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.