Thursday, September 29, 2005

Probed! Mother of all brains, etc

Here are science news excerpts, with my comments are in square brackets.

Probed! Mother of all brains, ABC/Discovery News, Jennifer Viegas, 28 September 2005 ... All brains originated from a single common ancestral brain that emerged at least 700 million years ago, according to a recent analysis of brain studies. The finding suggests this mother brain for all creatures with a central nervous system - such as insects, birds, animals and humans - evolved only once before each species underwent its own evolutionary course. "What we see today in humans, insects and all other multicellular animals with a central nervous system are probably just variations of one ancient scheme," says Dr Rudi Loesel, who conducted the analysis published in the journal Arthropod Structure & Development. "What this ancestral brain looked like, we do not know. Its architecture might have been very simple, but the basic genetic mechanisms and the principal chemical setup was already there [before 700 million years ago]," says Loesel ... The researchers don't know what the creature that contained the mother of all brains looked like. Some scientists speculate it could have been a segmented flatworm, while others think it was a more complex creature. Loesel says that he, and others who study brain evolution, can't rely on fossil evidence because neuronal tissue is not preserved over time. Instead, they compare the brain architecture of living species, identify similarities and then try to find common characteristics that would have belonged to the mother brain. "Taking the similarities in brain biology in such distantly related animal groups like insects and mammals into account, the origin of the brain - the common ancestral brain - must have already evolved before the major animal phyla diverged, which was approximately 700 million years ago," he says. ... At around that time, invertebrates and vertebrates each branched off from the tree of life. The emergence of the common brain likely occurred just before this branch-off, says Loesel, because brains and associated characteristics of insects known to exist then and now share key aspects with human and other animal brains. Loesel says evidence for the once-shared brain can be seen in certain neurotransmitters, which function similarly in most brains, and in genes that regulate the circadian clock that controls sleep-wake cycles. The same circadian clock genes in insects have been found in mammals. Professor Walter Gehring ... agrees with Loesel that insects and animals share common characteristics related to the brain, such as eyes. Gehring and his colleagues studied Drosophila fruit flies and found a master control gene that regulates growth and development of eyes in most fly species. A very similar gene is present in other insects, animals and humans. "The observation that mammals and insects, which have evolved separately for more than 500 million years, share the same master control gene for eye morphogenesis [the process of cell differentiation into various tissues and structures] indicates that the genetic control mechanisms of development are much more universal than anticipated," Gehring says. ... [Darwinists used to claim that because the eye arose 40+ times, that showed how powerful the Darwinian mechanism of the natural selection of random mutations was. But then it turned out that the underlying molecular machinery of the eye, the Pax-6 master gene, arose only once, as geneticist explained in one of his imaginary letter to Darwin:

"The Pax-6 story tells us that there has been just one origin and one evolutionary line of progression, from the earliest patches of light-sensitive cells to the variety of advanced eye-forms around us. This unavoidable conclusion, Charles, goes against a hundred years of insistence that the widely different structures and operations of eyes (eye cup, pinhole, camera-type with single lens, mirror and compound) arose independently, at least forty and maybe up to sixty-five times. Our old friend Richard Dawkins devoted a chapter in one of his books to 'the forty-fold path to enlightenment', emphasizing the repetitive ease with which natural selection could produce an eye, and so relieving you of the 'cold shudder' you experienced whenever you grappled with this problem." (Dover G.A., "Dear Mr Darwin: Letters on the Evolution of Life and Human Nature," [1999], University of California Press: Berkeley CA, 2000, reprint, p.172)

So now it looks like (pun unintended!) that the molecular machinery underlying brains arose only once too. This means that the Darwinian mechanism of the natural selection of random mutations (RM&NS) could not discover eyes and now brains, despite them being highly advantageous, more than once each in the history of life. The obvious conclusion then is that it was not the natural selection of random mutations that discovered them even once! I have added this to my "Problems of Evolution" book outline, PE "Animals ... Organs ... Brain arose only once"]

