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Saturday, 20 September 2014

Only Real Gods Agree With William Lane Craig

If ISIS’s God Were Real, Would I Be Obliged to Follow Him?

Confused Christians can now sleep soundly in their beds because William Lane Craig has revised his special Divine Command Theory (DCT). DCT says that morality is doing exactly what God commands without regard to the effects it might have on other people because God knows best and can take life if and when he wishes. All you have to do is obey God's command and whatever you do will be moral.

William Lane Craig devised this theory to justify the genocidal murder of the Canaanites in the Bible and so elevated genocide to the level of a moral crusade, provided God told you to do it. He formulated this

Friday, 19 September 2014

Babies' Cries Show Common Descent For Mammals

Primal pull of a baby crying reaches across species - life - 18 September 2014 - New Scientist

It used to be axiomatic that only humans had 'human' emotions and experienced the finer feelings of love, compassion and empathy or could consciously act altruistically from some higher motive or knowledge of right from wrong. This was assumed to set us above the 'brute' animals and, by one of those glorious pieces of circular reason characteristic of religions, was because we had been created as a higher life-form to the rest of creation - and of course the 'fact' that we had these higher emotions was evidence that we had been specially created and placed above the

Creating Life By Chance Alone

Darwin's "warm little pond"
Chances of first life improved by weighted dice - life - 18 September 2014 - New Scientist

"How did life first arise on Earth?" is one of those questions like "What caused the Big Bang?" that creationists and religious apologists love because science either doesn't yet have an answer, or the real answer seems counter-intuitive and thus can be dismissed in front of an audience conditioned to assume that the Universe and everything in it - apart from their assumed god - should be easy to understand and makes intuitive sense even with little or no knowledge of the subject. The answer that the BB was a quantum event and so did not necessarily

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Europeans Are All A Bit Native American

Archetypal European hunter-gatherer
DNA study reveals third group of ancient ancestors of modern Europeans | Science | theguardian.com

It has long been recognised that modern Europeans are descended from an initial migration of hunter-gatherer people who replaced H. neanderthalensis about 40,000 years ago. This lifestyle was then replaced by a farming-based culture which spread out from the Middle-East about 8,000 years ago, probably via Anatolia and the Balkans.

It had been assumed that this was a cultural change as neighbouring people recognised the superiority of agriculture and adopted the techniques and technology of their neighbours. Now techniques of DNA recovery from ancient remains are enabling scientists to build a much more complete picture, showing, for example, that this second wave was a real wave of genetically distinct peoples rather than a spread of cultures as had previously been assumed based on archaeological evidence alone.

Unintelligent Design - Compensating For Evolution's Blunders

Hacked photosynthesis could boost crop yields : Nature News & Comment

You see, one of the pieces of crap design that life on Earth has had to put up with since the evolution of photosynthesis, is one of the most abundant proteins on Earth. It's an essential component of all green plants, an enzyme known chemically as ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase or RuBisCo for short. I blogged about this inefficient enzyme some months ago in an article about the very many examples of unintelligent design to be found in nature. I pointed out then that the reason rubisco is so abundant is because it is so inefficient:

RuBisCo is the enzyme in photosynthesis responsible for taking carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and building the chains of carbon in sugars which form the backbone of all organic substances.

But RuBisCo is incredibly bad at doing what it does, only carrying out about three reactions a second against tens of thousands of reactions a second for some enzymes. And it makes lots of mistakes. It finds it difficult to tell oxygen molecules (O2) from CO2 and often incorporates it by mistake, causing a chain reaction which causes a loss of carbon and wastes energy. Some plants have evolved mechanisms for reducing these mistakes but they appear to have been evolved several times independently.

Photosynthesis was one of the big steps in evolution when the cyanobacteria evolved this ability to almost literally eat the atmosphere instead of having to eat other organic substances. Some cyanobacteria then got incorporated into eukaryotic cells similarly to the way mitochondria became incorporated and so green plants were able to evolve. This gave life on Earth a huge boost in biomass but produced a toxic atmosphere containing molecular oxygen - the waste product of photosynthesis spat out from the carbon in CO2. This led to the first mass extinction until other bacteria managed to evolve ways of using all this spare oxygen.

And that's probably why RuBisCo makes its frequent mistakes. It evolved in a low oxygen environment where such mistakes were rare and insignificant but it gave its carriers such a huge advantage that the mistake has become fixed. Any tendency to change it would result in something even worse so living things have to make do with what they've got. No planning; no ability to go in reverse, and no one to stand back and think of a better way and start again. The fact that lots of plants have evolved different ways to compensate for RuBisCo's inefficiency shows that it not ideal for purpose. No omnipotent intelligent designer would come up with something which has to be compensated for.


Now a bunch of scientists led by plant geneticist Maureen Hanson of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA, have stood back and thought of a better way. They are close to making a major improvement in rubisco with the potential to increase crop yields (and take some of the carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, out of the atmosphere) by taking different partial solutions from the cyanobacterium Synechococcus elongatus then, to help overcome rubisco's tendency to fold wrongly, they also took a support protein from another bacteria which is thought to correct this deficiency.

However, the new improved rubesco still has an inbuilt tendency to waste energy and carbon by incorporating oxygen molecules (O2) instead of carbon dioxide (CO2) into its product which causes it to promptly disintegrate. The answer to this problem is to enclose rubisco inside a specialized structures called carboxysomes, which enclose the enzyme and create a CO2-rich environment, discouraging wasteful reactions. This is found in some photosynthetic bacteria as yet another partial work-around for rubisco's inefficiency.

