More idiocy than you can shake a stick at

31 01 2007

Apparently I haven’t been paying close enough attention to cryptozoology in the past few years, the internet fueling the amount of nutty claims put out exponentially. For instance, I had never heard of Colonel John-Blashford Snell, but apparently Answers in Genesis thinks he’s pretty spiffy and he’s the Honarary Life President of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. It’s nice that cryptozoologists are able to get together and have friends, and Colonel Blashford-Snell has made some contributions to exploration, but by and large the proof is not in the pudding, as you might say.

Despite the eye-rolling I usually engage in when confronted with cryptozoology, I was at first intruiged upon viewing the photos of the “new” kind of elephant. The forehead of these specimens seem more pronounced and more akin to extinct relatives, but I decided to do a google image search for “male indian elephant” just to check out how these photos compare. As soon as the results came back the credibility of the photos evaporated. Have a look at the head-on skull structure of the proposed mystery elephant and then take a gander as a similar angle of this guy, and this one too while you’re at it. AiG’s elephants seem to have a slight difference, but it falls snugly within the realm of variation. Perhaps these animals are geographically isolated and the “steeper” forehead is a trait that would best differentiate them as a possible subspecies, but it’s not the mind-blowing proof they make it out to be. I guess AiG couldn’t be bothered to compare the photos with actual Indian Elephant photos either, knowing their credibility would disappear if they actually gave an honest comparison of known elephants and this “unknown” species.

Once I had found out about CFZ, some of their recent activies involving expeditions to find a mythical creature named “Ninki Nanka” started popping up all over the search results, even garnering articles in The Guardian and BBC Online. Much like reports of other “dinosaurian” creatures or lake monsters, descriptions of the animal seem to vary and although everyone knows someone who’s seen it, no one seems to have seen it themselves. Generally, however, the creature is described as a Nessie-type creature, with a long neck and horns on its head. According to this article locals even tried to dupe the team by handing them “rotting film”, attempting to pass them off as scales of the creature. I’m sure none of them would admit to it, but I have to wonder how much of a hoot local people get out of “great white hunters” showing up trying to prove the existence of dragons and other such things. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of species out there we haven’t even seen yet (the oceans being home to many of them), but there seems to be this pervasive need to find living dinosaurs or giant reptiles, some people being so enamored with them that they would rather they still be stalking the land.

As for images of the creature(s), no one has yet been able to snap a photo and reports are highly varied. This website depicts various mystery creatures sought after in the 2006 Gambia expedition, the official logo of the expedition and rending of the carcass being pliosaur-like and referring to a creature known as “Gambo”, the following image being essentially a giant monitor lizard (depicting one incarnation of Ninki Nanka), and I’m not even going to comment on the photo of the team which follows other than it doesn’t exactly inspire my confidence in their research methods. Upon looking a little further, Gambia seems to be crawling with unknown creatures, listed in this webpage from the Fortean Times. In contrast, according to the BBC article

…according to the expedition’s blog, after being shown pictures of various reptiles and mythical animals, the ranger said the creature’s [Ninki Nanka’s] face most resembled that of a Chinese dragon.

Growing tired of the Gambia nonsense, I followed another lead already analyzed by Darren Naish of Tetrapod Zoology, dealing with what are known as “Phantom Cats”/”Alien Big Cats”(ABCs). The proliferation of exotic cats as pets (and their subsequent release into the wild) accounts for some of these sightings, others probably caused by that feeling of being watched/stalked you get at night in the woods, perhaps being an incarnation of “Pleistocene Memories.” Even so, there is strong evidence suggesting that cats that escape/are set loose from captivity end up in areas that they are not native to, varying in size from housecat/wildcat hybrids to pumas. Darren does a good runthrough of the material on his blog so I’m not going to copy it, but on the subject of the “neatness” of the kills I think the clenliness of the kill site is overemphisized. Cougars, for instance, are somewhat wasteful eaters, and even though they incisions made by teeth and claws may be “clean” there is going to be quite a bit of extra viscera left (unless the cat is starving, which could be true in a non-native habitat). The wikipedia entry mentions clean punctures or slit throats, but to the best of my understanding big cats have not mastered the jugular-slice ability with their claws, death by suffocation/severing of the spinal cord by big canines being the primary mode to kill prey once it has been caught. In essence, the presence of ABCs shouldn’t be grouped in as fringe-science or cryptozoology because it is dealing with the real dispersals of exotic (and potentially invasive) species in various locales, and I would think such study would be of interest to ecologists. It seems like these cats, especially the big ones belonging to the genus Panthera and Puma, can’t establish a breeding population because there is only one or two members in any area at a given time, and that is no guarantee they’ll be of opposite sex, mate, or even be able to start a population without intense inbreeding. Thus it is appropriate to drop the term ABC’s or “Phantom Cats”, such titles smacking of pseudoscience, and identifying such phenomena for what they are; exotic species finding their way into various environments. Such events aren’t limited to cats, the Everglades in Florida suffering from pet snakes and other animals being released when they’re too large or troublesome for owners to keep. I even remember seeing a Disney animal-handler catch a snake in a pool and he couldn’t tell me what kind it was, saying that the staff were puzzled by this variety that seemed to be a hybrid between endemic and foreign species. If there is any truth to this, I don’t know, but the reality of exotics making their way into endemic populations is reality and the ecological ramifications of such events should not be ignored.