Global warming: Death in the deep-freeze, , The Independent, Kate Ravilious, 28 September 2005 ... As global warming melts the world's ice sheets, rising sea levels are not the only danger. Viruses hidden for thousands of years may thaw and escape - and we will have no resistance to them ... Last week, the latest study to track global warming revealed that Alaska's snowless season is lengthening. As the world warms and ice-sheets and glaciers begin to melt, most of us worry about how the earth will respond and what kind of impact climate change will have. ... All of these are valid concerns, but now it turns out that the impact of global warming could be worse than we first imagined. Ice sheets are mostly frozen water, but during the freezing process they can also incorporate organisms such as fungi, bacteria and viruses. Some scientists believe that climate change could unleash ancient illnesses as ice sheets drip away and bacteria and viruses defrost. Illnesses we thought we had eradicated, like polio, could reappear, while common viruses like human influenza could have a devastating effect if melting glaciers release a bygone strain to which we have no resistance. What is more, new species unknown to science may re-emerge. And it is not just humans who are at risk: animals, plants and marine creatures could also suffer as ancient microbes thaw out. In 1999, Scott Rogers ... and his colleagues reported finding the tomato mosaic tobamovirus (ToMV) in 17 different ice-core sections at two locations deep inside the Greenland ice pack. Gentle defrosting in the lab revealed that this common plant pathogen had survived being entombed in ice for 140,000 years. "ToMV belongs to a family of viruses with a particularly tough protein coat, which helps it to survive in these extreme environments," says Rogers. .... Imagine if older, more vicious strains, such as the virus responsible for the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people in 1918 - 1919, were to re-emerge. Not all scientists are convinced by these viral discoveries, and some argue that they are more likely to have arrived in the ice via contamination during the drilling process. .... Thankfully, not all viruses will remain viable after thawing out from hibernation in an ice sheet. "We routinely keep viruses at minus 80C when we want to store them in the lab, so viruses can certainly survive freezing, but they are often fragile to processes such as freeze-thaw," explains Geoffrey Smith ... Only viruses that contain the tough protein coat, like ToMV, are likely to be able to retain all the information they need while being repeatedly frozen and defrosted. This rules out plenty of human viruses, but still leaves a few very nasty options including smallpox, polio, hepatitis A and, of course, influenza. Shoham believes that the influenza virus is the most likely to emerge from the freeze/thaw process in a fit enough state to re-infect humans. "It has the properties that would allow it to survive the ice and the ability to transfer between animals and humans once it is out," he says. ... "Ancient viruses are more dangerous because the natural herd immunity is reduced over time. .... Some scientists are not too concerned, while others think it is worth looking into. "It is certainly conceivable that viruses can survive frozen for thousands of years, but it is not top of the list of my worries. We have enough to think about with the number of dangerous viruses at high concentration around today," says Geoffrey Smith. Meanwhile, Dany Shoham believes that the potential consequences are too dire to be ignored, but agrees that there is little we can do to protect ourselves. "The likelihood of infection from an ancient virus is, in general, low, but once it does take place the impact will be enormous," he says. ... Perhaps the only grain of comfort is that this won't be the first time that viruses have emerged from the ice. We must have survived such an event before. ... [It is hard to believe that frozen viruses, if they are able to survive freezing and thawing, have not been regularly released from glaciers and melting icebergs, etc. Nevertheless, if some viruses have been locked away and we have no resistance to them, this could add to the predicted catastrophic effects of global warming.]