When the gene for the bacterial rubisco was inserted into chloroplasts in tobacco plants (Nicotiana tabacum) in place of its normal rubisco gene, either with or without the support protein gene, both forms were able to function and converted CO2 to sugar faster than normal tobacco.

There are still some problems to overcome, especially the incorporation of it into carboxysomes, because the bacterial rubisco is also more prone to making mistakes, but they now have a useful testbed for tweaking and improving the efficiency of one of the worst examples of unintelligent design and doing what any intelligent designer would have done in the first place. This, better than almost anything, illustrates the lack of intelligence and foresight in evolution and its entirely (and inevitably) utilitarian approach to 'design' - anything which is better than than a previous version will be retained but the process can't go in reverse and so can get irretrievably stuck in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. This one occurred early in the evolution of life on Earth and so we are stuck with it - until now.

So creationists, why didn't your intelligent designer come up with a new, improved rubisco when it first designed it, and why didn't it allow for all the surplus oxygen which it would inevitably produce and which adds to its inefficiency? Could the answer be that there was no intelligence and no designer involved, maybe?

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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Why Modern Forests Evolved

Plant Ecological Strategies Shift Across the Cretaceous–Paleogene Boundary | PLOS Biology, September 16, 2014

The thing about science is that it all fits together to form a large picture, so it's always rewarding when one little piece of evidence is found which confirms another piece, or, if not exactly confirms it, certainly goes a long way towards supporting it. Take for example, the evidence from the fossil record that the

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Something Is Bugging Creationism.

Evolution doesn't read any rules and feels no obligation to conform to any norms, so we should expect the unexpected. If we didn't get the occasional surprise it would start to look just a little too predictable. If things were as the creationist loons and frauds like to claim, we would expect an intelligent, perfect designer, to at least show bit of consistency.

After all what perfection is there in randomness and how does no pattern at all look like design according to a plan? No doubt though the frauds will fall back on the traditional woo-woo excuse of ineffability and mystery and beyond human comprehension which renders their crackpot notion redundant as a predictive or explanatory tool and shows it up for the simple answer for simpletons that it was designed to be.

Take for example an unusual pattern of evolution leading to speciation published in Cell a few days ago. It involves a symbiotic complex in the cells of a species of cicada. Cicadas are large, sap-sucking insects characteristic of hot parts of the world. They seem to be almost characteristic of the Mediterranean coast - my children called them wizzers as they seem to sit in trees and on telegraph poles and wizz all day long. Cicadas, like several other species, depend on symbiotic bacteria to help with their digestion. The species in question has a 'normal' arrangement with two different bacteria living inside its cells - Sulcina and Hodgkinia. Their contribution is to make histidine and methionine which the cicadas need. However, in some cicadas Hodgkinia exists in two distinct forms which clearly split from the 'normal' type at some point in the evolution of this symbiotic complex.

Highlights
  • Some cicadas have three obligate endosymbionts instead of two
  • This third endosymbiont resulted from a speciation event in an existing bacterium
  • The ancestor to this new endosymbiont had a highly reduced genome
  • This added complexity seems driven, in part, by nonadaptive evolution

Summary
Mutualisms that become evolutionarily stable give rise to organismal interdependencies. Some insects have developed intracellular associations with communities of bacteria, where the interdependencies are manifest in patterns of complementary gene loss and retention among members of the symbiosis. Here, using comparative genomics and microscopy, we show that a three-member symbiotic community has become a four-way assemblage through a novel bacterial lineage-splitting event. In some but not all cicada species of the genus Tettigades, the endosymbiont Candidatus Hodgkinia cicadicola has split into two new cytologically distinct but metabolically interdependent species. Although these new bacterial genomes are partitioned into discrete cell types, the intergenome patterns of gene loss and retention are almost perfectly complementary. These results defy easy classification: they show genomic patterns consistent with those observed after both speciation and whole-genome duplication. We suggest that our results highlight the potential power of nonadaptive forces in shaping organismal complexity.

Sympatric Speciation in a Bacterial Endosymbiont Results in Two Genomes with the Functionality of One
Van Leuven, James T. et al.; Cell , Volume 158 , Issue 6 , 1270 - 1280. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2014.07.047

The surprise is that this arrangement seems to be non-adaptive i.e offering no particular advantage over the 'normal' form but what it has allowed is for the two forms of Hodgkinia to evolve on their own paths provided they remain synchronised so that one is complementary to the other. This is only possible in the special conditions where all four members of this symbiotic complex are inter-dependent. It seems to be an example of an accidental duplication allowing one of the pair to then lose genes provided the other member retained it, so we have ended up with two forms being almost mirror images of one another.

In many ways this replicates the situation of accidental gene duplication within a cell nucleus, freeing one copy to mutate and evolve without harming the organism, but, as with parasites, the tendency with symbionts is not to increase complexity but to reduce it, so each form of Hodgkinia has become less complex as a result, losing between them a total of 64 genes from the original 137. The difference here is that each form of Hodgkinia occupies its own cell type within the cicada but they are all so mutually interdependent that they behave more like a single species with a distributed genome.

