Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intelligent Design is BUNK!

OF course you already knew I felt that way but a ruling has come down in the infamous Dover case and the Federal Judge who is a George W. Bush appointee very nicely explains why.

See the full decision here:

Personally I think the real reason ID is bunk was stated best by Chaitin in 1975 Sci Am 232(5): 47-52 in his discussion of what a theory is:

"...The scientist seeks to explain these observations through a theory, which can be regarded as an algorithm capable of generating the series and extending it, that is predicting future observations." (emphasis mine)

The full article is here.

Of course Bill Dembski is not above mining information science for tid-bits that support his notions of specified complexity but ignores the forest.

Other commentary:
The Big Fact-Check: Thoughts On the Day After Dover

As you might guess the Thomas More Law Center, one of the defenders of ID, is not very happy:

Court Issues Troubling Decision in Dover Intelligent Design Case

Careful here there are still other cases out there like the infamous Georgia sticker case where a federal appeals panel may throw out an earlier ruling that putting stickers questioning evolution on biology text books is unconstitutional.

So we people of the enlightenment have a long legal and political role ahead of us to return our country to rationality.

Oh no! Wonder if that could be construed as a religious statement?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

More on bats!

Sorry Doug,

No studies on mammary glands vs brain size in females. I would not expect much correlation in bats, since bats probably do not carry around extra tissue given the energetic constraints they face. The severe constraints faced by bats make them a favorite group for those scientists interested in parental investment in young and how it relates to mating behavior and ecological factors.

I would be careful in generalizing these results to primates. :-) A lot has been made in the popular press about these sorts of correlation studies. But as you and I know correlation may point to hypotheses, correlation is not causation.

Bats are among the most diverse groups of mammals in terms of biology and reproductive strategies. Curiously there is even a species of bat in which the males have been reported to produce milk, perhaps only 10% of the amount of milk produced by females. For more on bats see:

As for the lactating male bats, see this article on male lactation and references cited therein. It is not known if the male's milk is used to feed the young, or even if this male lactation phenomenon is adaptive at all but rather some sort of anomaly.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Bat brains and testicles

From comes this little tidbit. Smart bats have smaller testicles. Well of course smart people are sexier so that must apply to the rest of the animal world as well. But it is not so simple. It turns out that different bat species tend to have either promiscuous or relatively monogamous females. Those species with promiscuous females tend to have males with big testicles and small brains, species in which the females are faithful tend to have males with bigger brains and smaller testicles.

According to the study, the explanation for this interesting correlation is probably an evolutionary trade off. In promiscuous species, males that produce the most sperm have higher reproductive success and have to allocate more of their energy budget to bigger testicles. In fact according to the article, bats have the biggest range of test's size of any mammal- 0.12 to 8.5 percent of body mass. So bats cannot have both bigger brains and bigger testicles given energy limitations. Since those species of bat that are more or less monogamous do not have to spend as much of their energy budget on reproductive organs, evolution shifts the allocation of energy in the males to bigger brain size. No hint on what happens to female brain size.

A separate article on mate sharing between mother and daughter or grandmother and daughter horseshoe bats is of course titled "Kinky Female Bats Share Mates with Their Mothers, Avoid Incest." Of course to the bats I suppose we are the kinky ones.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Is God an accident?

A friend of mine sent me an article "Is God an Accident?" from the Atlantic Monthly by Paul Bloom. In this article Bloom argues that while specific religious beliefs are highly variable, the general themes of religion are ingrained in our nature and not learned. Bloom argues that many of us accept a dualism between mind and body even though it is contradicted by science because we have two different systems in our minds, one for understanding the physical world and one that helps us understand social relationships. The latter allows for all sorts of physically inconsistent interactions.

"We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity, mind or soul, —are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them."

This leads first of all to the idea that we have souls, after all it feels like we live in our body but are not really part of it. This further leads to the notion of ghosts and to souls that never have had a body, demons and gods and perhaps God.

Likewise Bloom argues that the problem with Darwin's mechanism of natural selection is that it is not intuitive. We do look designed, we feel we have a purpose anextrapolatete that to the natural world:

"Sometimes there really are signs of nonrandom and functional design. We are not being unreasonable when we observe that the eye seems to be crafted for seeing, or that the leaf insect seems colored with the goal of looking very much like a leaf. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker by conceding this point: "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." Dawkins goes on to suggest that anyone before Darwin who did not believe in God was simply not paying attention."

Perhaps as Bloom postulates we are thus evolved from creationists. Bloom is pessimistic that religion and science can ever truly get along. He argues that this is ultimately because:

" Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature."

