Friday, August 19, 2005

Editor Explains Reasons for 'Intelligent Design' Article, etc

Here are excerpts from recent news items:
Editor Explains Reasons for 'Intelligent Design' Article, Michael Powell, Washington Post, August 19, 2005. … Evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg made a fateful decision a year ago. As editor of the hitherto obscure Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Sternberg decided to publish a paper making the case for "intelligent design," a controversial theory that holds that the machinery of life is so complex as to require the hand … of an intelligent creator. Within hours of publication, senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institution -- which has helped fund and run the journal -- lashed out at Sternberg as a shoddy scientist and a closet Bible thumper. "They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists," said Steinberg, 42 , who is a Smithsonian research associate. "I was basically run out of there." An independent agency has come to the same conclusion, accusing top scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History of retaliating against Sternberg by investigating his religion and smearing him as a "creationist." The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees from reprisals, examined e- mail traffic from these scientists and noted that "retaliation came in many forms ... misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false." "The rumor mill became so infected," James McVay, the principal legal adviser in the Office of Special Counsel, wrote to Sternberg, "that one of your colleagues had to circulate [your résumé] simply to dispel the rumor that you were not a scientist." .... As Sternberg is not a Smithsonian employee -- the National Institutes of Health pays his salary -- the special counsel lacks the power to impose a legal remedy. A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution declined comment, noting that it has not received McVay's report. "We do stand by evolution -- we are a scientific organization," said Linda St. Thomas .... An official privately suggested that McVay might want to embarrass the institution. It is hard to overstate the passions fired by the debate over intelligent design. President Bush recently said that schoolchildren should learn about the theory alongside Darwin's theory of evolution-- a view that goes beyond even the stance of intelligent design advocates. Dozens of state school boards have attempted to mandate the teaching of anti-Darwinian theories. A small band of scientists argue for intelligent design, saying evolutionary theory's path is littered with too many gaps and mysteries, and cannot account for the origin of life. Most evolutionary biologists, not to mention much of the broader scientific community, dismiss intelligent design as a sophisticated version of creationism. ... The National Museum of Natural History was drawn into this controversy in June, when protest forced it to withdraw from co-sponsorship of a documentary on intelligent design. Sternberg's case has sent ripples far beyond the Beltway. The special counsel accused the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based think tank that defends the teaching of evolution, of orchestrating attacks on Sternberg. "The NCSE worked closely with" the Smithsonian "in outlining a strategy to have you investigated and discredited," McVay wrote to Sternberg. NCSE officials accused McVay of playing out a political agenda. "I must say that Mr. McVay flatters us beyond our desserts -- the Smithsonian is a distinguished organization of highly competent scientists, and they're not marionettes," said Eugenie Scott ... "If this was a corporation, and an employee did something that really embarrassed the administration, really blew it, how long do you think that person would be employed?" … Sternberg … holds two PhDs in evolutionary biology… [He was] the unpaid editor of Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a sleepy scientific journal affiliated with the Smithsonian. Three years later, Sternberg agreed to consider a paper by Stephen C. Meyer, a Cambridge University-educated philosopher of science who argues that evolutionary theory cannot account for … the Cambrian "explosion," … arguing that an intelligent agent …was the best explanation for the rapid appearance of higher life- forms. Sternberg harbored his own doubts about Darwinian theory. He also acknowledged that this journal had not published such papers in the past and that he wanted to stir the scientific pot. "I am not convinced by intelligent design but they have brought a lot of difficult questions to the fore," Sternberg said. "Science only moves forward on controversy." He mailed Meyer's article to three scientists for a peer review. It has been suggested that Sternberg fabricated the peer review or sought unqualified scientists, a claim McVay dismissed. "They were critical of the paper and gave 50 things to consider," Sternberg said. "But they said that people are talking about this and we should air the views." When the article appeared, the reaction was near instantaneous and furious. Within days, detailed scientific critiques of Meyer's article appeared on pro-evolution Web sites. "The origin of genetic information is thoroughly understood," said Nick Matzke of the NCSE. "If the arguments were coherent this paper would have been revolutionary-- but they were