A fascinating example of non-adaptive evolution by genetic drift in the highly specialised, special environment of an advanced symbiotic complex and totally incomprehensible as the product of an intelligent designer of course. Why do the same thing two different ways, even using the same organism to do it in, when there is no detectable benefit from one way over the other?

It's beginning to look more and more like this notional intelligent designer's plan is exactly like the plan of someone who hasn't got a plan.


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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Scotland And The United Kingdom

This Thursday's Scottish referendum on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom is a pivotal moment, not only in the history of Scotland but in the history of the United Kingdom. It's worth passing briefly over the history of Scotland and its considerable part in the history of the British Isles.

A great deal is made by the pro-independence movement of Scotland's 'distinct identity' with very little analysis of the truth of the claim. For example, industrial Glasgow, Aberdeen or Dundee probably have far more in common culturally with Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham or Southampton than they do with Wester Ross,

Friday, 12 September 2014

Neanderthal Extermination Mapped in Detail.

Neanderthal demise traced in unprecedented detail - life - 20 August 2014 - New Scientist

The story of the demise of the Neanderthals and their replacement by modern Homo sapiens in Europe became a little more clear a couple of weeks ago but the clarifying picture is beginning to look bad for us moderns humans.

It's beginning to look like we were one of the first invasive species; one which was not just a disinterested observer of the demise of our cousin species, nor even one which was opportunistically moving into territory formerly occupied by a declining species on its way to evolutionary extinction in a cul-de-sac from which it could not reverse, but one which was actively participating in the extinction and ethnic cleansing of another type of human being.

Neanderthals had been around in Europe and Western Asia for about 300,000 years, hunting big game with stone tools and probably living as small, isolated groups. They had survived the last Ice Age and may well have replaced or evolved out of H. heidelbergensis or even H. antecessor whose footprints have very probably been found in England. Somewhere along the line Neanderthals and their eastern cousins, the Denisovans, seem to have gone their separate ways as the Denisovans moved into southeastern Asia.

They left their artifacts known as 'Mousterian' and 'Châtelperronian'. The Uluzzian artefacts formerly attributed to late Neanderthals but have now been reclassified as H. sapiens artefacts. It is these artefacts which now give us a clue to the precise sequence of events as moderns moved into Europe. Tom Higham of the University of Oxford and his colleagues, using improved dating techniques, have carried out a detailed analysis and dating of artefacts of these three types. What they found has caused us to revise not only the timing of the demise of Neanderthals but also our part in it.

Abstract
The timing of Neanderthal disappearance and the extent to which they overlapped with the earliest incoming anatomically modern humans (AMHs) in Eurasia are key questions in palaeoanthropology. Determining the spatiotemporal relationship between the two populations is crucial if we are to understand the processes, timing and reasons leading to the disappearance of Neanderthals and the likelihood of cultural and genetic exchange. Serious technical challenges, however, have hindered reliable dating of the period, as the radiocarbon method reaches its limit at ~50,000 years ago. Here we apply improved accelerator mass spectrometry 14C techniques to construct robust chronologies from 40 key Mousterian and Neanderthal archaeological sites, ranging from Russia to Spain. Bayesian age modelling was used to generate probability distribution functions to determine the latest appearance date. We show that the Mousterian ended by 41,030–39,260 calibrated years BP (at 95.4% probability) across Europe. We also demonstrate that succeeding ‘transitional’ archaeological industries, one of which has been linked with Neanderthals (Châtelperronian), end at a similar time. Our data indicate that the disappearance of Neanderthals occurred at different times in different regions. Comparing the data with results obtained from the earliest dated AMH sites in Europe, associated with the Uluzzian technocomplex, allows us to quantify the temporal overlap between the two human groups. The results reveal a significant overlap of 2,600–5,400 years (at 95.4% probability). This has important implications for models seeking to explain the cultural, technological and biological elements involved in the replacement of Neanderthals by AMHs. A mosaic of populations in Europe during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition suggests that there was ample time for the transmission of cultural and symbolic behaviours, as well as possible genetic exchanges, between the two groups.

The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance
Tom Higham, Katerina Douka, et al; Nature 512, 306–309 (21 August 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13621

Until recently, I and many with me had thought that Neanderthals survived until 30,000 years ago, or perhaps even slightly later. The new dates make it clear that they disappeared 10,000 years earlier.

Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
It had previously been believed that Neanderthals had lingered on in parts of their range until as recently as 23,000 years ago. It is now clear they they had substantially disappeared by about 39,000 years ago and had been replaced almost immediately by moderns. However, the process of replacement did not happen overnight. Both moderns and Neanderthals co-existed for some 5000 years, long enough for occasional interbreeding to occur, judging by the fact that modern Western Europeans and their descendants have 1-4% Neanderthal genes.

It's interesting to speculate about what form the various religious creation myths would have taken if there had been two or more distinct species of humans when they were being formulated in the Bronze Age. Would the creator god have created just one species as its special creation or would Neanderthals too have souls and be in need of forgiveness and redemption for something that not only they hadn't done but which had been done by two of another species? Would there have been taboos against intermarriage and licence to buy and sell Neanderthals as slaves and concubines? Or would they be condemned as Satanic creations; parody human created in poor imitation of the image of the creator god?