I know I come down hard on cryptozoology at times, and to tell the absolute truth, I do find it interesting. I don’t find much of it credible, no, but I think it is important to pay attention or at least catalouge such claims as perhaps one day a new species will be discovered that will explain odd sightings in a particular area, and perhaps if any respectable scientists journey to the regions said to be inhabited by legendary animals they will come back with data on new species of insects, mammals, reptiles, etc. that have gone unnoticed during all the expeditions looking for dinosaurs and giant vampire bats. Some things get blown way out of proportion or perhaps are even hoaxed for one reason or another, but as I learned with the “phantom cat” idea, sometimes mainstram scientists do ignore relevant data about things that may seem hard to explain at first. To make a (perhaps bad) analogy, when Plate Tectonics was first proposed it was a joke, but now we know it was right and it’s a central part of earth sciences. This doesn’t mean that just because scientists don’t accept an idea, it’s really credible and they just have to come around to it, but rather that sometimes things are pushed aside or overlooked, and a record of seemingly extraneous claims should at least be maintained so that someday we may hope to explain them when they are perhaps finally illuminated.

Ha, so they admit it!

31 01 2007

If I wasn’t nice, I could very easily quote mine something in this AiG article from 2005, stating:

…Ham said that God’s people suffer from a “lack of knowledge.”

The full text, of course, is this:

Quoting the prophet Hosea, Ham said that God’s people suffer from a “lack of knowledge.” And knowledge, imparted by some of the best-known creation apologists in the world, is what the conference is slated to provide.

Lucky for them I don’t use their sort of tactics to make my point. 😛

Kill your very own wolf for $26.50

31 01 2007

To say the least, wolves receive a lot of bad publicity. Sure, lots of people think they’re pretty interesting but there aren’t many who exactly want them running around in their backyards, livestock ranchers of Western states being the most vocal opposition to reintroduction attempts. The initial problems were overcome by compensating ranchers for lost livestock (such seems to be the management strategy wherever predators and humans share space, regardless of geographic location), but now that the population goals for wolves have been met, some have been desiring to re-open hunting on the animals that were once wiped out in North America. Such is the scene in Wyoming and Idaho, some officials wishing to remove wolves from the Endangered Species list and open hunting after a year-long review process. Although I don’t like the idea, I was not surprised by the proposal, the interaction between predators and people often causing for heated discussion (here in New Jersey it’s all about black bears), but what did disturb me were some of the numbers associated with the proposal.

According to this Helena Independant Record article, state officials would oversee the hunting of the roughly 1,200 strong wolf populations in the area, just so long as there were 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs in the state, minimum. How much would it cost to bag your own wolf? Idaho, itchy trigger fingers already starting to flinch, has set the price at $26.50 (purportedly ~$260 for out-of-state hunters, although I have yet to confirm this via news reports), which is less than the documentary Living With Wolves/Wolves at Our Door costs on The e-mail that I intially received on this topic went for the sentimentality approach, saying “I couldn’t put a pricetag on a mother wolf with pup in tow, but the Idaho Fish and Game Commission just did,” showing a picture of a cute wolf pup in the classic “pull at their heartstrings” technique. While the “You shouldn’t shoot cute things” argument doesn’t hold a lot of sway with me (ugly things need help too!), it is important to realize that by shooting an adult wolf you are disrupting pack life and throwing the animals social lives into turmoil, potentially killing pups by depriving them of their mother (although other members of the pack help care for them after the pups are a few weeks old). So, how are Wyoming and Idaho going to determine which wolves can or can’t be killed? Somehow I have the feeling that the responsible management & monitoring is going to take a backseat to “population management,” disrupting various packs. Plus, a drop from 1,200 animals to 100 is drastic, and if a large number of these animals are killed in the first season then there won’t be many more wolves left to hunt the next year while hunters will still be clamoring to go out and hunt wolves once again. I hope the folks in the state like rodents too and coyotes, wolves being a keystone species helping to regulate the populations of prey and competing predators. All in all, it seems like a piss-poor management plan that is only being enacted because livestock farmers are getting upset due to losses which (to the best of my understanding) they’re being compensated for.

