Sunday, September 04, 2005

School to make evolution optional, etc

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

School to make evolution optional, Roy Eccleston, The Australian, September 03, 2005 A SYDNEY Christian school has moved quickly to incorporate the controversial Intelligent Design theory into its science classes as an alternative to the conventional theory of evolution. High school students at Pacific Hills Christian School have begun to study ID theory, which claims to have scientific evidence that life on Earth was at least partly the work of a designer. The school's decision appears to be one of the first forays of the controversial US-developed theory into the Australian school system where it will be met with strong opposition from the nation's science teachers. The issue has already proved deeply divisive in the US, where the promotion of religion in schools is constitutionally banned. Australian science teachers have decided to oppose teaching ID, but will allow its discussion as a "belief system" in science class. "We would have no problem with ID being taught in religious or science classes," said the school's principal, Ted Boyce, adding that teachers were working to include it in the curriculum for next year. "Evolution is taught in the school system as if it's a universally accepted theory and there's no other way to view the origin of man and creation," Dr Boyce said. "I have trouble with this. We would teach evolution as a theory and ID as an alternative theory." Sydney's Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell [said] ... he was "agnostic" about whether ID, which uses DNA, proteins and mathematical formula to argue its case, should be taught in schools. But he said he would be happy to see ID discussed in classes where evolution was sometimes taught in an "anti-God way". "There's no doubt evolution explains a lot of things," he said. "But it's there to be replaced or improved -- there are many things it doesn't explain." ID is being incorporated into Catholic school texts on religious studies, said Monsignor Peter Elliott .... "I don't think you hermetically seal off science from other questions," he said. But prominent scientists have attacked ID as unscientific and "creationism in disguise". "You can't teach it in science class," said prominent physicist Paul Davies, who has written extensively on the nature of God and science. "God has never been a part of science." Professor Davies argued that ID theory was not scientific because it could not be subjected to standard scientific tests. "It isn't a scientific theory, it's a religion," he said. "There are all sorts of beliefs out there: flat-earthers, fairies and philosophy class might be appropriate." Pushing ID into the broader school system is sure to meet strong resistance. Gary Thomas, the president of the Australian Science Teachers' Association, said the association had agreed to resist pressure to have ID taught in science classes. "The study of science is about what is measurable, testable, and evidence-based," he said. "The theory of evolution is the best scientific explanation forexplaining the changes in life on Earth." But science teachers also agreed that they could include ID as a topic in the classroom. "While Intelligent Design has no status as a scientific theory, teachers of science may wish to contrast it to other belief systems with scientific theories like evolution, as a means of assisting students to understand better the nature of science," ANSTA has concluded. ... [See also, Roy Eccleston, Designed to put God into the gaps, The Australian, September 03, 2005. It is great news that "science teachers ... agreed that they could include ID as a topic in the classroom ... to contrast it to other belief systems with scientific theories like evolution." That is all the ID movement askes for at this stage, to "teach the controversy." Atheists like Paul Davies (who as the article says, has "has written extensively on the nature of God and science") only insist that ID is about "God", so they can then dismiss it as "religion." But as Davies well knows, all that ID claims is that there is scientific evidence of design in nature. Indeed, Davies himself has written, "The temptation to believe that the Universe is the product of some sort of design ... is overwhelming":

