue that divides the community. Science teaches us that we are "only" animals.2

Many supporters of intelligent design creationism were extremely confident as the trial began. They believed they had finally succeeded in constructing a scam that would stand up to assault from the lawyers. On the other hand, the real experts at the Discovery Institute knew they were in trouble. That's why they distanced themselves from the trial and that's why some of the big guns, like William Dembski, refused to testify on behalf of intelligent design creationism.

Unfortunately, they didn't tell their supporters to shut up. I'll close with one of the best quotations in the book but in order to do so it requires a bit of explanation. The judge in the trail—as I''m sure you all know by now—was Judge John E. Jones. Jones is a conservative appointed by George W. Bush. He is friends with Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a right-wing, religious Republican. The quotation is from a comment by DaveScott on Dembski's blog Uncommon Descent.
Judge John E. Jones on the other hand is a good old boy brought up through the conservative ranks. He was state attorney for D.A.R.E., and Assistant Scout Master... extensively involved with local and National Boy Scouts of America, political buddy of Governor Tom Ridge (who in turnis deep in George W. Bush's circle of power), and finally was appointed by GW himself. Senator Rick Santorum is a Pennsylvannian in the same circles (author of the "Santorum language") that encourages schools to teach the controversy) and last but far from least, George W. Bush hisself drove a stake in the ground saying teach the controversy. Unless Judge Jones wants to cut his career off at the knees he isn't going to rule against the wishes of his political allies. Of course the ACLU will appeal. This won't be over until it gets to the Supreme Court. But now we own that too.3
The naivety and stupidity of Intelligent Design Creationists isn't lost on Lauri Lebo but instead of telling us outright what she learned in Dover, she lets their own words and actions speak for them.

1. As it turned out, the teachers refused to read the statement so school board members came to class and read it to the students.

2. This is the main theme of Kenneth Miller's latest book Only a Theory. In that book he seems to be saying something very different from what he says in his testimony at the trial in Dover. Miller argues that science reveals purpose in the universe. Such meaning and purpose is evident from the fact that the universe is fine tuned to produce intelligent beings. He criticizes those who say that science reveals a meaningless universe; "... this bleak view is actually at variance with what we know about the nature of our universe and the nature of evolutionary change." (p. 154)

3. I can't help but wonder if there are many Americans who think like this. Notice that the concept of justice isn't a factor in DaveScott's analysis. The judge's decision only depends on politics and ambition. DaveScott was very wrong but that's hardly a surprise to those of us who read the creationist blogs. He has a perfect track record.

A Junk DNA Quiz

I'm a little busy right now with real world issues so I thought I'd pass alone this abstract posted by Ryan Gregory on Genomicron [And the junk DNA train rolls on...].
Mallik, M. and Lakhotia, S.C. 2008. Noncoding DNA is not "junk" but a necessity for origin and evolution of biological complexity. Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy Section B - Biological Sciences 77 (Sp. Iss.): 43-50.

All eukaryotic genomes contain, besides the coding information for amino acids in different proteins, a significant amount of noncoding sequences, which may or may not be transcribed. In general, the more evolved or biologically complex the organisms are, greater is the proportion of the noncoding component in their genomes. The popularity and success of "central dogma of molecular biology" during the last quarter of the 20(th) century relegated the noncoding DNA sequences to a mortifying status of "junk" or "selfish", even though during the pre-"molecular biology" days there were good indications that such regions of the genome may function in as yet unknown ways. A resurgence of studies on the noncoding sequences in various genomes during the past several years makes it clear that the complex biological organization demands much more than a rich proteome. Although the more popularly known noncoding RNAs are the small microRNAs and other similar species, other types of larger noncoding RNAs with critical functions in regulating gene activity at various levels are being increasingly,identified and characterized. Many noncoding RNAs are involved in epigenctic modifications, including imprinting of genes. A comprehensive understanding of the significance of noncoding DNA sequences in eukaryotic genomes is essential for understanding the origin and sustenance of complex biological organization of multicellular organisms.
How many things are wrong with this abstract? Hints: The Deflated Ego Problem, The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, Epigenetics Revisited, The Difference Between Fishand Humans.

The most important question is, how did such a paper ever get published in a peer reviewed journal?