Now I happen to be a religious person and I am more optimistic than Bloom. But where ever these religious impulses and the general themes of religion come from they are an important part of us. Without them our world may seem empty. Here is the way I expressed in my note back to my friend:

"It is a wonderful article regardless of what
truck it fell from. About a year ago there was an article associating the
sense of awe and connectedness that mystics feel with a certain region of
the brain. My own subjective experience may be of interest here. I suffer
from a bipolar disorder and sometimes I go manic and crash at the same time.
When this happens I look around nothing makes any sense. There is no
connection between anything. Everything is just bits of light and color like
pieces of a puzzle jumbled together. There are no patterns. I think this
relates to the commonly understood notion that the brain seeks out patterns
and sees patterns where they do not exist. Perhaps in my case during my
episodes(which are fortunately relatively rare) my brain's pattern detector
stops working. I described the feeling once to my Dr. once as feeling that
God has left me, and I normally have a strong mystical sense of

I disagree with the article that natural selection does not make intuitive
sense. At least to me it is intuitive."

Unfortunately the article is available only to Atlantic Monthly subscribers, but if you Google it you can find plenty of commentary on it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Professor beat.

I am sure everyone knows about this incident involving Professor Mirecki.

Of course everyone is taking sides about what is going on here. Note John Altevogt claiming he doesn't know any one who would beat Professor Mirecki for his comments.. But then he goes on to allegedly say:

“He (Mirecki) has very little credibility left,” Altevogt said. “The one thing that could save his bacon is to become a martyr of sorts, or to elicit sympathy from being the victim rather than the persecutor.”

To which I respond with a couple of aphorisms. One just coined today, though probably not original with me and the other is my take on the maxim about early birds and worms:

"He who points fingers often loses them."

"The early worm gets eaten."

I guess I spent too much time reading that Ben Franklin biography. See

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Source of the aphorism about offense and honesty

The aphorism I was thinking of in an earlier post is actually a conflation of two similar ones. The first is from Thomas Paine and it is cited in so many place online that I wondered if it was merely apocryphal:

"He who dares not offend cannot be honest."

Indeed the Wikiquote page on Thomas Paine lists it as an attribution.

The other quote I am more confident of is a Ben Franklin quote according to Isaacson's 2003 Biography of Benjamin Franklin (Isaacson, Walter (2003) Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Simon and Shusters, New York. ISBN-0-684-80761-0) which I just finished.

"There would be very little printed"...if publishers produced only things that offended nobody. The part after the ellipsis is not in quotes because Isaacson does not have this part in quotes. So I am guessing he is paraphrasing here.

Friday, December 02, 2005

One more

This is in response to another moderate Christian. Also has a link to the latest from the Journal World:


I agree. I am concerned about the current issue because I fear that some Christians want to hijack the educational system for their own narrow aims. What else am I to conclude from this report in today's Lawrence Journal World about John Altevogt's reaction to the KU course not being offered:

"Altevogt said he was concerned about the focus of the religious studies department and he wants to see Mirecki and another faculty member moved to another department. He said he also wanted the religious studies department cleaned up and perhaps transferred to a religious organization that can monitor it; the chancellor fired, and the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics student group kicked off campus."

John Altevogt just coincidentally leaked Mirecki's e-mails to the press. What sort of agenda dose he have? Clearly NOT to foster academic freedom and dispassionate discussion of issues but to close discussion and diversity off!


Another response from the trenches:

This e-mail is in response to a person who pointed out that when she took biology and was taught evolution the instructor DID point out things we do not understand about evolution. The point is that the teach the controversy mantra of the ID proponents is bogus:

My response:

You are absolutely correct.

I think part of the problem is that people don't understand what a scientific theory is all about. A theory is often times said to consist of a hypothesis or set of hypotheses that have been well tested and attempt to explain some aspect of the universe. But scientific theories are incomplete by their very nature and part of what a theory provides scientists, is a set of pointers to interesting problems.

To take a simple example, in biology one of the first unifying theories was cell theory which says that
1. A living things are made of one or more cells
2. All cells come from preexisting cells
3. There for there is no spontaneous generation.

Obviously this theory leads to a basic question about the origin of life: where the heck did the first cell come from? In biology this is an active area of research. So what the ID people often do is conflate weaknesses in our understanding of evolution in specific instances(and there are gaps in our understanding as anyone who takes my classes learns) with a claim that evolution is not large responsible for the vast amount of biodiversity we see on this planet.

Darwin had a piece of the evolutionary puzzle, and while he had a very modern viewpoint about evolution, he was missing, as he was careful to point out in Origin of Species on numerous occasions, many of the details. Darwin's theorizing laid bare important problems in biology which are still important areas of investigation. My beef with ID is that Intelligent Design basically gives up of attempting to answer some real hard questions including things like the origin of basic cellular structures and processes and jumps to claims about a mysterious designer.