"The temptation to believe that the Universe is the product of some sort of design, a manifestation of subtle aesthetic and mathematical judgement, is overwhelming. The belief that there is `something behind it all' is one that I personally share with, I suspect, a majority of physicists. This rather diffuse feeling could, I suppose, be termed theism in its widest sense." (Davies P.C.W., "The Christian perspective of a scientist," Review of "The way the world is," by John Polkinghorne, New Scientist, Vol. 98, 2 June 1983, pp.638-639, p.638. My emphasis)
Not to mention Davies making presumably a lot of money out of books about science with "God" in the title, e.g. "God and the New Physics" (1983) and "The Mind of God" (1992). If "a majority of physicists" believe "that there is `something behind it all'" then why is the evidence for that belief not able to be presented in schools? The bottom line is that "Science is not a game in which arbitrary rules are used to decide what explanations are to be permitted. ... it is an effort to make true statements about physical reality" and since "The conclusion of design flows naturally from the data" science "should embrace it":
"It is often said that science must avoid any conclusions which smack of the supernatural. But this seems to me to be both bad logic and bad science. Science is not a game in which arbitrary rules are used to decide what explanations are to be permitted. Rather, it is an effort to make true statements about physical reality ... In the present day, as biochemistry multiplies examples of fantastically complex molecular systems, systems which discourage even an attempt to explain how they may have arisen .. The conclusion of design flows naturally from the data; we should not shrink from it; we should embrace it and build on it." (Behe M.J., "Molecular Machines: Experimental Support for the Design Inference," C.S. Lewis Society, Cambridge University: Cambridge UK, September 24, 1994).]
Chimp DNA sheds light on humanity, ABC/AFP, September 1, 2005. ... Scientists have unveiled the genetic code of the chimpanzee, showing that humans are biologically distinct from apes thanks to a small handful of important differences in DNA. The first genome of a non-human primate to be sequenced reveals that the .. tally for Pan troglodytes is largely the same as for Homo sapiens, and indeed for those other mammals whose genomes have been sequenced so far. Of the chimp's 3 billion base pairs, a mere 35 million of them (less than 4 per cent) are different from a human's. Yet these scant differences have a huge impact. They have given humans an outsized brain, the ability to walk upright on two feet, develop complex language skills, adapt quickly to changing environments, as well as other uniquely human features. "To put this into perspective ... the number of genetic differences between a human and a chimp is about 10 times more than between any two humans," noted the US National Institutes of Health, which helped fund the research. Humans and chimps have a common ancestor, an ape-like creature that last walked the earth about 6 million years ago. The march of time has sculpted the ape and human genomes in tiny but significant ways, according to an analysis published alongside the draft sequence in today's issue of the journal Nature. ... Most of the differences between humans and chimps lie in stretches of DNA that appear to have little or no function. But as many as 3 million base pairs differ in functional areas, including genes, the protein-making nuggets in the DNA goldmine. Some 53 genes present in the human genome are missing or partially deleted from the chimp genome. .... The work was carried out by the Chimp Sequencing and Analysis Consortium, which involved researchers from the US, Germany, Israel, Italy and Japan. ... In an opinion piece published in Nature, a trio of primate experts say the latest insights highlight the proximity of humans to great apes, a category of primates that comprises chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans. The authors also call for tighter controls on research into these animals. They stress in particular the need to bar scientists from trying to implant human genes into great apes, a procedure that is commonly done with laboratory rodents, creating transgenic mice or rats to reproduce the symptoms of human disease. ... Man, Chimp Separated by Dab of DNA, Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2005. ... At a time when the theory of evolution is under attack by proponents of "intelligent design," Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said he could not think of a better way to prove the theory of evolution "short of a time machine." ... But Collins ... cautioned that genes could not solve all of the mysteries of life. "The real question about what it takes to be human is more than a biological question, it's also a theological question," Collins said. DNA "may not tell us 'How do we know what's right and wrong?' and 'What's the human spirit, anyway?' " ... Big Differences In Duplicated DNA Distinguish Chimp And Human Genomes, Science Daily, September 2, 2005. A study comparing the genomes of both humans and chimpanzees has found that much of the genetic difference between the two species came about in events called segmental duplications, in which segments of genetic code are copied many times in the genome. The study appears as a companion article to the draft sequence of the chimpanzee genome published in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal Nature. Dr. Evan Eichler ... led this study, in addition to being involved in the Chimpanzee Genome Sequencing Project. Eichlern ... and his colleagues... found that most of the change to the overall genome landscape between chimps and humans can be attributed