It's not entirely clear that we actively exterminated Neanderthals everywhere but we certainly quickly outnumbered them and moved into their territory, hunting the same species they hunted and probably using the same shelters they previously used. This would have pushed Neanderthals into less and less habitable areas and broken them up into small isolated groups susceptible to loss of essential skills when one member of the band died. Tool-making and hunting techniques, knowledge of medicinal plants and even knowledge of the areas and locations of permanent water sources can easily be lost in cultures where life is short and numbers are low.

But whatever the causes, it seems to have taken moderns a mere 5,000 years to exterminate Neanderthals from the whole of Europe and Western Asia for all practical purposes, though they may possibly have lingered on for longer in, for example, Gibraltar and southern Iberia. A species which had pioneered living in colder, wetter, cloudier and probably mostly heavily forested Euro-Asia compared to the species evolving in the plains of East Africa or on the Ethiopian highlands, and which may have, through interbreeding, enables us Europeans to short-circuit evolution and acquire adaptive changes in a few thousand years what it had taken Neanderthals 300,000 years to evolve, was exterminated in maybe as little as 5,000 years.

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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Atheism Increasing In Line With Intelligence

Brain drain: Are we evolving stupidity? - life - 20 August 2014 - New Scientist

An article by Bob Holmes in New Scientist this week reports that there appears to be a slight reversal in recent years of a trend in IQ scores which had been almost invariably upwards since records began to be collected in the 1950s.

The primary data comes from a standard IQ test given to 18 year-old Danish males as part of their conscription into military service. With the exception of a brief downward trend in the late 1970s, the reported IQ scores increased sharply until about 1995, then plateaued and now appear to have gone into reverse.

This sharply upward trend has been seen in every country where living standards and nutrition have improved, as they did in most of post-war Europe from the 1950s onwards. This change is known as the

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Creationism, Amber And Mitey Ants.

Ant with mite on its head, in amber.

Photo: Jason Dunlop/Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
Mite and ant locked together in amber - Nature | News.

You don't have to go scrabbling around in gravel beds, old quarries or Jurassic Coast beaches like Lyme Regis to find fossils. You can find them in old museums or they can simply arrive in the post as this one did. It was sent to Jason Dunlop, an arachnologist at the Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science in Berlin, Germany, by a serious collector of fossil spiders who buys quantities of amber and searches through them.

This Baltic Amber is 44-49 million years old (fairly young by geological standards) and contains a rare example of of a fossilised mite and the first of this particular species (Myrmozercon sp.). Significantly, this is also the earliest example of a mite being found attached to its host, in this case the ant Ctenobethylus goepperti, a social insect and member of the Hymenoptera order which includes wasps and bees.

Abstract
Fossil mesostigmatid mites (Acari: Parasitiformes: Mesostigmata) are extremely rare, and specimens from only nine families, including four named species, have been described so far. A new record of Myrmozercon sp. described here from Eocene (ca 44–49 Myr) Baltic amber represents the first—and so far only—fossil example of the derived, extant family Laelapidae. Significantly, modern species of this genus are habitually myrmecophilous and the fossil mite described here is preserved attached to the head of the dolichoderine ant Ctenobethylus goepperti (Mayr, 1868). It thus offers the oldest unequivocal evidence for an ecological association between mesostigmatid mites and social insects in the order Hymenoptera.

An ant-associated mesostigmatid mite in Baltic amber
Dunlop, J. A., Kontschán, J., Walter, D. E. & Perrichot, V. Biol. Lett. 10, 20140531 (2014).

Collecting pine resin for Retsina
For those who don't know, amber is fossilised pine resin and frequently contains small creatures, pollen, pieces of leaf and other plant debris. These pieces are especially prized as semi-precious gemstones. Anyone who has been to Greece and seen pine resin being collected for use, amongst other things, as a flavouring for the distinct Greek wine, Retsina, may have noticed how the plastic containers of resin are invariably coated in insects and leaves which have become stuck to the slowly setting filling containers of sticky resin.

Analysis of Baltic amber shows that it most likely came from a species of now-extinct pine, the closest relative of which is the Japanese umbrella pine, Sciadopitys verticillata. Some estimates put the total weight of amber produced by this pine in the Baltic area of Northern Europe at about 105 tons. It is the richest source of fossils of extinct Eocene insects and other arthropods.

The significance of this particular find is that it is the earliest known example of the association between this group of parasitic mites and the Hymenoptera and this group includes the Varroa genus of mite which is believed to be responsible for sudden collapses in honeybee populations and is thus an ecologically and economically important pest. Understanding a bit more of the biology and evolution of this mite could help to find a control measure.

I would love to hear how creationists accommodate the existence of amber with its rich source of fossilised insects and the fact that it too came from an extinct species of pine. What could a putative intelligent designer have been thinking of when it designed these insect traps? Was it just providing us with fascinating pieces of semi-precious jewelry or simply trying to make us think Earth is very old and had a very well diversified biota, including highly specialised parasites, 44-49 million years ago which it intended to kill off before we could see them alive for ourselves?

Answers below, please, if there are any.

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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

How Transitional Fish May Have Learned To Walk

Polypterus senegalus
How fish can learn to walk : Nature News & Comment

A fascinating piece of research published a few days ago shed some light on how transitional fish/amphibians may have learned to walk on land as they moved from an aquatic to a terrestrial existence.

