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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 humans to stifle a yawn when someone near them yawns, and especially if that person is socially close to them.

We showed that the wolves were able to yawn contagiously, and this is affected by the emotional bond between individuals, which suggests that familiarity and social bonds matter in these animals the same way as it does in humans.

Teresa Romero, University of Tokyo
The same has been observed in both common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (P. paniscus), in baboons and domestic dogs, and has even been demonstrated between humans and chimpanzees and between humans and domestic dogs. Some studies have even shown contagious yawning in some birds.

This comes on top of studies showing empathetic behaviour in elephants, which are even believed to grieve and pay their last respects to dead associates, and even rats which help a friend. As Teresa Romero of the University of Tokyo points out, "More and more research is supporting this idea that basic forms of empathy are very ancient, and they are present in a wide number of species, at least in mammals".

The problem for theologians of course is that they make a big thing of the existence of morality in humans and claim not to be able to understand how we know right from wrong without having been told what's what by their favourite god. The well-known author of fairy stories and Christian apologist C.S.Lewis even claimed it was his inability to work out how he knew right from wrong that convinced him he had just happened to be born to parents who believe in the one true god and giver of moral laws to humans.

In fact, of course, the ability to tell right from wrong derives from the ability to understand what you would want you to do if you were the other person. In other words it derives from the Golden Rule which is variously expressed as "Do as you would be done by", "Don't be an asshole" and "Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you". Humans can do this because we can empathise with other people and see things from their point of view.

The professed inability to understand the difference between right and wrong, and the professed inability to understand why one should behave decently and with humanity towards one's fellows without the promise of a reward or to avoid a punishment says a great deal about theists, although, to be fair, few of them seem to think it applies to them personally; it just applies to everyone else.

More and more research is supporting this idea that basic forms of empathy are very ancient, and they are present in a wide number of species, at least in mammals.

Teresa Romero
Now it seems that this ability to empathise is not only not unique to humans but, because it is present in such disparate groups as rodent, canines and apes, it probably evolved way back in early mammalian evolution and expresses particularly in group behaviour where codes of conduct, or 'ethics' are essential to made cooperative groups work. That, in turn, requires sentience or self-awareness.

So much for yet another religious apologetic based on ignorant incredulity and a desire for easy, self-confirmatory answers with a low regard for truth and an idiotically arrogant notion that somehow humans are a different sort of organism altogether.

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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.

What happened? The discovery of atomic radiation changed the whole picture. Evolutionists suddenly took new courage as the phenomenon of atomic radiation seemed to provide the necessary answer to Kelvin's challenge. With regard to the question of why the sun shines, the gravitational-collapse model became unfashionable, and in the 1930s Hans Bethe introduced the currently accepted view that thermonuclear fusion in the sun's core is the source of its energy.

Although the nuclear-fusion theory of solar burning is widely accepted in scientific circles, it has one serious drawback. Unfortunately, a large-scale nuclear-fusion reaction in the sun's interior would give almost no indication of its existence, and so the concept is difficult to verify scientifically. As it turns out, however, there is one very expensive method of verification. Princeton astronomer John Bahcall, along with Raymond Davis of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, wrote a research report on this work in 1976.

To "catch" neutrinos (particles released during certain nuclear reactions) and verify the thermonuclear-fusion theory, a large cavity was dug deep underground in a South Dakota gold mine. The necessary apparatus for detecting neutrinos was then constructed. The importance of this research in terms of providing necessary testing of the widely accepted general theory of evolution cannot be overemphasized. As Bahcall and Davis explain:

One may well ask, why devote so much effort in trying to understand a backyard problem like the sun's thermonuclear furnace? . . . The theory of solar energy generation is ... important to the general understanding of stellar evolution. . . .
There is a way to directly and quantitatively test the theory of nuclear energy generation in stars like the sun. Of the particles released by the assumed thermonuclear reactions in the solar interior, only one has the ability to penetrate from the center of the sun to the surface and escape into space: the neutrino. Thus neutrinos offer us a unique possibility of "looking" into the solar interior. . . . the theory of stellar aging by thermonuclear burning is widely used in interpreting many kinds of astronomical information and is a necessary link in establishing such basic data as the ages of the stars. . . . Thus an experiment designed to capture neutrinos produced by solar thermonuclear reactions is a crucial one for the theory of stellar evolution. ... It is for . . . these reasons . . . that so much effort has been devoted to the solar neutrino problem [emphasis added].