They may gussy their arguments with flawed or inappropriate mathematical arguments a la Dembsky or introduce new scientific sounding terms (such as "irreducible complexity") a la Michael Behe or as Michael Behe did this summer, make inappropriate conclusions about the evolution of proteins by citing numbers and research about protein evolution that have no relevance to the role of natural selection as part of the evolutionary process.


Another post this time about bias.

Thw word bias has gotten to be a scare word and the poster to whom I was responding cited the KU case as an example of a biased instructor.

Here is my response:


This may be a shock to you but professors do inject their own biases into the classroom. Where this gets to be a problem is when the professor belittles students or for matter other people as Mirecki did and I have followed this issue very closely. Let me illustrate what I mean. I am an evolutionary biologist so when I teach biology it is from the empirical framework of science. That is if you will built in bias. One semester I had a class that was composed mainly of fundamentalist Christians who were expecting a certain instructor. Students do shop around for instructors whose beliefs are consonent with their own. But when they saw me you should have seen their faces drop.

Yet we all got along fine, once they realise that I was not going to belittle them and be respectful of their beliefs. As I pointed out to them if you are going to not accept evolution you need to understand what it is you are not accepting. So the issue is not bias but how the instructor handles that bias in the context of the class.

If we are not able to express our own biases in a constructive way, if that has become offensive then maybe we ought to give up teaching, distill just the "content" of our disciplines into the disconnected bytes of a DVD which the students can buy and never have to sully themselves by hearing people with different viewpoints, different biases.


Some posts at my school

There has been a running battle on some of the list serves at my school (Johnson County Community College) about ID and the flap about the KU course, and intelligent design and I want to post some of my responses to some of the posts I have seen on various school lists. In deference to the posters to whom I am responding I will not post anything others have written, just my responses

My first response is to someone who posted an article apparently from the Discovery Institute on how the press gets the controversy wrong because it is (the article alleges) science vs science NOT science vs religion.

Here is my response:


Just a couple of quick comments. First of all, if the issue is really science versus science then why did the Board of Education feel it necessary to redefine science? You might look some of the statements by John Calvert and other intelligent design proponents on this point. Yes the new standards do not explicitly mention that ID ought to be taught but what came out in the hearings this summer- and I was there to hear this- is that the new standards have sufficiently broadened the definition of science to include supernatural explanations. That really is the problem with the new standards.

Read carefully lest MY position gets misconstrued. Intelligent Design may be a perfectly good metaphysical concept, but it is not empirically based. It puzzles me that some people of faith feel that they have to justify their faith by scientizing it. The lession of Thomas (my patron saint by the way) is that faith goes beyond the realm of the empirical. Faith goes were the senses cannot lead(to paraphrase a Church hymn sung during Holy Week). Do we teach the physics of transubstantiation? Or the physics of the resurrection? No because these are matters of religious faith and we don't think any less of them for that reason. But we do not justify our faith through science.

Science can only plod along in the empirical world and through scientific investigation we develop models and theories to help us understand how the universe operates in terms of cause and effects that we can measure. Intelligent design from a scientific perspective is a cop out, because it suggests when we encounter a hard problem, such as the origin of species or for that matter the origin of life we ought to just wave our arms around and involk some sort of intelligent designer. That maybe comforting to some people but it is singularly unsatisfying to the scientist.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

KU backs down from course

According to the Journal World, Paul Mirecki will not be offering his religious studies course about ID as myth. The revelations about the e-mails just keeps on snowballing. Now granted e-mails are not private but I doubt Mirecki is alone in having written inappropriate e-mails. Though he was certainly not very circumspect as noted in the Topeka Capital Journal today. Allegedly Mirecki described Pope John Paul in a not very flattering way. And as a Catholic I should be upset at that comment. I did not agree with JPII on a lot of issues, but he called it the way he saw it. Indeed I had to smile about one thing Mirecki allegedly said (in part):

"I had my first Catholic 'holy communion' when I was a kid in Chicago, and when I took the bread-wafer the first time, it stuck to the roof of my mouth, and as I was secretly trying to pry it off with my tongue as I was walking back to my pew with white clothes and with my hands folded, all I could think was that it was Jesus' skin, and I started to puke, but I sucked it in and drank my own puke. That's a big part of the Catholic experience. I don't think most Catholics really know what they are supposed to believe, they just go home and use condoms, and some of them beat their wives and husbands."

I can relate to both the first communion experience and the comment about many Catholics. Some of them do beat their wives or husbands...but of course so don't people of other faiths and traditions. Hypocrisy and evil do appear to be part of the human condition. But of course some conservatives and intelligent design proponents, notice I said some, for there are certain media hucksters involved (but I am too nice to mention any names of course) who will take advantage of Mirecki's faux pas cover up their own foibles.