It’s also interesting that the method by which wolves can be hunted is not mentioned, but I seriously hope it’s not like the aerial hunts allowed in Alaska. In such hunts wolf packs are chased by heliocopter and when the poor animals are too exhausted to carry on, they’re shot. I had no idea such cruelty to animals was permissable under the law, verifying that we have a long way to go when it comes to ethics regarding animals. Apparently we still consider animals to be unfeeling, unthinking underlings put on earth for our benefit only.

To put it bluntly, the claim that wolves are a major threat the ranchers livlihoods is bull. Wolves largely ignore livestock as long as they can find enough food and the wolves that have come to specialize in livestock hunting can be removed, or in severe cases, eliminated, although there are many ways to deter the wolves from making off with a sheep in the first place. Large guard dogs are one effective method, similar efforts being undertaken by the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Africa where guard dogs will deter the predators without loss of life to either animal. Granted, wolves and cheetahs are different but there are methods to safeguard livestock available and it is not the wolves’ fault if farmers do not want to enact such precautions. I simply will not live in a world where all the large carnivores were hunted to extinction because of unfounded paranoia, but there are many people who would prefer to kill off magnificent animals like wolves so their pocketbooks would be just a little fuller. I guess they don’t quite understand that when you screw around with nature, the house always wins, and eliminating keystone predators ups the chance for rodent explosions and disease among said “vermin.”

If accurate, the Defenders of Wildlife page on wolf predation also puts forth some disturbing data. According to the webpage, coyotes, vultures, and even domestic dogs kill many times more cattle than wolves (disease and other non-fauna problems causing the majority of deaths), a graph showing the causes of death for cattle in 2005 residing here. As can plainly be seen, wolves are the least of ranchers concerns, just above bears in their consumption of livestock. I don’t see ranchers or government officials getting pissed off that those damned bacteria are taking so many cattle, or even for the larger take of cattle by coyotes. Indeed, it seems that wolves have something of a celebrity status and that comes back to hurt them as they are seen as most visible, and I’m sure that there are plenty of cattle kills by dogs and coyotes (and stolen cattle that never return) that get blamed on wolf predation.

Wolves, at least at their present numbers, do not present any considerable threat to livestock in the United States and while it may be appropriate to remove the animals from the endangered species list in some states, open hunting season should not be allowed, especially not to reduce the animals to the level of 100 from an existing population of 1,200. This is just another case of people who know nothing about ecology (politicians, I’m looking at you) pandering to whatever interests are the most vocal and have the most economic sway. There is a peition oppossing the proposals in Idaho and Wyoming which can be found at this website, and I urge you to sign it to ensure that we do not once again lose an animal that was so long absent from North America.

Mark your calendars folks!

31 01 2007

All last semester I was anxiously awaiting the re-opening of the human origins hall at the American Museum of Natural History, but despite the website putting the opening in Fall 2006, it never happened. I was quite happy, however, when the February issue of Natural History arrived and I discovered that the new Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins will be opening on February 10th (just 16 days short of my 24th birthday; you know where I’ll be going to celebrate the day). From what I can see from the website and the article, the reconstructions of hominids in the exhibit should be absolutely amazing. Sure, they all need to be taken with a grain of salt given that they are reconstructions, but I’m sure creationists will have a hell of a time explaining how such beings were merely aberrant human forms dispersed through the world post-Flood. In any event, I’m glad the exhibition is back and I look forward to getting a better look at some of my forebears.

Evolutionary Fitness

31 01 2007

To tell the truth, I’ve never liked the term “fitness” as it pertains to evolutionary science. When I was in elementary school, evolution was “survival of the fittest” (and indeed, Darwin himself was enamored with the phrase for a time), but ever since I started reading the literature and thinking about it I started to realize that “fitness” is little more than an abstraction. John Wilkins has already done a good job of contemplating the concept over at Evolving Thoughts, perhaps the most important aspect he mentions being the need to understand the ecological setting in which evolution is occurring.