bogus." A senior Smithsonian scientist wrote in an e-mail: "We are evolutionary biologists and I am sorry to see us made into the laughing stock of the world, even if this kind of rubbish sells well in backwoods USA." An e-mail stated, falsely, that Sternberg had "training as an orthodox priest." Another labeled him a "Young Earth Creationist," …. Sternberg insists he does not believe in creationism. … Scott, of the NCSE, insisted that Smithsonian scientists had no choice but to explore Sternberg's religious beliefs. "They don't care if you are religious, but they do care a lot if you are a creationist," Scott said. "Sternberg denies it, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it argues for zealotry." …. Sternberg has seen stress piled upon stress in the past year. His marriage has dissolved, and he no longer comes into the Smithsonian. When the biological society issued a statement disavowing Meyer's article, Sternberg was advised not to attend. "I was told that feelings were running so high, they could not guarantee me that they could keep order," Sternberg said. A former professor of Sternberg's says the researcher has an intellectual penchant for going against the system. Sternberg does not deny it. "I loathe careerism and the herd mentality," he said. "I really think that objective truth can be discovered and that popular opinion and consensus thinking does more to obscure than to reveal." ... [This article has a misleading, self-serving headline. It seeks to shift the focus to Sternberg, whereas the actual content of it is the Office of Special Counsel's James McVay's findings that Sternberg was persecuted by the Smithsonian, aided and abetted by the NCSE. A more accurate headline would have been: "Office of Special Counsel Concludes Smithsonian Created a 'Hostile Work Environment' in Effort to Oust Biologist Skeptical of Darwinism," Newswire, August 19, 2005. It sounds like an attempt at damage control: I would be surprised if Sternberg does not sue the Smithsonian (and maybe the NCSE and even The Washington Post), for workplace harrassment leading to loss of employment and defamation, based on McVay's findings. While trying to give at least the impression of balance, the article nevertheless still contains "misinformation" that reveals the paper's pro-Darwinist/anti-ID bias. For example, President Bush's position, that "local school districts" should be able to decide that students be taught "both sides" to the controversy, does not "go… beyond even the stance of intelligent design advocates." The continual attempt to equate ID with "creationism" will increasingly backfire, as the public learn the difference between each (ID is not based on the Bible, for starters). Eugenie Scott's justification of removing from employment any scientist who publicly questions Darwinism by an analogy to a corporation firing an employee who embarrasses it, is revealing. But unlike employees of corporations, scientists are supposed to publicly question scientific theories and propose alternatives! Her fallacious "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it argues for zealotry", is another example of her stock-in-trade of "character assassination, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, and demonization" (for which in one case she recently had to withdraw under threat of a lawsuit). The irony is that these persecutors of anyone who questions their naturalistic religion, think they are the heirs of the persecuted Galileo, when in reality they are the heirs of the persecuting medieval equivalent of the scientific establishment:
"From the Galileo case, what we really learn is that a man who thinks for himself is apt to get in trouble with his other professors and the people who control the funding. The problem was not only with the Catholic Church. Galileo's scientific colleagues were also to blame. Of course, at the time, the Catholic Church was the ruling intellectual power; the problem was that all the professors of natural science happened to be affiliated with the church. But today, the equivalent of the College of Cardinals is not a group of guys in red hats who sit in Rome, but the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC and their equivalent bodies in other countries. In other words, these people are the academic elite. And the academic elite is never really in favour of freedom of thought. ... That's the lesson from Galileo." (Hastie P., "Designer genes: Phillip E. Johnson talks to Peter Hastie," Australian Presbyterian, October 2001, pp.4-8, p.5. Emphasis in original).
BTW, if "The origin of genetic information is thoroughly understood," then what are the Darwinists afraid of? If they really thought that they had the answer that would kill off the ID movement once and for all (as that would), then why don't they demand that ID be allowed to fairly state its case alongside Darwinism in schools, universities and in scientific journals, instead of using every means (scientific or unscientific, fair or foul) to prevent that from happening? This is unlikely to be the end of the matter (to put it mildly)! See also "Smithsonian scientists accused of ID smear,", August 19, 2005; "US editor ignites evolution row at Smithsonian," The Independent, 20 August 2005; "Unintelligent Design: Hostility toward religious believers at the nation’s museum," August 16, 2005; "Scientist's complaint backed," The Washington Times, August 16, 2005.]