Too bad we, on the one hand so easily forget our manners, and on other hand, cannot develop thicker skins. In a pithy aphorism Thomas Paine or was it Ben Franklin said something like:

If you can't risk offending some one you can't speak honestly.

I will have to check on this aphorism later as to the exact wording and attribution. Now that snooping e-mails is getting to be the latest sport the result might be more diplomatic speech especially among us professors who should set an example for intelligent discourse, but it could also lead to a chilling of honest speech. That would be unfortunate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Come on folks! Buy those Darwin fish!

I can't resist this headline from the Lawrence Journal World about the marketing of the evolution controversy. Hmmmm I wonder how much money Phillip Johnson or Michael Behe make through peddling their pseudoscience. So as Allen Ginsberg might have said: put your unintelligently designed shoulder to the wheel and buy those Darwin Fish!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Is ID even a pseudoscience?

A fellow Lawrencian Ron Pine sent me an article he wrote for CSICOP in which he argues that Intelligent Design does not even qualify as pseudoscience because it is void of any content. I am not sure about this. I am not sure what content astrology for instance has or crop circle science either, but I do see ID as a fraud and a scam...mmm maybe that is a bit redundant. Let's just say fraud or scam. Check his article out for yourself at

Oh check out CSICOP,

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

Probably the religious right feels the same way about CSICOP as they feel about the ACLU. :-)

Another CSICOP ID critique is, Very Like a Machine by Robert Camp.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thinking about thinking....

In a recent post on Pharyngula PZ Meyers attempts to divide people up into Naturals vs unnaturals.

Naturals are "...those people who consider material evidence paramount and regard the real world as a mostly sufficient container of phenomena that define our existence..."


"those who think inspiration and intuition and all the internal imagery of their minds define their external reality; that what they wish to be so will be so if only they can articulate it and select and distort evidence for the purposes of persuasion."

I don't think that he is quite right in how he does this, after for a poet inspiration and internal imagery are all important, but I think he is on to something if we make a slightly more elaborate scheme. I don't think the terms are novel with me but I envision a 2 x 2 matrix distinguishing between the mode of thinking and relationship between the universe. First of all with respect to mode of thinking: the distinction between linear or analytical thinking and analogical thinking. Analytical thinking is sequential and based on explicit rules that can be formalized. Analogical thinking is implicit not based on formal least not verbalized rules and is not linear. In analogical thinking inspiration and intuition are important. These define the columns of my little matrix.

As for the rows, my distinction is between empirical and magical. Empirical thinking views the operation of the universe as explainable by natural and objectively testable mechanisms. Magical thinking operates outside of and is not consistent with empirical and testable explanations.

So what are representative tasks that fall into these four groups...Recognizing that no one is purely in any one group but rather these are extremes on along two possibly oblique axes:

Analytical empirical: Most engineers and scientists doing every day science. Me analyzing a linkage problem.

Analytical magical: Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe and other ID proponents and vitalists; perhaps religious scholars trying to reason about God or develop rationalizations for their beliefs.

Analogic empirical: Scientists and mathematicians working on a new problem and really struggling. Many modern poets-think Objective poetry. Some religious people, Dr. Coyne, or myself when thinking about the relationship between God and the universe.

Analogic magical: Pat Robertson, New Agers. Believers in Wicca and witchcraft casting a spell. Perhaps Catholics including myself when we are receiving communion. A little kid not stepping on cracks in sidewalks. Poets and writers in their metaphorical internal worlds. Gamers in Second Life and other multiplayer universes.

Notice that I define mental tasks and my classification is mental task oriented rather than person oriented.

Late developments in Kansas...

Eventually I will get back to what I really want to do here...and not seem like just another liberal Kansas blog but since I am an evolutionist as well as a religious person what's happening can't go without more notice. First KU, through Provost David Shulenburger responded to the uproar about the KU religion course that has all the ID and creationists upset. In his response he notes that calling ID a myth is not an affront...

"A myth refers to the common use of stories or rituals to symbolize in a meaningful manner the core beliefs of a religion; it does not refer to any religion as a whole."

He is right but I think he is falling into the fundamentalist trap of equating a narrow set of conservative beliefs with Christianity which is exactly what people do all the time. If you want evidence of this simply look at this most recent flap around an e-mail message (apparently made on a yahoo group by Paul Mirecki) belittling intelligent design proponents. Now the conservatives are really out for blood!

I sympathize with Dr. Mirecki but I do have to wonder about someone so naive as to think e-mail is somehow private.