I feel there needs to be a new synthesis between ecological studies and evolution as how can we possibly hope to understand how one works if we don’t understand the other? The other night I started in on the dated, but informative book Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem and one of the early chapters deals specifically with the evolutionary/ecological relationship between the ungulates of the area and the plant life. Although grasses and plant cover aren’t exactly the most interesting topics in the world to me, what I came away with is the obvious, but important finding that in areas that are not grazed by animals like Wildebeest (the primary grazing “army” of the Serengeti) there is a higher proportion of plants that grow from the stem (top) of the plant, whereas in areas that are heavily grazed there are more grasses that grow from the roots. On this same theme, grasses that are moderately grazed actually grow faster after being munched a bit than if they were left alone, the activity of the wildebeest (followed by gazelle shortly after) directly influencing the growth and competition between plant life. Such is a relationship that may not seem very special at the moment, but if studied in detail over the long term it could help scientists understand more about evolution through the interplay of organisms in an environment.

Another point that Wilkins makes note of is that not all environments are the same; lions in the Kalahari desert are not all living on equally productive real-estate. Oftentimes, animals are said to live in a particular environment, but seldom do what stop to think about what happens with animals that live on fringes or that migrate over long distances, the dynamics of the locations varying. There are more subtle factors at work than may be possible to study, and beyond basic ecological changes, animal behavior also plays an important role. Last night I was reading some more of the fantastic book Cry of the Kalahari where two male lions in a coalition (Muffin and Moffett) fought a very large and powerful rival male named Satan. If either Muffin or Moffett had faced Satan alone, they certainly would have been pummeled if not killed, but being that they formed a coalition they were successful in immobilizing their foe, who soon died. Given the intricacies of animal intelligence and behavior, I wouldn’t think that all male lions are equally open to forming coalitions to hold territory and females, the likelihood of such groupings forming being exceedingly complex to start with. You could have an exceedingly fit male who would form a coalition but is never given the appropriate opportunity (i.e. no male siblings) like Satan, but you could have two less-fit lions like Muffin and Moffett pool their strength to overcome the aggressor who is more “fit” on a 1:1 basis.

Speaking of African cats, cheetahs also come to mind in this discussion. Some time between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, cheetah populations plummeted to the point where inbreeding became the rule, thus making extant cheetahs exceedingly vulnerable to disease. Perhaps more nomadic animals or animals whose populations did not fall as drastically (as in East Africa) would fare better, but even so the amount of inbreeding has gone so far as to cause minor asymmetries in skull structure, one of the tell-tale signs (beyond near-instant epidemics, that is). According to ideas about fitness, these cheetahs should be getting more fit over time in their populations but the opposite seems to be, needing human intervention and studbooks to ensure their survival. Even our current efforts are not enough, cheetahs being so neurotic that reintroduction to the wild is difficult, thus current depleted populations may continue to inbreed. What will occur in natural populations in the future is anyone’s guess, but hopefully if I get the chance I would like to monitor who is mating with who, survival rate of the offspring, incidence of nomads, etc. so that we can see what happens to a population that becomes almost hopelessly inbred; will there be some new reservoir of variation or will the downward trend continue until extinction? What will happen if a population of cheetahs becomes more isolated from a larger population, will they die out faster from an even higher incidence of inbreeding? The point of these questions is that “fitness” doesn’t always necessarily go up in a population, detrimental attributes not always quickly snuffing out groups.

Ecological change/succession, time, and weather patterns are also subject I find sometimes lacking in evolutionary discourse. You can be exceedingly well-adapted to your environment but if there’s a harsh drought one year when there was none, you’re out of luck. How can a creature adapt to pressures that were not previously there? Dinosaurs didn’t adapt to survive extraterrestrial impacts as the pressure to fuel such changes was not there; the impact 65 million years ago was a one-time crap shoot for the entire group and they lost big time, but I would be hard-pressed to say that they were not well adapted. Indeed, I get frustrated when evolutionary scientists think of animals evolving almost in a vaccuum, or at least a sealed environment where every square foot of grass has equal productive value and whoever are the fittest will become apparent. It’s a crappy slogan, but if anything it seems to be “survival of the luckiest”, adaptive attributes needing the ability to increase in frequency and maladaptive ones not always signaling the immediate end of a population or species. Thus, I generally consider fitness to be an arbitrary, abstract term that doesn’t hold much value scientifically, especially since so many biotic and abiotic factors play into what survives and what does not.