Agreeing Only to Disagree on God's Place in Science, The New York Times, September 27, 2005, George Johnson ... It was on the second day at Cambridge that enlightenment dawned in the form of a testy exchange between a zoologist and a paleontologist, Richard Dawkins and Simon Conway Morris. Their bone of contention was one that scholars have been gnawing on since the days of Aquinas: whether an understanding of the universe and its glories requires the hypothesis of a God. The speakers had been invited, along with a dozen other scientists and theologians, to address the 10 recipients of the first Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science and Religion. Each morning for two weeks in June, we walked across the Mathematical Bridge, spanning the River Cam, and through the medieval courtyards of Queens College to the seminar room. We were there courtesy of the John Templeton Foundation, whose mission is "to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science," overcoming what it calls "the flatness of a purely naturalistic, secularized view of reality." On matters scientific, Dr. Dawkins, who came from Oxford, and Dr. Conway Morris, a Cambridge man, agreed: The richness of the biosphere, humanity included, could be explained through natural selection. ... Then, just millimeters from complete accord, they forked in orthogonal directions. For Dr. Dawkins, an atheist, the creative power of evolution reinforced his conviction that we live in a purely material world. For Dr. Conway Morris, a Christian, nature's "uncanny ability" to converge on moral, loving creatures like ourselves testified that evolution itself was the handiwork of God. Dr. Dawkins seemed as puzzled by this leap as he was exasperated. "We agree on almost everything," he said. Why insist on adding in a deity? When it came to science, Dr. Dawkins exclaimed, Dr. Conway Morris's God was "gratuitous." Momentarily flummoxed, the paleontologist muttered to himself, and some of the fellows murmured their disapproval. But however abrupt Dr. Dawkins may have sounded, he had scored a crucial point. Science is the name we give to the practice of finding physical explanations about the universe. Anything spiritual you bring to the table is extraneous, a matter of personal belief. ... If the God hypothesis is meaningful, it should be subject to a test. But the theistic gloss Dr. Polkinghorne and others give to science is immune to this kind of scrutiny. It has, by design, no observable consequences. The reconcilers insist that the same is true for the belief that there is nothing but matter and energy, that you can be either a materialist or a theist and still do good research. But for many scientists, entertaining supernatural explanations is a violation of the craft. A study reported in Nature in 1998 found that only 7 percent of the members of the elite National Academy of Sciences believed in God. For biologists the figure was just 5.5 percent. "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs," Peter Atkins, an Oxford University chemist, has said. "But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge." ... [Conway Morris' (and Polkinghorne's) problem is that they have tacitly conceded the main point, naturalism (i.e. no supernatural intervention) to atheists like Dawkins and Atkins. If God walked the Earth for ~30 years, only ~2000 years ago (which as Christians Conway Morris and Polkinghorne, as Christans believe) then why assume that God has not supernaturally intervened in the history of life? Conway Morris the Christian's concession to Dawkins the atheist that "The richness of the biosphere, humanity included, could be explained through natural selection" is unnecessary (to put it mildly). For starters, it is not "natural selection" but the natural selection of random (unguided) mutations. But why assume that all mutations in the history of life have been unguided? Dawkins assumes that because, as an atheist, there is nothing else available. But for Christians like Conway Morris and Polkinghorne, there is something else available, as Johnson pointed out:

"Theists who accommodate with scientific naturalism therefore may never affirm that their God is real in the same sense that evolution is real. This rule is essential to the entire mindset that produced Darwinism in the first place. If God exists He could certainly work through mutation and selection if that is what He wanted to do, but He could also create by some means totally outside the ken of our science. Once we put God into the picture, however, there is no good reason to attribute the creation of biological complexity to random mutation and natural selection. Direct evidence that these mechanisms have substantial creative power is not to be found in nature, the laboratory, or the fossil record. An essential step in the reasoning that establishes that Darwinian selection created the wonders of biology, therefore, is that nothing else was available. Theism is by definition the doctrine that something else was available." (Johnson P.E., "What is Darwinism?" Lecture at a symposium at Hillsdale College, November 1992)]

