Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Frist voices support for `intelligent design'

Here are news items with my comments in square brackets:
Frist voices support for `intelligent design', MSNBC/AP, Aug. 19, 2005 NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Echoing similar comments from President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said "intelligent design" should be taught in public schools alongside evolution. Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, spoke to a Rotary Club meeting Friday and told reporters afterward that students need to be exposed to different ideas, including intelligent design. "I think today a pluralistic society should have access to a broad range of fact, of science, including faith," Frist said. Frist, a doctor who graduated from Harvard Medical School, said exposing children to both evolution and intelligent design "doesn't force any particular theory on anyone. I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go about education and training people for the future."... The theory of intelligent design says life on earth is too complex to have developed through evolution, implying that a higher power must have had a hand in creation. Nearly all scientists dismiss it as a scientific theory, and critics say it's nothing more than religion masquerading as science. Bush recently told a group of Texas reporters that intelligent design and evolution should both be taught in schools "so people can understand what the debate is about." That comment sparked criticism from opponents, including Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, who called Bush "anti-science." Frist, who is considering a presidential campaign in 2008, recently angered some conservatives by bucking Bush policy on embryonic stem cell research, voicing his support for expanded research on the subject. Frist said his decision to endorse stem cell research was "a matter of science," but he said there was no conflict between his position on stem cell research and his position on intelligent design. ... Frist Urges 2 Teachings on Life Origin, David Stout, The New York Times, August 20, 2005. WASHINGTON, Aug. 19 - Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader, aligned himself with President Bush on Friday when he said that the theory of intelligent design as well as evolution should be taught in public schools ... A Washington spokesman for the senator, Nick Smith, said later that the report was accurate. The theory of intelligent design holds that life is too complicated to have developed through evolution and that a higher power must be involved. Critics say intelligent design theorists are trying to supplant science with religious beliefs. ... [This is getting a bit stale. I wonder how true it is that "Nearly all scientists dismiss it [ID] as a scientific theory"? But anyway, it is irrelevant how many scientists admitthat ID is a scientific theory. If they seek to falsify ID, then they are showing by their actions that they accept that ID is a scientific theory.]
Ocean bug has 'smallest genome', Roland Pease, BBC, 19 August 2005. … Small but perfectly formed, Pelagibacter ubique is a lean machine stripped down to the bare essentials for life. Humans have around 30,000 genes that determine everything from our eye colour to our sex but Pelagibacter has just 1,354, US biologists report in the journal Science. What is more, Pelagibacter has none of the genetic clutter that most genomes have accumulated over time. There are no duplicate gene copies, no viral genes, and no junk DNA. ... The spareness of its genome is related to its frugal lifestyle. The shorter the length of DNA that needs to be copied each generation, the less work there is to do. Pelagibacter has even gone one step further. It has chosen where possible to use genetic letters - or base pairs - which use less nitrogen in their construction: nitrogen is a difficult nutrient for living things to obtain. The result is one of the most successful organisms on the planet. Pelagibacter feeds off dead organic matter that is dissolved in ocean water - lead researcher Stephen Giovannoni of Oregon State University likens it to a very thin chicken soup. The dissolved carbon is always there, so there is no need to build in special metabolic circuits to adjust between periods of feast and famine. Indeed, in laboratory studies, the Oregon biologists have found that adding nutrients to the broth has no effect on the microbe's vigour. … The sheer abundance of Pelagibacter - there are an estimated 20 billion billion billion Pelagibacter microbes scattered throughout the world's oceans - is probably what has allowed the organism to streamline its genes. With so many copies in the ocean, there are plenty of opportunities for random mutations to try out more thrifty combinations. There are organisms with smaller genomes - Mycoplasma genitalium has about 400 genes. But these are all obligate parasites or symbionts, relying on other organisms to do the jobs they have abandoned. Pelagibacter is entirely self-sufficient. There is a great deal of interest in finding out how few genes a living organism can get away with. Bio-entrepreneur Craig Venter is trying to create an artificial version of a bacterium, aiming for as few as 300 genes. Stephen Giovannoni says the synthetic one will barely function. But Pelagibacter on the other hand, accounting for a quarter of all organisms in the ocean, is a shining example of Darwin's principle, the survival of the fittest. … [So if Pelagibacter ubique "is a shining example of Darwin's principle, the survival of the fittest," then presumably the other 2-100 million species estimated to be living on Earth are not "shining example[s] of Darwin's principle, the survival of the fittest"?! This BTW is a new benchmark for the minimal genome of a free-living organism, i.e. ~1350 genes.]