I’m trying not to dislike Lee Strobel, but it’s so HARD

30 01 2007

Due to the reccomendation of a friend, I ordered Lee Strobel’s contribution to the creationism movement, The Case for a Creator, even though what I really wanted was The Counter Creationism Handbook. Oh well, next time. In any event, this past summer I took part in a Bible study focusing on the horribly researched and overblown book/movie The DaVinci Code in which Lee Strobel was the host, and although it wasn’t the most enlightening work I’ve ever seen, I didn’t really come out with a good or bad impression of the guy. Previous to the study many fellow Christians had extolled his work in his other books, touting his credentials as an investigative journalist, but from what I saw in the study he mostly used his credentials to make himself a voice of authority.

My opinion of Strobel drastically changed for the worse this past summer when I learned that he would be taking part (along with a woman who can only be described as an insufferable harpie, Ann Coulter) in a documentary entitled Darwin’s Deadly Legacy, blaming the naturalist for the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis. This claim has long been used by creationists but has no basis in reality, and is akin to saying that because someone murdered someone else with an axe then the inventor of the axe always intended the tool to be used as a murder weapon rather than for forestry-related work. Hitler presented himself as a Christian many times and claimed to be doing the Lord’s work, so if the sword cuts both ways (hint: it always does) then therefore Christianity was a major force in the deaths caused by the Holocaust, built on the anti-Semitic beliefs of another famous German (and founder at the religions people like Ken Ham and other conservatives belong to) Martin Luther. I haven’t as yet seen the documentary, but I doubt I would be surprised if I did guessing from the list of “experts” assembled for the presentation. Oh, lookee here… some snippets are up on YouTube and the quotes are just as unfounded and heavy-handed as one would expect. See for yourself here. What is particularly spurious is Weikert’s discussion of the word “selection” as it pertains to Nazis, playing up the sinister aspect of the word in that context, almost daring the Hitler Zombie to come and take him out. I also found the Columbine school shooting association to be unfounded, primarily for the reason that Hitler obviously did not understand a word of what Jesus taught because his actions show this clearly, and by the same token just because one of the Columbine shooters gives a wrong-headed interpretation of natural selection doesn’t mean he understands what evolution is or is part of “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy.”

Moving on, I had a look at Lee Strobel’s website to see if there were any updates or clips pertaining to The Case for Creation, and on the front page there’s a link to an interview with ex-atheist (now deist) Antony Flew. I had honestly never heard of the man before someone mentioned his name to me a few months ago, and I have to say I was not impressed by the interview segment I saw. In explaining why he changed his mind, Flew isn’t very articulate and just cites “the integrated (irreducible) complexity argument,” Strobel essentially fleshing out Flew’s argument for him. It’s important to note through all this that Flew is not a scientist and merely seems dazzled by the big words and faulty evidence ID advocates throw around. Flew also makes the mistake of saying that Einstein somehow was an intelligent design advocate (perhaps subtly invoking the old argument that Einstein believed in a personal God) and that (paraphrasing) if it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me. I’ll let Albert speak for himself on this issue, as he certainly made sure to clarify the misunderstandings on his standpoint:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. – Albert Einstein, 1954, from “Albert Einstein: The Human Side”

as well as

You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man.

For the latter God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.

But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. – The World as I See It, pg 28-29

The confusion herein lies: Einstein believed in what he called “Spinoza’s God”, which means that to him, God is the Universe/Nature and religious-like feelings can arise by studying the grandeur of life, but the belief in an entity that is concerned with morality and mankind is lacking. I really wish the Einstein argument would simply be put to rest (there are more important things to argue about), and if Einstein believed in a personal God, so what? That is merely implying that because Einstein believes it, it must have increased credibility and therefore wouldn’t do much either way to make people believe or not believe.

The book should arrive in a few days and I’ll try to consider what is said in its pages, but somehow I feel it’s going to be a mish-mash of Darwin’s Black Box, Icons of Evolution, No Free Lunch, and lots of negative arguments about the fossil record from people who have never even studied it. Hell, I’m an undergraduate and I have a better understanding of the fossil record than people like Wells who has two doctorates, once again proving that just because you can put Dr. in front of your name doesn’t mean you can intellectually back it up.

You want me to what?

30 01 2007

Apparently in Pequannock, New Jersey, you can’t go to school without worrying about having to give a random urine test. According the the article, the school superintendent says that the program, which is purported to detect 1-2 drinks of alcohol up to 80 hours after consumption, will make those who may be pressured into drinking by peers think twice. Oh, and the program is being paid for by federal grants. *smacks forehead* Now, it’s been about 6 years since I graduated high school, but it was no secret who the kids who got drunk and stoned out of their minds every weekend (and the school week, come to think of it) were, local police and the schools generally ignoring what was going on. I was one of the most unpopular and out-of-the-loop kids in the school and I heard all the stories and knew which kids were making ecstasy in their basements during their down time; you didn’t need drug tests to know what was going on. Hell, some of the parents would even host the parties and get drunk with the kids, so it wasn’t even as if there was some secret.