In today's journal world you will also find my minor contribution to the frey in terms of a letter to the editor. Of course this letter immediately attracted the attention of one of those anti intellectuals who frequent newspaper response boards who called me a:

"Behold the Noodly Appendage of the Great Flying Spagetti Monster!"

Of course feeling great because I had attracted the attention of one of Lawrence's finest illluminaries Ragingbear, I was promptly deflated when search his response history found that he calls any opponent of ID the same thing. Obviously he is unaware of the common public admission on the part of ID advocates that the designer's nature is outside the scope of science and could just be a space alien.

I hope Mr. Bear takes my response in good humor.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Shoe's on the Other Foot...the teaching of ID

A new flap about intelligent design in Kansas: according to the Lawrence Journal World, University of Kansas Professor Paul Mirecki is planning to teach a course that treats intelligent design as a creation myth:

Of course this has angered Intelligent Design Advocates such as John Calvert. Calvert whines:

"To equate intelligent design to mythology is really an absurdity, and it's just another example of labeling anybody who proposes (intelligent design) to be simply a religious nut,Calvert said. "“That'’s the reason for this little charade."”

and then goes on to complain according to the reporter that "the teaching of intelligent design requires an extensive understanding of evolution and science."

Now the shoe is on the other foot. After all Steve Abrams and the gang of six on the board of education have no scientific let alone evolution expertise and none of the ID advocates the Board used as experts has any significant experience in evolutionary biology either, and this includes Michael Behe, in spite of his credentials as a DNA biochemist.

So John Calvert, if the Board of Education can listen to witnesses who are ill trained in evolutionary biology instead of real scientists, then fair is fair and a religious studies professor can teach about ID. At least he is teaching it in a more proper framework as mythology.

Of course, perhaps one ought to make a distinction between mythology and pseudoscience. A legitimate argumentt can be made that ID is not even mythology but just pseudoscience advanced to justify a particular political agenda.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Tyranny of the Dichotomous Mind

in his book, The Ancestor's
Tale, bemoans what he calls the Tyranny of the Dichotomous Mind. What he means is that when we look at the world around us, we tend to want to classify everything
into discrete groups. That makes some sort of sense after all, from
our perspective, the world is made out of discrete objects that it is
adaptive in an evolutionary sense for us to recognise. Being able to
distinguish a lion from a gazelle is certainly adaptive. This ability
to classify into distinct groups is not limited to humans. For instance
in a recent study by Chris Templeton (see
) suggest that at least some birds recognise different predators and
cnvey this information in their warning calls. Many organisms are able
to distinguish individuals that belong to their group from those that
do not. When you think about it this sort of dichotomous behavior in
very basic. Indeed, one of the things the immune system has to do
is discriminate between cells that belong in the body from those that
do not.

So given the obvious adaptive advantage to doing this sort of
classification, why does Dawkins speak of the Tyranny of the
dichotomous mind? First of all not all phenomena have sharp boundaries
as suggested by a dichotomy. Consider color. Most humans can look at an
individual monochromatic color swatch and classify it as to perceived
spectral color(Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet). But when one
looks at the visible spectrum as a whole this gets more difficult since
it is clear that the colors blend in a continuous or if you will,
analog manner. Second of all, we confuse classification with the
thing itself. For instance Dawkins discusses some of the problems
inherent in trying to distinguish one biological species from another.
The boundaries are not at all clear in many cases. Indeed, I like to
tell my students that even were there no transitional fossils (and there
plently inspite of Creationist claims to the contrary), we have plenty
of evidence that the different kinds of organisms we see arise
from preexisting kinds. The evidence is in the messy boundaries we see
when we try to impose dichotomy on the species around us.

The tyranny of the dichotomous mind is related to another tyranny, I
call the "Tyranny of the Type" or Typological Tyranny. People who are
prone to this tyranny assume that objects have some sort of intrinsic
nature which defines a class of objects uniquely. Clearly this is
many times true, or else classification schemes would not be
feasable. Hunter gatherering tribes, with no formal training in
taxonomy recogise the same sorts of species of birds that a trained
taxomist might recognize at least most of the time. But this sort of
discreteness and non arbitraryness in many classification schemes is
often burdened with extra meaning which makes it difficult to deal with
some fundamental issues our society such as when does human life begin
or end, our identity in terms of gender or race and even our identity
as a species.