From a creationist point of view, the results of the neutrino-capture experiments are very exciting, for they indicate that the thermonuclear-fusion theory of solar radiation may be entirely wrong. The sun is not emitting the necessary neutrinos.

[...]

Failure to find the predicted neutrinos was the most direct and telling of a number of serious flies in the ointment of the thermonuclear-fusion theory of solar burning.



Borexino neutrino detector's 'inner vessel', a nylon sphere 8.5 metres across filled with purified benzene.
Ron Cowan, science journalist, Nature:

After decades of searching, physicists have finally confirmed the existence of low-energy neutrinos that are direct evidence for the first crucial step in the nuclear reaction that makes the Sun shine. While the detection validates well-established stellar fusion theory, future, more sensitive versions of the experiment could look for deviations from the theory that would reveal new physics.

The conversion of hydrogen into helium is the source of 99% of the Sun’s energy. The multistep process begins when the star’s hot, dense core squeezes two protons together to form deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen with a nucleus made of one proton and one neutron. One of the fused protons then transforms into a neutron, a process that releases a neutrino and a positron (the antimatter counterpart of the electron).

[...]

Now, the Borexino detector, housed beneath more than a kilometre of rock at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory near L'Aquila, Italy, has succeeded in detecting the neutrinos that accompany the proton-proton reaction at the solar core. Physicist Andrea Pocar of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and his collaborators report the findings in Nature.


Oops!

For some reason, Paul D. Ackerman forgot to tell his gullible readers that the reason neutrinos hadn't been found when he wrote his bad science book for creationists was that they were predicted to extremely difficult to detect because they don't interact with other particles, being electromagnetically neutral. The failure to detect them was entirely predictable and not the embarrassment for 'evolutionists' (read 'mainstream scientists') he claimed and was far from the evidence for a young Sun and thus for a young Earth that he implied.

Can we expect Paul D. Ackerman to withdraw his claim and apologise to the readers he mislead for money? Can we expect the ICR, who still host an html version of this book on their website, to issue a retraction and an apology to the readers and donors who were misled by Paul D. Ackerman's misinformation and misrepresentation of the science?

Dr Paul D. Ackerman is a psychologist with no science qualification outside his narrow field and no history of research in science or publication in a peer-reviewed science journal.

Keep a look out for low-flying pigs.

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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

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Around the Bend with Ken Ham

2 January 2013: Astronomers have determined that the Milky Way may contain as many as 400 billion exoplanets, with almost every star hosting at least one planet.
"We'll find a new earth within 20 years" | Around the World with Ken Ham

Signs that Ken Ham may be beginning to panic at the thought that science could soon find evidence of life on another planet emerged recently with this desperate attempt to harness his fundamentalist audience in a bid to stop NASA looking for it, dismissing it as a waste of money which is bound to fail. His panic can be gauged from the horrible muddle he gets into with his argument where he inadvertently 'proves' that there isn't non-human life on Earth either.

He also showed his traditional propensity for making things up, even about the Bible, and relying on his ignorant audience not checking.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Sacred Conclusion

Most theists will deny that they do it but it's usually easy to demonstrate that religious beliefs are not based an objective assessment of the evidence but on a received conclusion which is then protected and reinforced by highly selective cherry-picking of the evidence which is often heavily weighted whilst contradictory evidence is minimised, ignored or dismissed on spurious grounds.

'Evidence' can even include assumed evidence such as that 'list of eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus', 'all those fulfilled prophecies in the Bible which have been independently verified', or, in the case in point, 'all the historical names, places and events' mentioned in the Bible.

Nothing wrong with these as examples of evidence, of course, apart from just one thing - they are all false. There are no authenticated eyewitness of the life of Jesus; there are no fulfilled prophecies in the Bible which can be independently verified and there are no historical names, places or events in the Bible which give it an authenticity as a holy book.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

No Bread of Heaven for Creationism

Fiendish wheat genome reveals grain's history : Nature News & Comment

It's been another bad week for the Intelligent Design industry. No wonder their secretive five year 'Wedge Strategy' is now well into it's sixteenth year, during which the number of non-believers in the USA has gone up from about 4% to about 20%, conservative Christianity has become the preserve of the white right fringe and court after court has thrown out their attempts to subvert the Constitution and smuggle fundamentalist Christian extremism into the US public school system disguised as science.