Even beyond the stupidity of the new plan, it also is unethical, making it compulsory for students to give urine tests to be analyzed by a public institution. If it was the workplace or something else, that’s one matter (I had to be tested before working for Target), but to force “random” students to take alcohol tests and attend compulsory counseling steps beyond the responsibilities of the public education system, acting more like nosy parents than an institution that should be focused on preparing teenagers for college (which they didn’t do well anyway, at least in my experience). The ACLU has already rightfully spoken out against the testing, and there will probably some sort of lawsuit over the issue, and hopefully the school system will be wise enough to drop the program rather than waste more money that should be going to prepare America’s students, students that seem to have lagged behind the rest of the world intellectually for as long as I can remember.


30 01 2007

Ok, I know that title was baaaaad (ok, ok, I’ll seriously stop now), but the thought immediately rushed to mind when I opened this week’s TIME magazine and saw an article by John Cloud on studies being done on male sheep with homosexual tendencies. (“Ewegenics” was actually mentioned in the article itself, but my “punny” little mind got there first) The article itself deals with the claims surrounding scientist Charles Roselli, and a quick PubMed search came up with two papers dealing specifically with the topic at hand, entitled Hormonal influences on sexual partner preference in rams and Sexual partner preference, hypothalamic morhpology, and aromatase in rams, respectively. The first paper explain that 6-10% of the domestic rams studied showed a preference for male partners over female during the tests, and the males that preferred other males seemed to have differences in brain chemistry (specifically lower aromatase “in the medial preoptic area and estrogen receptor in the amygdala,” aromatase being an important chemical in sexual development). Being that PubMed only produces the abstract for this article, I don’t know by what means the preferences of these males were determined, but the TIME article suggests that the rams were presented with a choice of a males or females to mate with, and thus the 6-10% became apparent.

The second paper, the sequel to the first, finds that in addition the differing aromatase levels, male-oriented rams have a slightly different brain structure, a part of the brain referred to as the oSDN (I’m still doing searches trying to figure out what this area is and what it’s associated with) being larger in female-oriented rams and in male-oriented rams. In any event, there seems to be an interplay between brain morphology and chemistry that is created these rams that prefer the company of males, but then one may ask how the trait is getting passed on. Are these rams obligate homosexuals? The question isn’t even considered in the TIME article, nor most articles I’ve seen on similar subject, the fact that homosexuality occurs in animals being the primary point. In these tests the males preferred males, yes, but do they ever mate with females? If they do then they could very well pass on their different brains to their offspring and the trait would persist because it is not obligate homosexuality; if the rams just mated with other males and no others one would expect homosexuality fluctuate across generations. Perhaps the differing chemistry is the result of some recessive trait or something else we do not as yet know about, but just because some rams prefer to mate with males doesn’t mean that they never mate with females or that what causes homosexuality in them also applies to humans. From articles like Cloud’s, it seems apparent that the larger questions raised as far as ethology and evolution don’t necessarily matter, it’s just important that some animals are homosexuals and give credence to the increasingly apparent notion that animals (including people) don’t choose to be homosexuals.

As Cloud mentions in the article, however, some are wary of such research, worrying that if the cause for homosexuality can be pinpointed then it opens the door wide to eugenics, possibly someday allowing parents to determine if their child will be gay and fixing that “problem” through hormonal therapies. While rightly dismissive of the notion that we’ll see such applications anytime soon, he ends the article with these unsettling words:

The more pressing question for me is, What would happen if research like Roselli’s did lead to, as the Sunday Times imagined, “a ‘straightening’ procedure [such as] a hormone supplement for mothers-to-be, worn like a nicotine patch”? I hope scientists have better things to do, but would a Hetero Patch be so awful? It would allow bigoted women to get what they want–straight kids–and ensure that gay kids grow up with moms who, at the very least, didn’t try to prevent their existence. Gay people seem to fear we would die out if such a device existed. But the elaborate combination of genes, hormones and psychology that produces same-sex attraction has persisted, against all odds, through the millenniums. Gays have survived Darwinian selection, Nazis, the dulling effects of Will & Grace. I don’t think a little patch would ever keep some rams from wanting other rams.