The researchers from the University of Ottawa, Canada, led by Emily Standen, took juvenile bichir (Polypterus senegalus) - a freshwater fish from Africa which has a primitive lung as well as gills and so can live on land - and raised them on land for eight months. The control group was raised in water as normal.

The land-raised bichir showed not only a noticeably more sophisticated style of walking but there were marked changes in the skeleton and musculature compared to the control group too.

What this illustrates is a basic principle of biology - a developing organism is 'plastic' in that its environment changes the phenotype so the final organism is not simply an expression of the genotype. This is not at all surprising since we know how things like health, nutrition and exercise can influence the development of human children - something implied in my earlier blog about melanoma, vitamin D and rickets.

It also shows how transitional fish could have become subject to selective pressures on land even before they had left their 'normal' aquatic environment. Those best able to survive on land and which were best able to develop a musculoskeletal system which facilitated survival there would have been differentially selected by the environment, so speeding up the transition to fully terrestrial existence and the evolution of limbs.

It must be so galling being a committed creationist and having to live with such clear evidence not only for evolution but such a clear illustration such as this of how it could have happened.

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Abuse-Aware Cardinal Brady Retires On Full Pension

Irish Cardinal Sean Baptist Brady arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall in the Vatican, March 6, 2013.

Photo: REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Pope accepts resignation of head of scandal-plagued Irish church - Reuters.

In a demonstration of his determination to clean up the Catholic Church and show the world his remorse for the decades of institutional child abuse and systematic cover-up by senior clerics, Pope Francis has allowed Cardinal Sean Brady, "Primate of All Ireland", to retire quietly at the normal age of 75 when Cardinals are expected to retire, or at least to formally offer their resignation, anyway.

To save the poor man embarrassment by being sacked, he had been effectively on gardening leave for the past year while his duties as Bishop of Armagh had been undertaken by the specially appointed "coadjutor", Monsignor Eamonn Martin, who will now formally take up Brady's old job.

Cardinal Brady became notorious in 2012 when a BBC documentary revealed that he had known about, but had failed to warn parents, of the child-abusing priest, Father Brendan Smyth, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to 75 charges of indecent and sexual abuse of boys and girls over a period of more than 30 years. Brady always claimed the documentary was misleading, but apologised for his part in the scandal.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Malignant Melanoma - Another Gift From The Intelligent Designer?

We've just spent a glorious week in the South of France on the Côte d'Azur where the sun beats down from an azure sky on the more or less sun-tanned or sun-burned bodies, prostrate on the beaches wearing next to nothing and exposing skin normally hidden where the sun don't shine - and most of them European from further north.

You see, pale skin is generally recognised as an adaptive feature in Euro-Asian peoples because darker skin, which evolved in Africa, filtered out too much sun to make enough vitamin D - which is made in the skin in response to sunlight and we don't normally get enough in our diets.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Wandering Stones - A Lesson for Creationists

'Wandering stones' of Death Valley explained : Nature News & Comment

The 'mystery' of the 'Wandering Stones' of Death Valley, California has been definitively solved by, surprise! surprise!, science - and there is a subtle but crushing lesson for creationists and other magical thinkers in the mystery. Actually, the stones aren't in Death Valley but in Racetrack Playa in a valley in nearby mountains. The mystery was how they move across the flat dried-up lakebed, apparently without any assistance.

The answer had been proposed earlier but observation - the basis of all good science - has finally proved that thin ice sheets form when the normally dry ancient lakebed floods to a depth of a few centimeters and then freezes

Yawning Wolves Show Empathy

Yawning Spreads Like a Plague in Wolves | Science | Smithsonian

More evidence emerged this week that the ability to empathise with members of the same species, and even, in some cases, across species, is not unique to humans but is also present in non-humans. A paper published today in PLOS One by a team of researchers from Tokyo University showed that yawning is contagious in wolves (Canis lupus).

Yawning is generally regarded as an empathetic response when it is copied. It is very difficult for

Thursday, 28 August 2014

How Creationists Lie To Us - Age Of The Sun

Spot the liar.

Dr Paul D. Ackerman, Creationist:

Around the turn of the century, the famous scientist Lord Kelvin created difficulties for evolutionists by presenting a number of powerful arguments against the long ages needed by their theory. In a widely heralded debate with the famous evolutionist Thomas Huxley, Lord Kelvin tore the evolutionists' position to shreds with simple and straightforward physical arguments that the earth and solar system were not old enough for life to have arisen by Darwin's proposed evolutionary process. Among Lord Kelvin's arguments on the age issue was the time factor for the sun's survival based upon Helmholtz's accepted model of gravitational collapse. Lord Kelvin had the theory of evolution on the ropes and had seemingly dealt the knockout blow.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Pests and Creationism

The German Cockroach, Blatella germanica. (Image: Alex Wild/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)
Meet the lodgers: Wildlife in the great indoors - life - 24 August 2014 - New Scientist

The german cockroach, Blatella germanica, lives almost everywhere that humans live. It lives in our homes, our hospitals and hotels, in our shops and factories and sewers and offices. In fact it lives in practically any buildings built by humans and especially heated ones with food in. But it is completely unknown in the wild and quickly dies if stranded outdoors. (It's probably all too obvious already what question I'll be asking creationists at the end of this blog.)

Quite when and where it took up with humans and evolved its complete dependence on us is unknown but is believed to have been somewhere in Africa, probably before we were modern humans. Its ancestors might well have lived in caves like several other species of cockroach.