Religion is society's biggest threat: author, The Australian/The Times, September 28, 2005. LONDON: Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published yesterday. The study says belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society, but may actually contribute to social problems. It counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society. The research compares the social performance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. .... The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its "spiritual capital". But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills. Published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, it says: "Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world. "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so." Study author and social scientist Gregory Paul ... compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy. Mr Paul finds that the US is the world's only prosperous democracy where murder rates are still high, and that the least devout nations are the least dysfunctional. He says the rates of gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US are up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The US also suffers from "uniquely high" adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates. "The study shows that England, despite the social ills it has, is actually performing a good deal better than the USA in most indicators, even though it is now a much less religious nation than America," ... Mr Paul says the evidence accumulated by several different studies suggests religion may contribute to social ills. He suggests most Western nations would become more religious only if the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God proved scientifically. Likewise, the theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless there were a marked decline in religious belief. "The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator," he says. "The widely held fear that a godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."... [This is fallacious in that you would need to compare what part of US society the "social ills" are coming from, i.e. is it from the committed Christians and members of other religions, or from the nominally religious and non-religious? I would have thought that the reason the USA has such "social ills" has more to do with its large gap between the `haves' and `have-nots', which in turn is a consequence of its greater commitment to free enterprise, compared to European (including Australia) democracies, which traditionally have a greater role for the government in redistributing wealth and funding of social welfare programs. See other criticisms here and here. If this Gregory S. Paul who appears to be an ex-paleontologist (and from his article and references obviously has a strong atheistic, anti-Christian axe to grind) wants to find out what "societal disaster" that "a godless citizenry must experience" he need only look at what happened when atheism gained control of government in the 20th century, "a `tragedy of planetary dimensions' with a grand total of victims variously estimated by contributors to the volume at between 85 million and 100 million," as atheist biochemist-turned Christian theologian Alister McGrath pointed out:

"Everyone would agree that some religious people do some very disturbing things. But the introduction of that little word `some' to Dawkins' argument immediately dilutes its impact. For it forces a series of critical questions. How many? Under what circumstances? How often? It also forces a comparative question: how many people with antireligious views also do some very disturbing things? And once we start to ask that question, we move away from cheap and easy sniping at our intellectual opponents, and have to confront some dark and troubling aspects of human nature. Let's explore this one. I used to be anti-religious. In my teens, I was quite convinced that religion was the enemy of humanity, for reasons very similar to those that Dawkins sets out in his popular writings. But not now. And one of the reasons is my dreadful discovery of the dark side of atheism. Let me explain. In my innocence, I assumed that atheism would spread through the sheer genius of its ideas, the compelling nature of its arguments, its liberation from the oppression of religion, and the dazzling brilliance of the world it commended. Who needed to be coerced into such beliefs, when they were so obviously right? Now, things seem very different. Atheism is not `proved' in any sense by any science, evolutionary biology included. Dawkins thinks it is, but offers arguments which are far from compelling. And yes, atheism liberated people from religious oppression, especially in France in the 1780s. But when atheism ceased to be a private matter and became a state ideology, things suddenly became rather different. The liberator turned oppressor. To the surprise of some, religion became the new liberator from atheist oppression. Unsurprisingly, these developments tend to be airbrushed out of Dawkins' rather selective reading of history. But they need to be taken with immense seriousness if the full story is to be told. The final opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s led to revelations that ended any notion that atheism was quite as gracious, gentle, and generous a worldview as some of its more idealistic supporters believed. The Black Book of Communism, based on those archives [Courtois S., `The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression,' Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 1999], created a sensation when first published in France in 1997, not least because it implied that French communism - still a potent force in national life-was irreducibly tainted with the crimes and excesses of Lenin and Stalin. Where, many of its irate readers asked, were the `Nuremberg Trials of Communism'? Communism was a `tragedy of planetary dimensions' with a grand total of victims variously estimated by contributors to the volume at between 85 million and 100 million - far in excess of the excesses committed under Nazism. Now, one must be cautious about such statistics, and equally cautious about rushing to quick and easy conclusions on their basis. Yet the basic point cannot really be overlooked. One of the greatest ironies of the twentieth century is that many of the most deplorable acts of murder, intolerance, and repression were carried out by those who thought that religion was murderous, intolerant, and repressive - and thus sought to remove it from the face of the planet as a humanitarian act. Even his most uncritical readers should be left wondering why Dawkins has curiously failed to mention, let alone engage with, the blood-spattered trail of atheism in the twentieth century - one of the reasons, incidentally, that I eventually concluded that I could -no longer be an atheist." (McGrath A.E., "Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life," Blackwell: Malden MA, 2005, pp.112-114. Emphasis original) ]

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

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