Like I said before, interesting scientific insight seems to have been co-opted to serve political ends, and I think a Hetero Patch would indeed be awful. I’m unsettled enough by genetically modified foods and all the tinkering being done with inserting animal genes into plants and vice versa, much less the ability to create designer babies. I find it disturbing that anyone would want to essentially design their child to be whatever they wanted it to be, perhaps someday extending to “breeding programs” to create smarter, stronger, or more fit children. Such themes are often brought up in science fiction, but the ability to actively engage in eugenics is slowly starting to become more possible. Even beyond my distaste at the moral/social level, it’s idiotic at an evolutionary level. If parents can start picking and choosing, designing their children, variation is hampered and as far as genetics goes there’s far more we don’t know than we do know. Indeed, if designing babies ever reached a large enough scale, the genetic variation would be low enough that disease would be even more deadly than it is now, making the Black Death look like a common-cold; part of the reason it didn’t kill more than it did was the genetic variation that made some people resistant, and they passed that resistance on to their offspring.

The whole thing reminds me of the Disney World ride The Carousel of Progress, where the values of technology and the improvements it brings are extolled in song. Even though humans are animals, we have long since left such a title behind, always trying to step a little closer to being gods; we want to know more, live longer, have a lasting legacy on the planet, etc. I’m not saying that we should stop here, but in going further we should be cautious of the consequences our actions may have. We are unique among animals in that we can willingfully do things for the benefit of the species (an even the planet), and thus there is no excuse for selfishness that will do more to destroy than help future generations. We can’t just keep walking forward blindly, proceeding with science because we can achieve a certain goal, but we need to ask if we should be moving in such a direction and what consequences there may be beyond our own lifetime.

AiG, unfossilized bones, and the lies therein

29 01 2007

I don’t have HBO so I couldn’t see it, but Crooks and Liars has posted a clip from Alexandra Pelosi’s (yes, she is the daughter of the new Speaker of the House and creator of Journeys With George [“Cheeto?”]) new documentary series on American evangelical Christians called Friends of God, featuring conservative Christian figureheads like Ted Haggard and the folks over at AiG. The clip is actually from the section of the documentary dealing with evolution and creationism, and the impression is similar to that given by the excellent documentary Jesus Camp. Ken Ham and Buddy Davis are showing telling children the same lies that are so prominently available all over their website (as well as various books, PC software, and DVDs) i.e. the world is less than 6,000 years old, man and dinosaurs lived at the same time, the Noachian Flood is where we get all our fossils from, Hominid ancestors like Neanderthals are really people dispersed from the Tower of Babel, etc. In case you missed the link before, go here to have a look at them in action:

The bit featuring Buddy Davis and his straw-man argument about “dinosaur” not being in the Bible is particularly telling. And I quote:

Buddy: …how come we can’t find the word “dinosaur” in the Bible? Can I look in the Bible and find the word “jet airplane”?

Children: Noooo…

Buddy: No, it’s a brand new word. Can I look in the Bible, boys and girls, and can I find the word computer?

Children: Nooo…

Buddy: It’s a brand new word. And the word “dinosaur” is a brand new word too.

Davis’ argument falls flat because, just like dinosaurs, computers and jet planes did not exist during the timeframe that the Bible covers, so there is no reason for them to be mentioned in it. The assertion that the Behemoth in Job is a dinosaur is entirely wrong, the passage “his tail swings like a cedar” more likely referring to the beasts reproductive organs than a tail, the word translated “swings” perhaps actually meaning “extends.” I’ll repost an old analysis of the claim in the next day or so for your enjoyment. For those of you not steeped in paleontological history, the word “dinosaur” (meaning “terrible/fearsome/formidable lizard/reptile”) was coined by Sir Richard Owen 1842 when some of the fossils previously thought to be products of the Biblical Flood were recognized for what they actually were. Previously, fossils were considered to be frozen lightening bolts, the tongues of snakes, things that grew biologically in the earth, and at least in one case, the fossilized scrotum of an “Antediluvian giant,” later revealed to be part of the femur of a Megalosaurus. Take a look at the fossil that gave rise to such a preposterous notion here, and for a good overview of one of the most important scientists in all of history, Nicholas Steno, read The Seashell on the Moutaintop by Alan Cutler.