B. germanica has shown itself to be capable of rapidly evolving. In the 1980's the control method of choice was to use sugars laced with insecticides then, in the 1990s, this stopped being effective. Cockroaches had not, as might seem probable, evolved a resistance to, or tolerance of, insecticides; they had evolved

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Vatican Still Avoiding Responsibility For Abusive Priests

Top Vatican figure in row over child abuse comments.

A senior Vatican Official astounded the Australian victims of peodophile priests by telling the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that the Catholic Church had no more legal responsibility for the actions of its priests than a truck firm has for the actions of its truck drivers.

Cardinal Pell, a former archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney, was personally appointed to a top job in the Vatican, as head of the finance ministry, by Pope Francis

Monday, 25 August 2014

Unintelligently Designed Hummingbirds

Blue-tailed-Emerald, Chlorostilbon mellisugus. Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
Evolution of sweet taste perception in hummingbirds by transformation of the ancestral umami receptor

Hummingbirds are unique amongst birds in living off nectar and being able to detect sweetness. Typically, hummingbirds only feed from flowers with nectar containing more than 10% sugars. The way this evolved illustrates a couple of basic principle of diversification by evolution and the lack of a directing intelligence or plan behind it. Something else for creationists to misrepresent, lie about or ignore but never, under any circumstances, face up to.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Chimp Eyes Show Evolution of Ethics

Chimps show empathy by mimicking pupil size - life - 22 August 2014 - New Scientist

More evidence guaranteed to trigger the avoidance reflex in creationists was published in PLOS ONE this week. It shows two things which any creation pseudo-scientist worthy of the name will need to misrepresent, lie about or ignore altogether. It shows evidence that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor and that chimpanzees too have empathetic ability - the basis of a ethics and the ability to make ethical decisions. In other words, chimpanzees have morality and they,

More Manny Insanity

As regular readers will know, some two years ago I posted a challenge to a Twitter user then using the account name @Sacerdotus who had been posing as a Catholic priest in training and claiming multiple university degrees in philosophy, physics, theology, psychology - in fact almost anything you cared to mention. He had been claiming to have irrefutable, scientific proof that the Christian god existed and that no other go did, and challenging people to debate him.

After one hilarious day during which, in the small hours of the morning in the UK, he posted dozens of challenges to me, one every few seconds and then declared victory claiming I had ignored him, I decided to call his bluff and challenged him to a formal, neutral and independently

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Pygmies - Another Big Problem for Creationists

Baka pygmies, West Africa
African pygmies evolved their short stature twice - health - 18 August 2014 - New Scientist

A paper published in PNAS last month is interesting for what it tells us of human evolution and of evolution in general, and it raises a major question for creationist loons to carefully avoid.

Significance

Tropical rainforest hunter-gatherer populations worldwide share the pygmy phenotype, or small human body size. The evolutionary history of this phenotype is largely unknown. Here we studied DNA from the Batwa, a rainforest hunter-gatherer population from east central Africa, to identify regions of the Batwa genome that underlie the pygmy phenotype. We then performed population genomic analyses to study the evolution of these regions, including comparisons with the Baka, a west central African rainforest hunter-gatherer population. We conclude that the pygmy phenotype likely arose due to positive natural selection and that it arose possibly

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Scientists At War!

Homo floresiensis
Scientists at war over claim that Flores hobbit man is modern human with Down's syndrome | Science | The Observer

This slightly alarming headline from the Observer leads neatly into a comparison between how scientists wage 'war' what's going on in the Middle East at the moment where theists are waging war - and happily killing one another and innocent civilians including women, children and other non-combatants as a matter of routine.

Another contrast of course is that, whereas the scientists' 'war' will undoubtedly end in agreement with almost

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Abiogenesis - The Day of Reckoning For Creationists is Nigh

Meet your maker: Homing in on the ancestor of all life - life - 12 August 2014 - New Scientist

Creationist pseudo-scientists have a problem, and not the obvious one of more and more people seeing through their deceptions, working out why they are necessary and realising a rational, scientific explanation is preferable to a magical one which requires lies and misinformation to promote it. The problem they have is, like the problem of the virtual certainty that at some point in the near future, scientists will find evidence of life on another planet, probably in another planetary system, the problem of one of their fundamental arguments being shown to be without any foundation.

I'm talking about the fact that science is getting closer

Religious Intolerance

Someone posted a question in our Why Atheism? Facebook group the other day asking which religion was the worst, especially in the context of the Middle East where the three Abrahamic religions are currently slugging it out for control of Iraq, Syria and Palestine, and in Africa where Muslims and Christians are also fighting and killing for their religions.

Looking at the history of Europe and the Middle East particularly, and later the history of European colonialism, it's probably true to say that, until 1948 the one Abrahamic religion that had generally been on the receiving end of persecution and atrocity and yet had no history of retaliation or counter atrocity was Judaism.

In fact, the contribution of Jews to European and Middle Eastern philosophy, art, politics, science, medicine,

Friday, 15 August 2014

Unintelligently Designed Fractal Ediacarans

A paper published recently in PNAS, showing how the earliest forms of multicellular life probably evolved and diversified according to a few simple mathematical rules, raises an important question for creationists which we can confidently expect them to ignore completely.