Researchers Creating Life From Scratch, Paul Elias, ABC News/Associated Press Aug. 19, 2005 - They're called "synthetic biologists" and they boldly claim the ability to make never-before-seen living things, one genetic molecule at a time. They're mixing, matching and stacking DNA's chemical components like microscopic Lego blocks in an effort to make biologically based computers, medicines and alternative energy sources. The rapidly expanding field is confounding the taxonomists' centuries-old system of classifying species and raising concerns about the new technology's potential for misuse. …a new breed of biologists is attempting to bring order to the hit-and-miss chaos of genetic engineering by bringing to biotechnology the same engineering strategies used to build computers, bridges and buildings. The idea is to separate cells into their fundamental components and then rebuild new organisms, a much more complex way of genetic engineering. The burgeoning movement is attracting big money and some of the biggest names in biology, many of whom are attending the "Life Engineering Symposium" that begins Friday in San Francisco. … Already, synthetic biologists have created a polio virus and another smaller virus by stitching together individual genes purchased from biotechnology companies. Now, researchers are getting closer to creating more complex living things with actual utility. .... J. Craig Venter, the entrepreneurial scientist who mapped the human genome, announced last month that he intends to string together genes to create from scratch novel organisms that can produce alternative fuels such as hydrogen and ethanol. With a $42.6 million grant that originated at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Berkeley researchers are creating a new malaria drug by removing genetic material of the E. coli bacterium and replacing it with genes from wormwood and yeast. "We're building parts that can be assembled into devices and devices that can be turned into systems," said Jay Keasling, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's ... synthetic biology department, which was created last year. Keasling, who doubles as a chemical engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, hopes to create never-before-seen living molecules by fusing genes from the three species a new breed of bacteria capable of spitting out malaria-fighting artemisinin, a chemical now found only in small traces in the wormwood plant. Artemisinin has been extracted from finely ground sweet wormwood for more than 2,000 years as a treatment for a variety of ailments, but the method is expensive, time consuming and limited by access to wormwood, which is found mainly in China and Vietnam. … Venter, meanwhile, has launched Synthetic Genomics Inc. with Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith and will compete with … several other recent startups to commercialize the technology. But with success also comes ethical questions. For example, national security experts and even synthetic biologists themselves fret that rogue scientists or "biohackers" could create new biological weapons like deadly viruses that lack natural foes. They also worry about innocent mistakes organisms that could potentially create havoc if allowed to reproduce outside the lab. "There are certainly a lot of national security implications with synthetic biology," said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity. ... "There are a cascade of ecological issues," said Laurie Zoloth, a bioethics professor at Northwestern University. "Synthetic biology is like iron: You can make sewing needles and you can make spears. Of course, there is going to be dual use." ...[This is not actually "creating life from scratch" since they will use existing genetic material. As science learns to tinker with the very building blocks of life and the universe, the more powerful and dangerous it becomes. It seems inevitable that lure of fame and fortune will eventually cause a scientist somewhere to unleash a disaster on humanity that cannot be undone. It was a topic in the philosophy of science unit in my biology degree that science is reaching the point (if it has not already reached it), where its risks outweigh its benefits.]
Neanderthals craved bison and mammoth ABC/Discovery News, Jennifer Viegas, 17 August 2005. … Neanderthals and early humans apparently were surrounded by small prey, but instead mostly ate woolly mammoths and other big game, according to two recent studies. It's like a modern human who lives on a chicken farm but rarely eats poultry in favour of beef. The findings, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, suggest that Neanderthals and our prehistoric relatives lived in organised communities that banded together early on to form hunting parties that took down large game. The study concerning early humans focused on the 16,000-year-old 'Magdalenian woman' skeleton from a site called Saint-Germain-la-Rivière in France. "This woman can be considered as an early ancestor of today's French population," says Dorothée Drucker, who led the study. …. Drucker's husband Hervé Bocherens led the Neanderthal research, which looked at 35,000-year-old Neanderthal remains from the Saint Césaire site, also in France. … Both Drucker … and Bocherens … studied samples of bone collagen from the early human and Neanderthal skeletons. Bone collagen contains isotopes, or atoms of different mass, from carbon and nitrogen that were in proteins people ate. By measuring, dating and then comparing isotope values to those of plants and other animals, scientists can link the bone collagen proteins to their meat source. The researchers had ample data for comparison, as the Magdalenian woman was found with the remains of saiga antelope, reindeer, bison, horses, red deer and wolves. Antelope remains were plentiful and showed signs of butchering but, since the isotope analysis reveals the dominant source of protein, the researchers believe the woman favoured a nice bit of bison over an antelope steak. The Neanderthal was found with the remains for aurochs (extinct cattle), bison, other bovines, giant deer, reindeer, horses, rhinoceros, mammoths and hyenas. … Paul Koch … says early humans probably butchered prey away from their base camps, which would explain the lack of big game bones at the sites. The Neanderthal preference for large game could be why they coexisted with big animals for long periods, says Koch. Such a specialisation might have contributed to the Neanderthal's downfall, though, as they would have been subjected to "boom-bust" meat cycles, driven by abundance or scarcity of big game associated with climate and vegetation changes. … [This is more evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans were very different. Of course modern humans may have contributed to the Neanderthals' extinction indirectly by out-competing them in hunting for small game, forcing the Neanderthals to specialise on big game, which were already under the pressure of Europe's rapidly oscillating interglacial climate ("Between 60,000 and 20,000 years ago, Europe became drier and experienced rapid phases of warming and cooling") could not also support the Neanderthal's additional predation.]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol)
Book "Problems of Evolution"

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