For instance Senator Brownback of Kansas proposed a bill
(S. 659—The
Human Chimera Prohibition Act of 2005
), which
bans the use of so called human chimeras. See
A chimera is defined in biology as an organism composed of cells from
unrelated organisms, two or more species. Chimeras are routinely used
today in plant biology and have become increasingly important in animal
biology to gain an understanding of animal development, including human
development. A good lay person's review of some of the ethical issues
raised by animal chimeras, especially chimeras involving human cells is
an article by Maryann
in National Geographic, which is very
heavily cited today. The ethical issues surrounding chimeras involving
human cells mixed with animal cells revolve around two basic concerns.
First is the concern about blurring the lines between humans and
animals: Brownback in a a recent Lawrence Journal World article (
) notes:

“From the moral perspective, to create a human that is less than fully human or to create an animal that possesses particularly unique human aspects should be a serious concern for all of humankind”

and the text of his Senate Bill contains this narrative:

"Congress finds that-- advances in research and technology have made possible the creation of chimeras, which are beings with diverse human and non-human tissue; serious ethical objections are raised to some types of chimeras because they blur the lines between human and animal, male and female, parent and child, and one individual and another individual; respect for human dignity and the integrity of the human species may be threatened by chimeras; the uniqueness of individual human beings is manifested in a particular way through their brain and their reproductive organs/cells";


"...with an increase in emerging zoonotic infection threatening the public health,
both domestically and abroad, chimeras present a particularly optimal means of genetic transfers that
could increase the efficiency or virulence of diseases threatening both
humans and animals."

This narrative points out the second concern, namely that the jump of
viruses and other infectious agents to humans from other animals could
be facilitated by animal human chimeras since the cells are obviously
in contact. Personally I think that Brownback is right to be concerned
about the ethics of chimeras and some sort of ethical guidelines, and
restrictions are needed. Indeed the National Academy of Science has
released a set of proposed ethical guidelines covering stem cell and
and chimera research:

I suspect these guidelines will be controversial and it is going to
take sometime to reach a reasonable consensus. What I call your
attention to is Senator Brownback's comment about the integrety of the
human species and about blurring the lines between human and animal,
male and individual and another. These are nice
sounding phrases, and as indivuals we don't like threats to our own
identity. As an aside I fund in amusing that we often want to tell
people what their identity ought to be in addition to be concerned
about our own identity. But banning human chimera research will
not prevent blurring of the lines between human and animal, male and
female parent and child, one individual and another because in biology
these lines are already blurred.

Not only are we perfectly good
animals, but it turns out we are also chimeras or at least have our
origin as a chimeric sort of relationship. First in our gut, we have a
large numbers of bacteria that live in a symbiotic relationship.
Even our cells are chimeral in nature. Consider that the mitochondria
in our cells apearantly arose from free living aerobic bacterial that
became associated with the ancestors of eukaryotic cells. Further there
is appearently lateral gene transfer between the mitochondrial genome
and the genome in the cell nucleus.

Above the cellular level, consider gender. The
concept of male and female useless for many groups of organisms. For instabce,
What's male and female in yeasts or in certain protists which have a
number of mating strains but the 'gametes' are the same size? What's
male and female in flowering plants that often have 'male' and 'female'
flower parts on the same plant and often in the same flower? In
non human animals- certain fish, such as clown fish, change from
male to female situationally. Even in humans- sex and gender lines are
blurred a lot more often the typical person might think. See Lynn
for some interesting and eye opening estimates on the frequency of
transsexuality. Some of her numbers are inflated I suspect but the
point is even in humans some of our fundamental boundaries say between
male and female are blurred.

How about the distinction between humans and other animals? I am
astounded that my students seem blind to the fact that we humans
are perfectly good animals. As a species we may well have adaptations
that are unique to us, but as Dawkins notes, genetically the gap
between us and the rest of the apes is quite small. In fact we are so
close that even though chimpanzees are apparently our closest
relatives, some of us actually have certain genes (more precisely
alleles) found in Gorillas but not in Chimpanzees. What makes us human may be the
result of subtle changes in the timing and regulation of
developmental events related to the nervous system. Some scientists
have implied a few key events among them a mutation related to jaw size
and muscle attachment as being critical in human evolution. What
these key events are is not clear, but it seems to me that these events
are probably quite prosaic such that were we to go back in space and
time we would not be able to say "ah this ape is really human and this
one is not." It much the same as in our own lives where little events
may go unnoticed as being critical in shaping us exept with the benefit
of hindsight.

Darwin recognized that we really are not distinct from the rest of the
animals. This evolutionary kinship is reflected in our laws and
ethical stance toward other animals. Not anything goes: we have laws
against animal cruelty; animal experimentation today involves oversight
by animal care committies. Indeed there has been an ethical progression
toward increased concern and oversight about the treatment of animals.
When I was an undergraduate I was repeatedly warned to not be
anthropomorphic about othe animals because they don't have the same
sorts of cognitive abilities and awareness that we have. That is
true to some degree, but carried to an extreme, this
anti-anthropomorphic stance was used to justify cruel experimentation.
I am not an antivivisectionist but the recognition that we are not
separate from animals in a scientific sense clearly affects our ethical
stance toward non human animals and how we treat them as experimental

I don't think it is any accident that the rise of animal
welfare organizations such as the SPCA stems from the time of
Darwin. Darwin was actually sometimes excessively
anthropomorphic, even giving earthworms greater credit for cognitive
abilities they do not really possess.