This early evolution occurred at a time when there would have been little or no cell specialisation and, perhaps more importantly, when there would have been no predators and the only competition would have been for limited resources in terms of dissolved nutrients. Quite simply, the organism which absorbed more nutrients would have produced more copies of itself.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Human Evolution - Completing the Picture

Neanderthal family (artists impression) Photograph: Nikola Solic/Reuters
To me, watching a science grow and develop is what makes it more like an adventure than a dull, academic subject. Discoveries are made and fed into the mix; ideas and opinions are contributed by people who are experts in the field; old ideas are revised, reviewed and discarded if necessary and eventually a new consensus emerges which is, in the long run, a little closer to the truth. All the while the picture grows in clarity, sometime becoming more complex that we thought and sometimes simpler.

How unlike religion where the entire effort is devoted to excusing yet again that which is nothing more than evidence-free dogma, finding new and ever-more creative workarounds for the fact of no evidence, and inventing new ways to bamboozle a diminishing following into believing that, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and despite the enormous gains of science and its contribution to human welfare since the enlightenment, their Bronze-Age belief in magic is the best explanation of reality.

A couple interesting articles in this week's New Scientist illustrate how our knowledge of human evolution keeps being added to and our understanding of is revised and refined accordingly.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Silly Bible - Lot of Nonsense

Albrecht Dürer Lot Fleeing with his Daughters from Sodom (1498)
The biblical story of Lot is another strange tale with no obvious reason for being in the Bible, at least so far as morality tales go. In fact, it shows the god of the Hebrews in a very poor light, overly obsessed with what humans do with their genitalia but having a low regard for women and no problem at all with incest. It also portrays it as far from omniscient, unsure of what justice means and easily persuaded by a mere human but then capriciously changing its mind and killing innocent people anyway simply for being there at the time.

We also see how the person writing it had difficulty holding a thought across more than a couple of paragraphs.

I have already written about the nonsensical account of God telling Abram that he was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abram bargaining God down from fifty to ten as the number of righteous people to be found in the cities to prevent him killing everyone, innocent or guilty.

There doesn't seem to have been any such attempt to find ten righteous men though and God sets about killing everyone anyway. To accomplish this he sends two angels to the city and they end up at Lot's house, where a mob comprising all the men of the city gather outside demanding to be allowed in to bugger the angels.

Monday, 4 August 2014

More Bible Blunders

Some time ago I wrote about Thomas Paine's debunking of the notion that the Pentateuch was written by Moses, as though supposedly writing about his own death and burial in a secret place wasn't enough. Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, written in 1794 showed that the Bible refuted that argument itself. First we are told in Genesis that:

And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan.

Genesis 14:14

Then later on we discover that it wasn't actually called 'Dan' until much later; before then it was called 'Laish'.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Parasites and Creationists

Heligmosomoides polygyrus
Photo: Janice Murray & Maizels Laboratory/University of Edinburgh
I've commented before on how parasites are a problem for creationists and, apart from their understandable shyness at discussing parasitism, this probably explains why creationist loons who misrepresent science and misinform scientifically illiterate people for a living never seem to discuss parasites or explain how they fit into an intelligent design model, especially one in which the supposed intelligent designer is omnibenevolent and created everything just for humans.

For example, the leading Discovery Institute (aka Liars For Power and Money, Inc.) propagandist for ID, Michael Behe, avoids completely any reference to the fact that his 'intelligently designed' E. coli flagellum appears to have only one purpose - helping E. coli make us sick.

With their evident discomfort in mind then, it gives me great pleasure to invite creationists to comment on an article and two papers published recently in Science concerning how infection by a parasitic worm (helminth) can appear to aid other parasites by helping them overcome the body's natural immune responses. In particular, I would like them to explain how this phenomenon is better explained by their intelligent-design-by-an-omnibenevolent-designer-who-did-it-all-for-humans model than it is by Darwinian evolution by Natural Selection.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Incredible Shrinking Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs shrank for 50 million years to become birds - life - 31 July 2014 - New Scientist

I was surprised and more than a little disappointed to to see the angle taken in the above article. It looks almost designed to supply a handy quote for quote-mining creationist pseudo-scientists to mislead their credulous victims with.

"No other dinosaur group has undergone such a long and extended period of miniaturisation," says Mike Lee of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. "Statistically this trend was far stronger than by chance, analogous to flipping a coin a dozen times and getting all heads."

[...]

The analysis reveals that the ancestors of birds shrank without interruption. "What was impressive was the consistency of the size change along the dinosaur-to-bird transition, with every descendant smaller than its ancestor," says Lee.

It's not till we get to the final sentence in that last paragraph that we discover there is a simple and obvious answer and one moreover which illustrates how Natural Selection makes evolution non-random.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Origins Of The Exodus Myth

With so many to choose from, it's difficult to decide which of the various folk tales, invented 'histories' and origin myths that have found themselves bound up in the same book and presented as the inerrant word of an omnipotent god is the silliest, but one of them has to be the tale of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt and subsequent escape.

It was obviously written by someone who knew little or nothing of the geography or politics of the time and place the tale was set, so we have the idiotic notion of the 'Israelites' escaping from Egypt by crossing the Red Sea to Sinai - which was also in Egypt. That's like 'escaping' from the USA by crossing the Hudson River from New Jersey to Manhattan or escaping from the UK by crossing the Bristol channel from England to Wales. The author also has the 'slaves' building the Egyptian city of Raamses - which wasn't started until some 120 after the traditional date of the Exodus.