Clearing Up the Unintelligent Designer's Mistakes

Hamilton O. Smith. (Photo: Jane Gitschier ©PLoS Genetics)
I'm homing in on the genetic essence of life - opinion - 14 July 2014 - New Scientist

In an interview published in New Scientist a few days ago, 1978 Nobel Laureate and synthetic biologist Hamilton O. Smith said:

The other thing we want to know is... how much can we rearrange the genes? Evolution has sloppily put them together. A lot of the cell's processes are scattered around. We're putting them together into one neat form.

He was explaining how his synthetic and bioengineering group at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, USA is using the genome of a bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides to investigate the minimum number of genes needed to function as a viable, living organism.

Their greatest challenge is to work out exactly what DNA is junk, i.e., which has been included over billions of years but which now doesn't serve any purpose. Hamilton Smith estimates that it only needs 400-450 genes to make an organism viable. The other task is to rearrange these genes more efficiently instead of being scattered around the genome in the haphazard and 'sloppy' way they are in M. mycoides.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Altruism and Tits

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)
Browsing through my Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) magazine, Nature's Home, just now I came across a reader's letter asking about something he had seen with nesting long-tailed tits recently. He had noticed that several adults were helping to feed the young in addition to the parents and wondered if this was normal.

It is. It is a lovely case of altruism in one of my favourite birds.

The so-called long-tailed tit - it's actually closer to the warbler family than the tits - is one of the UK's smallest bird. Were it not for it's long tail it would actually equal the size of our smallest two, the goldcrest and the firecrest - also, as it happens, members of the warbler family. Both male and female cooperate in building one of the most remarkable of all bird nests made almost entirely out of cobwebs and lichen, lined with about 1,500 small feathers, and suspended in the small branches of, usually, thorny bushes. The nest is domed and has a small entrance hole in one side. It is elastic and remarkably strong. It needs to be because it will expand as the brood of 8-12, sometime more, grows.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Message From 270 Million Years Ago

Amphibians' swim stroke has lasted 270 million years - life - 15 July 2014 - New Scientist

Fascinating pictures of 270 million year-old fossils tracks from the Alps were published today, sadly most of them behind a paywall. They show the tracks laid down, probably by a salamander, as it paddled across a shelving patch of mud from shallow into deeper water and eventually taking to swimming. This is the first recorded instance of the transition from walking to swimming.

Abstract
Exceptionally preserved Early Permian tetrapod trackways from the Orobic Basin (Central–Western Southern Alps) offer a unique opportunity to investigate in detail locomotion in fossil vertebrates that lived on continental European landmasses. Herein are reported the results of a study on several tetrapod trackways that display a large variety of behavioral, gait and substrate related extramorphologies. They clearly document the transition from terrestrial–underwater walking to swimming and are assigned to the compound ichnotaxon Batrachichnus C Lunichnium. The use of the “C” symbol is here introduced for the first time as nomenclatural indication of a Compound trace. Producers were probably small-sized temnospondyl

Christmas Tree Tease for Creationists

The Norway spruce genome sequence and conifer genome evolution : Nature : Nature Publishing Group

Here's a fascinating piece of research from Sweden which is enough to give any self-respecting creationist pseudo-scientists a split personality. It shows how and why a Norwegian spruce (Picea abies a Christmas tree) has a much more extensive and complex genome than humans. I'll get to why it's a problem for creationists in a moment. Incidentally, thanks to Helmer von Helvete, a friend from Google+, for bringing this to my attention.

Abstract*
Conifers have dominated forests for more than 200 million years and are of huge ecological and

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Catholic Church "Untrustworthy"

The Catholic Church in Germany is witnessing an astonishing collapse in public trust and is haemorrhaging members at an unprecedented rate. According to a Forsa poll recently 65% of Germans said they found the Catholic Church untrustworthy.