Climate change marks dawn of man, Olivia Johnson, BBC, 19 August 2005. ... Complex variation of the East African climate may have played a key role in the development of our human ancestors. Scientists have identified extensive lake systems which formed and disappeared in East Africa between 1 and 3 million years ago. The lakes could be evidence that global climate changes occurred throughout this pivotal period in human evolution. The findings, reported in the journal Science, suggest that humans evolved in response to a variable climate. Dr Martin Trauth of the University of Potsdam and his team were able to identify and date the pre-historic lakes by studying layers of soil along the Rift Valley in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. … Layers containing microscopic algae skeletons, called diatoms, reveal the depth and composition of the ancient lakes. Volcanic ash in nearby layers provides an estimate of the lakes' ages. Radioactive elements in the ash act as time stamps because they decay in a predictable way with time. By examining soil layers at seven sites throughout East Africa, Dr Trauth and his collaborators were able to identify three distinct periods during which extensive lakes covered the region and grew to depths of hundreds of metres. They argue that the growth of these lakes resulted from a moist local climate. The regional wet periods, which may have persisted for up to 100,000 years, occurred as much of Africa became increasingly dry. The periods of wet weather in East Africa might reflect fluctuations of the Earth's climate as a whole. At the time when the lakes grew - roughly 2.6, 1.8, and 1 million years ago - glaciers and the atmosphere were also going through major transformations… The Science paper states that if the lakes were temporary features related to the global climate, as the data suggest, they provide strong support for theories in which early human species evolved and spread out in response to a rapidly changing environment. "These episodes could have had important impacts on the speciation and dispersal of mammals and hominins," the researchers write. Dr Chris Stringer, a leading researcher on early humans in the Department of Palaeontology at London's Natural History Museum, praised the quality of the data, saying that it provides "very good evidence" of climate change in East Africa. However, he stressed that more detailed work was necessary to positively link these environmental changes to the emergence of man. "What this is showing is that there are fluctuations of the climatic belts moving up and down," he said. "But if early humans are able to move around, the effect of varying environment is reduced. The key issue now is how mobile are these people?" … [Stringer is here making Eldredge's point, that "by far the most common response of species to environmental change is that they move":
"To the question, `What happens to species when environments change?', the standard post-Darwinian answer became, `They evolve.' Species become transformed to meet the new conditions-provided, of course, they are well stocked with the necessary genetic variation on which natural selection may act to effect suitable evolutionary change. Failing that, the fate is extinction. Here we have imagination colliding with common sense- and, worse, with empirical reality. Given the benefit of some 130 years of post-Darwinian scrutiny of the natural world, it has become abundantly clear that by far the most common response of species to environmental change is that they move -they change their locus of existence." (Eldredge N., "Reinventing Darwin: The Great Evolutionary Debate," Phoenix: London, 1996, p.64)
I have added this to my "Problems of Evolution" book outline, section PE 9.4.8. "Natural selection ... Response of species to environmental change is migration"]
Scientists Find a Touch of Sophistication in the Genes of a Simple Sponge, Jon Nordheimer, The New York Times, August 16, 2005 ... A husband and wife research team at the University of Richmond has discovered that marine sponges, long considered some of the most primitive creatures on the planet, carry a sophisticated gene that in other animals controls the growth of eyes, brains and the central nervous system. ... Sponges lack nerve cells, however, so they can't produce the complex sensory organs of higher animals. The finding was not entirely unexpected, said April and Malcolm Hill, the research biologists who isolated the gene in the larvae of common marine sponges. There have been other genes isolated from sponges in recent years that might have pointed in this direction, said Dr. April Hill. "What makes our finding so unique is that sponges lack any type of organs associated with the central nervous system," she said. ... Sponges evolved some 500 million to 1 billion years ago and - alone among animals - may possess archetypes of stem cells .... The sponge cells of similar nature are called archeocytes, she said. At any stage in the life of a sponge, these cells can transform themselves into any of the other five types of specialized cells that constitute a sponge. ... some of the other cell types, in turn, may be able to revert to archeocytes when they are needed to perform yet another function. "The fascinating thing is how sponges are capable of letting body parts dissolve into individual cells," Dr. Hill added. The scattered cells can float around but not die, she said, and then find each other and reassemble into a sponge. In laboratory gene-sequencing experiments, the Hills studied the DNA of free-swimming sponge larvae in the first days of life before they attached themselves to a bottom structure. "We discovered that the sponge genome has a gene highly related to a family of genes found in higher animals that is involved in the formation of nerve and brain cells," Dr. Hill said. It appears, she said, that some ancient pathways used in sponge development have been modified and co-opted for other functions in more complex animals. Analyzing and clarifying these pathways in sponges, she continued, may eventually give researchers greater insight into the "toolbox" involved in forming and patterning the genetic blueprints that control the development of higher animals. The Hills, who first published their findings in the biomedical journal Development Genes and Evolution said that last month they succeeded in isolating another sponge gene key to eye development. They are now at work with collaborators at the University of Zurich on a project to clone and characterize genes in the sponge genome ... including the universal "master gene" that controls eye development in all animals. As part of this project, they are trying to use their newly discovered sponge genes to introduce sight to blind mutant fruit flies. Moreover, they are searching for evidence of other genes in sponges that function in more complicated ways in higher animals. Mitchell L. Sogin ... said the molecular machinery required to evolve a primitive nervous system, he said, "did not come out of the ozone" but must have evolved from even simpler forms of animal life. ... [It seems that sponges have a precursor to (if not the actual) Pax 6 master gene that codes for all eyes, even though sponges have no eyes, and indeed no nervous system? It will be truly astonishing if a sponge Pax-6 gene can induce en eye on a blind fruit fly. That will be preadaptation, with a vengeance! Note BTW how Darwinists have to use the language of intelligent design (e.g. "co-opted"), to explain nature! My position is that since design is real, science has from the beginning been discovering that design (as the natural theologians used to say, "thinking God's thoughts after Him"), and indeed that is what science is. So it is misguided for opponents of ID to claim that ID needs to do its own scientific experiments, since, if design is real, then the anti-IDists are doing the job for them. The ID movement's task is to get anti-ID scientists to realize it! Where does Sogin think the "even simpler forms of animal life" got the "molecular machinery required to evolve a primitive nervous system"? Turtles all the way down?!]