Killer Sperms Reinforce the Species Barrier

Killer sperm ravages internal organs of luckless worms - life - 30 July 2014 - New Scientist

I've mentioned before how, as two diverging nascent species each evolve specialisation, hybrids will often be at a disadvantage being good an neither of their parent's specialities. As isolated and diverged populations of finches came back together, at the end of the last Ice Age for example, one might have evolved a long thin beak for eating small seeds and the other a short stout beak for eating large hard seeds. A hybrid with a long stout beak or a short thin one would find feeding difficult so it would be in the interests of both sets of genes to set up barriers to interbreeding.

The very fact that they are diverging accelerates the process of speciation, not as an end in itself but to protect the advantageous genes from being wasted on hybrids which have a lower probability of passing them on (see Why Species?, Creationist's Macro-Evolution Lie and More Mimetic Evolution).

We now have a rather surprising, even shocking example of one such barrier in closely related nematode worms.

More Evolved Mimicry

This is my last blog for a while on the fascinating topic of mimicry in animals and plants. Previously I wrote about Batesian and Müllerian mimicry in Copycat Evolution and More Mimetic Evolution where a harmless species comes to resemble a harmful one and so gains protection from a predator which has learned to avoid the harmful one (Batesian), or two harmful species come to resemble one another and so gain from the evolutionary 'spade-work' of the other (Müllerian).

Now I'm going to look at another form of mimicry where (usually) a plant deceives another species into thinking it's something else, not to repel or avoid it, but to attract it.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Murmuring Starlings Do It Naturally.

Decisions ripple through flocks of birds like a wave - physics-math - 27 July 2014 - New Scientist

One of the most spectacular sites in nature in Britain is a winter 'murmuration' of starlings, and I'm fortunate enough to live just a short drive from the open stretch of moorland north of Oxford known as the Otmoor, now a wonderful RSPB-owned nature reserve and important inland wetland site, where this spectacle can be seen most winter evenings at sunset in suitable weather.

Watch these videos first, then I'll discuss them. The first was filmed over Otmoor, the second at Gretna in Scotland.

Monday, 28 July 2014

More Mimetic Evolution

Having blogged a couple of days ago about the role of mimicry in evolution I decided to look more closely at the subject, especially the widespread mimicry found in butterflies. The results are fascinating.

But before I get on to that I'll just deal quickly with another aspect to evolution - speciation - following on from something I mentioned in the same blog. I pointed out how mimicry involved a two species both of which are prey to the same predator and where at least one of them is toxic or harmful to the predator.

I mentioned that the selection pressure for one species to become more and more like the harmful one depends on the presence of the predator in the local environment but the species range may well include areas with different predators, different comimics or indeed the absence of one or both. In this case, and in that part of the range there may be no selection pressure and no particular advantage in adopting the colour pattern of the toxic or harmful species, and there may even be a disadvantage because a different predator may not have any aversion to the mimicked colour.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Recent Evolution - That Old Chestnut

Horse chestnut leaves infested with Cameraria ohridella lavae.
If you live in Southern England, for an example of very recent evolution you probably only need walk to your nearest horse chestnut tree. I took this photograph near Sunningwell, Oxfordshire earlier on Saturday when we went out for a last distant look at Didcot Power Station, which is probably England's best-loved 'eyesore' but which is due to disappear in a cloud of dust in a few hours time. The chances are that by now your nearest horse chestnut tree will be becoming infested with the leaf-miner caterpillars of a moth which was unknown before 1985 when the first outbreak was recorded in Macedonia, Greece.

Since then, Cameraria ohridella has spread at an average of 60 Km per year across western Europe reaching England in 2002, where it is now widespread, causing the leaves of horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) to turn brown, wither and fall off by late summer. Devastating though this attack appears, the general health of the trees seems not to be unduly affected since they come back into leaf and grown normally the following spring.

Although this moth was a newly-discovered species in 1985, specimens of it were accidentally collected and pressed in botanical specimens as early as 1879 only to be rediscovered when a team of researchers carried out a systematic search of specimens stored in herbaria.

Abstract
Determining the native geographic range or origin of alien invasive species is crucial to developing invasive species management strategies.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Copycat Evolution

Which ones would you pick up?
A friend asked me the other day to explain how mimicry can play a role in evolution. This is my attempt to do so.

There are in fact two main types of mimicry recognised by biologists, although the distinction is quite technical and is blurred anyway. For all practical purposes, they can both be regarded as forms of the same thing. They are known to biology as:

  • Batesian mimicry. Named after the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates. This is where a harmless species evolves to resemble a harmful species if it and the harmful species share a common predator.
  • Müllerian mimicry. Named after the German biologist Fritz Müller. This is where two harmful species evolve to resemble one another if they both share a common predator.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Evolution Arms Race - Moose Spit Detox

Ungulate saliva inhibits a grass–endophyte mutualism

A fascinating example of both evolutionary cooperation and an evolutionary arms race was published in Royal Society Biology Letters yesterday.

Abstract*

Fungal endophytes modify plant–herbivore interactions by producing toxic alkaloids that deter herbivory. However, studies have neglected the direct effects herbivores may have on endophytes. Antifungal properties and signalling effectors in herbivore saliva suggest that evolutionary pressures may select for animals

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