The tyranny of the type is still wide spread in medicine and
psychiatry, mercifully less so. But the idea is that there is a normal
physiological state for the human organism or perhaps some optimum
mental state and deviations from that are illness. So people
suffer from minor depression or mood swings and they take medication. A
child with ADHD is given Ritalin, a person whose body mass index is
above or below a certain level is considered obese or perhaps the
reverse. a person with a fever might take aspirin or some other
antipyretic to reduce the fever.

Now I am not arguing against use of medications; for me certain types of medications have literally been a life saver but sometimes the symptom may actually be an adaptive response. For instance, today we understand that fever is an adaptive
response to infection rather than an accidental symptom. The immune
system tends to work better at higher temperatures and higher
temperatures aslo seem to inhibit viral replication.

The tyranny of the dichotomous mind, the type: it divides us from
Nature; it divides us from each other and it divides us from ourselves
and from our own identies. It all springs from a logical fallacy that
since recognizing objects is an useful idea, it is therefore an over
arching idea that ought to apply to all spheres of our lives and yet it
clearly does not. The best analogy to the fallacy is from physics in
which we find Newtonian mechanics useful in our every day experience.
And yet, when we get down to very small scales we find that physics
becomes decidedly non Newtonian and particles become wavelike and we
struggle to hold two ideas at the same time and a multiplicity of
possibilities. It is not comfortable and we like comfort and cling to
the notion or either or, that we are human not animal, man or not
woman, normal or not normal and we find ourselves in a dysphoria of
comfort and wonder what is wrong.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Viruses and Intelligent Design

The last few weeks I have been fighting an on again off again battle with a cold and today I am at hope trying to lick this thing after a sleepless night. It is humbling that a complex organism such as we are can be brought down by a small stretch of genetic material, not even a cell, namely a virus. Actually I feel like maybe several viruses have ganged up on me but that is another matter. I do wonder what viruses are for? After all if life came about through the agency of intelligent design, what about viruses? Viruses, we know evolve, and that point has been made enumerable times, for example about the bird flu in the Daily Kos at their discussion of ID. But ID proponents don't dispute evolution in the sense of "microevolution" and that viruses are capable of this sort of evolution. But there is a deeper problem for intelligent design proponents, and that is what did the intelligent designer make viruses for?

I know, the ID people claim that all that is sufficient is to show evidence of some aspect of the universe that is inexplicable to have arisen by chance and that the intelligent designer's nature cannot be discussed. See for example this discussion in slate:

Of course as pointed out in this article Behe and the other leading ID proponents are all party to the Wedge document from the Discovery Institute, and its pretty clear that most ID proponents equate the designer with the Christian God. See for instance this commentary by Phillip Johnson. Viruses and organisms that cause human diseases lead to a question of the intent of the intelligent designer? Is the intent that the universe be for people? And intent is the issue here:

Johnson notes in a Leadership University essay:

"Religion, like science, starts with assumptions or conclusions about reality. If we were created by God for a purpose, that is one starting point. If we are the accidental product of blind natural forces, that is a very different starting point. In the former case we try to learn the will of our creator, and in the latter case we discard that "intervening spirit" as an illusion and proceed to chart our own course."

So what is the will of the creator with respect to viruses and humans? Viruses even though they are not cells show very complex adaptations for penetrating the host cell and also for spreading from one host to the other. If viruses arose independently from cells then either this contradicts the ID premise that one cannot generate new genetic information or if viruses are as currently favored, transposons and other bits of host genetic material that have escaped from host cells, what kind of designer would design a genetic system with so many problems? If the designer is intelligent then its intelligence is inexplicable in a very major way from human intelligence and is not designing the universe with us in mind in any way we can see. The ID people cannot wiggle out of this one by claiming the all one has to do is point to design not explainable (allegedly) by evolutionary theory because Johnson has opened the door to just such speculation since if we are created by God then science ought to be able to infer something about the will of the creator not just that the creator exists!