to large segmental duplications. Such large-scale genetic events have altered more total base pairs -- about 2.7 percent of the genome -- than differences from single base-pair changes, which account for about 1.2 percent of the genome. "For all the talk of the 1.2 percent single base-pair difference and the importance of those, there's even more difference between the species due to duplication events," said Eichler. [See also 'Life code' of chimps laid bare, BBC, 31 August 2005. I agree with Collins that "to be human is more than a biological question, it's also a theological question." However, I disagree that this "prove[s] the theory of evolution." It proves the theory of common ancestry. But common ancestry is not necessarily evolution. While this does not change the fact that humans and chimps shared a common ancestor, it does help to put the very real genetic distance between humans and chimps into perspective. It used to be claimed that humans and chimps shared 99% of their genes. But a 1% difference in a 3 billion base-pair genome is 30 million nucleotide base pairs. Now this difference has increased to 35 million base pairs. That is a lot, considering just one base pair difference in the right place can change a gene and cause diseases like sickle-cell anaemia. Moreover, as Eichler points out, and as I have posted before, the chromosomal rearrangements are significant, there having been "at least 10 large inversions and translocations and one chromosomal fusion ... since the two lineages diverged":
"Although humans and chimpanzees have rather similar chromosome numbers, 46 and 48, respectively, the arrangement of genes on chimpanzee chromosomes differs from that on human chromosomes. Only a small proportion of the chromosomes have identical banding patterns in the two species. The banding studies indicate that at least 10 large inversions and translocations and one chromosomal fusion have occurred since the two lineages diverged."(King M.-C. & Wilson A.C., "Evolution at Two Levels in Humans and Chimpanzees", Science, 11 April 1975, Vol. 188, pp.107- 116, p.114).
The bottom line is that Darwinian evolution by the natural selection of random mutations cannot explain humans, as it cannot explain the origin of most (if not all) species:
"The role of chromosomal rearrangements in speciation has been considered ... More and more, it appears as if such rearrangements, of many different types, have played the primary role in the majority of speciation events. It by no means follows, however, that their significance in speciation is always of the same type. In fact, each chromosomal rearrangement-whether fusion or dissociation, translocation, inversion, gain or loss of heterochromatin-must be regarded as a unique event whose consequences will be almost impossible to predict in the present stage of our knowledge. It is thus extremely difficult to incorporate chromosomal rearrangements into mathematical models of speciation and phyletic evolution, which may be one reason why they have been relatively neglected by many evolutionary geneticists." (White M.J.D., "Modes of Speciation," W.H. Freeman & Co: San Francisco CA, 1978, p.336. Emphasis mine). ]
Ancient and modern man lived side by side, MSNBC, August 31, 2005. LONDON - Did Neanderthals and the first ancestors of modern man ever meet? The argument has raged among archaeologists and paleontologists for decades. .... But the team of scientists writing in .. Nature believe they may have settled the dispute with analysis of tools discovered at different depths in the cave of the Grotte des Fees at Chatelperron in central France. In the cave a layer of tools from the later so-called Aurignacian culture - named after Aurignac near Spain where they were first discovered - were found sandwiched between two layers of tools attributed to earlier Neanderthals. Aurignacian tools are more sophisticated and deemed to have been made by the first modern humans. The scientists, led by Paul Mellars from Cambridge University, said the layers suggested that not only had the two groups been around at the same time but that they must have shared the same space - at least for a while. Radiocarbon dating of some of the bone fragments from the different layers confirmed the observational conclusions. The scientists suggested that encroaching cold may have made the Aurignacians move towards the warmer coast from central Europe and at the same time encouraged the Neanderthals to move even further south where it would have been even warmer. When the weather warmed again in later generations the population flow was reversed - suggesting that the ancestors of modern man may have been better equipped to deal with colder climates than the last groups of Neanderthals, they said. ... Modern humans, Neanderthals shared earth for 1,000 years, ABC/AFP, September 1, 2005. ... One intriguing school of thought is that the Neanderthals did not suddenly disappear off the map but gradually melded in with Homo sapiens culturally and possibly sexually. .... But a new study delivers a blow to this theory. It shows that the two hominids did indeed co-exist for a long time but there is no evidence of any intermingling. Indeed, it points to the likelihood that the Neanderthals petered out, their lineage expiring in starvation and Ice Age cold. Paul Mellars ... says no evidence has been found of cultural interaction and DNA tests on samples taken from 1,000 Europeans have failed to find any evidence of Neanderthal genes. ... [More evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans were two entirely different species, i.e. they coexisted in the same locality for at least a millenium yet there is no evidence of interbreeding.]

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

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