This trend has been linked to the 'bling bishop' scandal in which Catholic Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst was found to have spent millions of euros of church money on his own private house. He later 'resigned'. Once again ordinary Catholics had to endure the embarrassment of yet another Catholic cleric abusing the power and trust his position gave him.

In Germany, a tax is levied on church members by the

Friday, 11 July 2014

Of Mice and Men and Evolution

Source: Iakes Ezkurdia, et. al., Multiple evidence strands suggest that there may be as few as 19 000 human protein-coding genes*
Size of the human genome reduced to 19,000 genes - ScienceDaily

Just how close to other mammals are we? The answer is much closer than most people think and of course far closer than creationists will admit and which more sensible religious people like to imagine.

A detailed study led by Alfonso Valencia, Vice-Director of Basic Research at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncologicas (National Cancer Research Centre - CNIO) in Spain, and published in the journal Human Molecular Genetic found that about 90 percent of protein-coding genes found in humans are common to the earliest metazoans (multicellular organisms), that 99 percent of them pre-dated the emergence of the primates 50 million years ago.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Germ Warfare in Brazil

Credit: Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival
Uncontacted tribe in Brazil ends its isolation | Science/AAAS | News

News that a previously isolated Amazonian tribe has made voluntary contact with a group of Brazilian government scientists from (FUNAI) marks a departure from the Brazilian Department of Indian Affairs' 'no contact' policy but was deemed necessary in this case because there was a serious threat to the welfare of the tribe from other tribes in the ares, following reports of raids on crops and theft of tools.

The reason for the 'no contact' policy is because of the very real threat to isolated people from the viruses we often take for granted such as influenza, measles and mumps. Between 1983 and 1985 some 60% of the

Sunday, 6 July 2014

More Trouble Down Under for Paedo-Protecting Pope

"We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed. We have to be even stronger". Pope Francis, 11 April 2014
In stark contrast to Pope Francis' public professions of sorrow and wheedling apologies for the Catholic Church's role in facilitating institutionalised sexual abuse of vulnerable children by it clergy, and his assurances that the Vatican will do everything to bring them to justice, the Vatican has declined to cooperate with an Australian Royal Commission set up to investigate abuses by Catholic priests in Australia.

As reported by Lindy Kerin for ABC News:

The head of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Justice Peter McClellan, revealed last month that he had

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Human Evolution - Ringing The Changes In Tibet

Tibetan Family
Tibetan altitude gene came from extinct human species - life - 02 July 2014 - New Scientist

The evidence that archaic, diversifying human populations behaved like a ring species over Europe and Asia just keeps on accumulating.

A couple of years ago I blogged about how a research team led by Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley, USA found that Tibetans differ from the Han Chinese by about thirty genes and most of these genes control how the body responds to altitudes.

This was a case of very rapid human adaptive evolution over a period as short as 3-6,000 years during which the

Consciously Evicting God From Another Gap

Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain - life - 02 July 2014 - New Scientist

One of the favourite arguments used by religious apologists is that somehow materialism can't explain conscious thought and that a 'random' [sic] process like evolution could only ever give rise to random thoughts and not rational arguments.

Of course, this argument is never revised to accommodate developments in science and in our understanding of neurophysiology and the microscopic structure of neurons, so it is identical in form whether used by C.S.Lewis, William Lane Craig or Ken Ham even though our understanding of the science has been transformed immeasurably in the intervening half century.

But then we need to remember that religious apologists are not seeking to make converts but to keep believers believing and thus to ensure their income stream is maintained and the arrogant claims they make to

Friday, 4 July 2014

Green River Exposes Layers of Creationist Lies


Varved slate
One of my favourite creationist pseudo-scientists must be the psychologist with no qualifications in science or record of research in the subject, Dr. Paul D. Ackerman, who supplements his income from teaching psychology as an assistant professor at a minor university by writing bad science books and articles for creationists who, like him, seem to have little knowledge or understanding of science. He is the notorious author of what must rank as one of the worst 'science' books for creationists ever published (it now has to be given away by the Institute for Creation Research) called It's A Young World After All: Exciting Evidence For Recent Creation.

I've already dealt comprehensively with this book in a series of blogs so I won't dwell any more on it here, save to quote Dr Ackerman on what is one of the few nearly true things he said in his book:

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