Perhaps Mr. Johnson ought to remember that the path to our modern understanding of evolution began with a natural philosophy with a very similar starting point, namely that by studying the universe we can learn something about the mind of God. See for example this article, about Richard Owen, a contemporary of Darwin and who developed the concept of homology. So if Johnson is right once we detect alleged design, the intent of the designer is a legitimate scientific and philosophical concern and you cannot hide behind saying that God(oops) the designer is mysterious and beyond human comprehension. If viruses are designed then here is more evidence that the designer is not designing with us in mind. If viruses are not designed then the designer really messed up when designing genetic systems of organisms that allow bits of genetic material to escape. So the designer is really limited or not designing with us in mind.

Of course if the designer is truly mysterious and beyond human comprehension then this contradicts jouncing assertion that we can try to learn the will of the Creator through science and that Intelligent Design has anything to do with science at all. In fact I don't think Intelligent Design has much to do about anything except as a vehicle to further a religious and political agenda as expressed in the Wedge Strategy document. See for a link to the Wedge document.

As this document says:

"We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

So much for the argument that ID has nothing to do with religion!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Small exciting things...

Been putting my gardens to bed for the fall and yesterday found a small skipper that seemed at bit out of place; very pale and so I took a picture. Hard of me to do since I don't have a fancy camera. Today looking at more closely it seems very different from the skippers I am used to, but I am hardly a butterfly expert.

So even though it is dangerous to try to identify insects from pictures, today I went to the USGS Northern Prairie research site, browsed the skipper pictures. The closest species I come up with is the Desert Checkered Skipper, Pyrgus philetas. If so the butterfly is way out of range. I am pretty confident of the genus but good skipper pictures are hard to come by. But compare my picture above with the one from the site and see what you think. The original image is at:

and you should go there to view it. I try to be respectful of copyrights and don't have Dr. Cary's permission to use the image. If you scroll down to the end of the page for this species you will see that it is reported from Southern Texas/Northern Mexico.

There are other Pyrgus species that range into Kansas, so it's possible I have one of those instead...but who knows.

Today I found the butterfly again but not having an insect net, was not able to catch it. But did find a nice female praying mantis. So here she is. Mantids do have some ability to change color and she has a quite appropriate color for this time of year.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Otters and the Weasel Sex Trade

The other weekend my wife and I went to Big Cedar Resort near Branson. You know that Expedia commercial in which a father is booking a hotel for his kids where he envisions them going to a hunting lodge? If not, in the commercial the father imagines that his children are frightened by all the "stuffed" animals-bears, wolves etc. Well, that commercial could have been filmed at Big Cedar. Associated with the resort is a private nature and fishing park called Dogwood Canyon Park which has a very nice tram ride and lots of wildlife.

The guide, shown in the picture, was showing us this stream loaded with huge German and rainbow trout- the park earns lots of its money from daily fishing tours when he mentioned that they had a mysterious predator that had been eating their trout, and he told how he had tracked it down, killed it and now it was mounted and on display in the park store. The predator turned out to be a male river otter, weighing about 30 pounds. Now the guide said that they had to kill it since it needed to eat 15% of its weight in fish per day. Seems reasonable since otters are active.

Now while I sympathize with the Park's plight I just couldn't help be a tad upset. After all, otters are not that common; I have never seen one in the wild and I happen to have a soft spot for otters ever since when I was young read about a family who kept one as a pet. My wife- evil person that she is- had no sympathy with my arguments that the park might be able to draw more visitors with frolicking otters than through fly fishing. She didn't buy my argument that a little predation might improve the stock of fish, make them more challenging to catch because assuredly the otter would kill only the weak and slow trout.

I couldn't even get her sympathy when I described how the otter was merely scouting out sites for his family and now there was this widow otter and her pups alone in the world and how the mother would have to sell her kids to the weasel sex trade to earn money to buy trout at the supermarket. Sigh...It's all about the all mighty buck...a term the guide claimed was derived from the use of buck skins as currency worth well, about a buck.

Dogwood Canyon is free to enter but the tram and most of the other activities do cost money. But if you are in that neck of the woods and want to see elk and bison up close along with the fattest most tame trout you will ever see, Dogwood Canyon might be worth a a visit unless of course you are an otter.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The force that through

Starting out. The title comes from a poem by Dylan Thomas. If you are not familiar with him, you might check out the Dylan Thomas Home Page at My blog is an outgrowth of a running commentary called greenfuse on my academic website, The Entangled Bank at But doing everything in html got to be cumbersome and of course does not allow for the sort of participatory evolution that I wanted.

Woops do I dare use the E word? I have been actively involved in the evolution flap in Kansas: I will not say controversy because that evolution happens is not controversial; we know that evolution happens. So if your faith perspective requires you to treat your sacred text as a science book get over it because that simply is not what science is about and it is not the way the world seems to work.

Several good evolution blogs are Pharyngula at . A more complete listing of evolution blogs is at

Links to evolution and its misguided critics are at

Indeed the whole talk origins site is a wonderful resource.