Come on, use your common sense, John Horgan, The Guardian, August 18, 2005. ... 100 years ago Einstein wrote six papers that laid the groundwork for quantum mechanics and relativity, arguably the two most successful theories in history. To commemorate this, a coalition of physics groups has designated 2005 the World Year of Physics .... Amid this hoopla, I feel compelled to deplore one aspect of Einstein's legacy: the widespread belief that science and common sense are incompatible. In the pre-Einstein era, T.H. Huxley could define science as "nothing but trained and organised common sense". But quantum mechanics and relativity shattered our commonsense notions about how the world works. The theories ask us to believe that an electron can exist in more than one place at the same time, and that space and time are not rigid but rubbery. Impossible. Yet these sense-defying propositions have withstood a century of tests. Many scientists came to see common sense as an impediment to progress not only in physics, but also in other fields. ... Elevating this outlook to the status of dogma, the biologist Lewis Wolpert declared: "I would almost contend that if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn't science." Wolpert's view is widely shared. When I invoke common sense to defend or - more often - criticise a theory, scientists invariably roll their eyes. Scientists' contempt for common sense has two unfortunate implications. One is that preposterousness, far from being a problem for a theory, is a measure of its profundity; hence the appeal, perhaps, of dubious propositions like ... multiple-universe theories. The other, more insidious implication is that only scientists are qualified to judge the work of other scientists. Needless to say, I reject that position, and not only because I'm a science journalist. I have found common sense - ordinary, nonspecialised knowledge and judgment - to be indispensable for judging scientists' pronouncements even, or especially, in the most esoteric fields. For example, Einstein's intellectual heirs have long been obsessed with finding a single "unified" theory that can embrace quantum mechanics, which accounts for electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, and general relativity, which describes gravity. The two theories employ very different mathematical languages and describe very different worlds, one lumpy and random and the other seamless and deterministic. The leading candidate for a unified theory holds that reality stems from tiny strings or loops or membranes, or something wriggling in a hyperspace of 10 or 16 or 1,000 dimensions (the number depends on the variant of the theory, the day of the week, or the theorist's zip code). A related set of "quantum gravity" theories postulates the existence of parallel universes ... existing beyond the borders of our little cosmos. "Infinite Earths in Parallel Universes Really Exist," the normally sober Scientific American once hyperventilated on its cover. All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, the parallel universes too distant. Common sense persuades me these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends. Common sense - and historical perspective - makes me equally sceptical of grand unified theories of the human mind. We're complex, variable, unpredictable creatures, whose personalities can be affected by a vast range of factors. I'm thus leery of hypotheses that trace some important aspect of our behaviour to a single cause. Two examples: psychologist Frank Sulloway claimed that birth order has a profound, permanent impact on personality; firstborns tend to be conformists, whereas later-borns are "rebels". And geneticist Dean Hamer argued that human spirituality stems from a specific snippet of DNA. Although common sense biases me against these theories, I am still open to being persuaded on empirical grounds. But the evidence for both Sulloway's birth-order theory and Hamer's "God gene" is flimsy. ... While many scientists disparage common sense, artificial-intelligence researchers have discovered just how subtle and powerful an attribute it is. Researchers have programmed computers to perform certain tasks extremely well; computers can play championship chess, calculate a collision between two galaxies and juggle a million airline reservations. But computers fail miserably at simulating the ordinary, experience-based intelligence that helps ordinary humans get through ordinary days. ... [A much needed reality check! So if testability and falsifiabilty are demarcation criteria that separate science from non-science (or pseudoscience), then how come multiple universes and string theories, neither of which are testable (and therefore falsifiable) are regarded as science?]

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

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