In any case, just to put Davis’ expertise on paleontology and evolution in perspective, I remember hearing that he had found “unfossilized” dinosaur bones in Alaska, but then the trail went cold. If true, the discovery would be fascinating and shed light on a lot of issues about dinosaurs, fossilization, and taphonomy (how things are buried and preserved), but Davis seemed to want to take the credit and do none of the footwork in following up on the discovery. Frustrated with the lack of information, I e-mailed AiG directly about the issue and was sent a clipping from one of their magazines, stating:

It was our hope, because of the “remarkable” preservation, that these bones might contain some ancient organic molecules. To date, our tests have not been able to confirm the “unfossilized” hypothesis. Twenty of the bone samples were analyzed in Russia for collagen. Only four showed positive results. We became suspicious of these results when we were not able to confirm them with tests made by other labs. One report from a reputable laboratory in the United States told us the samples they tested were “extremely degraded”. Some of the bones have also been tested for DNA. The results were inconclusive. From our results thus far, the bones should not be referred to as “unfossilized”. [emphasis original]

The Bureau of Land Management reports that the Alaskan bones are fossilized, but all of their pore spaces have not been filled in with rock, making many of them lightweight. They also report that no DNA had been discovered in the bones, but because of their condition, they might be good candidates for it. Until further testing can prove otherwise, the Alaskan dinosaur bones should be referred to as “fossilized.”

John H. Whitmore

Given this revelation, one would expect an honest, Christian organization to be forthcoming with something of such importance to their claims, or at least change the information on their website to reflect such a development. I guess they never got around to it, as the biography for Buddy Davis still says he discovered unfossilized bones in 1994, as well as citing the bones as unfossilized in this article, referencing the same note by Whitmore I just shared with you saying the bones should not be considered unfossilized! Either they’re holding out hope for dinosaurs within the Bishop Ussher timeline, lazy, or dishonest (I’ll leave you to be the judge).

Back to the clip, I found this quotation from a young woman to be especially interesting:

Pelosi: What do you think of people like me who believe in evolution?

Girl: Well, um, I’m not sure if you’ve maybe studied all the facts exactly right, and um…

Pelosi: So you think I got a bad education.

Girl: No, I’m not saying that at all, I’m just saying…

Pelosi: It’s ok, it’s ok, I won’t take it personally

Girl: Ok, I’m just saying the school system is probably pretty biased towards evolution, as most public school systems are. At least mine was. And, um, they tend to just show you one side of the story…”

Ah, the good old “Teach the Controversy” nonsense. I find it interesting that creationists and IDers have so much to say about the public school system and the separation of church and state, yet they only stand up for the right to preach their religion in classrooms. I have yet to encounter a creationist saying that along with evolution, we should teach creationism as told in the Bible, as conveyed by Buddhism, as conveyed by Hinduism, etc. Why not invite the other faiths under the “big tent”? The girls first comment is also important to note, the overall attitude of “If you believe in evolution you must not have looked at all the evidence” (just as I would say if you believe in a historically accurate 6-day creation event you haven’t looked at all the evidence). Can anyone look at all the evidence? I’ve been reading at a breakneck pace for 9 months now, reading as many creationism and intelligent design books as ones on evolution and I still have yet to find anything compelling about any form of creationism, and yet there is still so much more to learn. Even in evolution, there are so many aspects to understand that I can’t possibly be an expert on them all, so even if I devoted the rest of my life to the study of evolution (which will come naturally), there would still be lots I didn’t know. What aggravates me most is that many creationists read a creationist book or two, go to a creationist lecture, assuming that just because the person speaking/writing is a Christian they must be telling the truth and have accurate information. In order to understand evolution, you need to read books by evolutionary scientists just as one needs to read creationism books to make sure an accurate view of the other side is obtained, and yet many people fall short here. I have to admit, however, that scientists are far better at giving concessions to creationists, spending lots of time thinking about, debating, and refuting their claims whereas creationists often cannot be bothered to do the same.

Personally, I wish I could spend less time dealing with creationism but I think it’s important as both a Christian and evolutionist to confront the issues raised by those who think they have a corner on the absolute-truth market. It’s not so much about evolution; if they had any actual data to support their claims I’d be all for debate. No, rather it’s about the spirit of the debate, where we can not question, investigate, or even think outside the box that God made for us to be in, essentially going through the Fall all over again by trying to gain knowledge. Indeed, in mythology too there has been a high price paid of intelligence, the titan Prometheus chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day for daring to illuminate mankind. Perhaps some creationists have convinced themselves they’re actually doing science, perhaps others don’t investigate the issue and take it on faith, but what worries me is the idea that it’s more important to save people than to tell the truth. If you’re saving someone by telling a lie, then what good are you doing? What will happen on the day that person finds out that what they based their faith on was just a trick for “their own good”? The constant references to spiritual warfare worry me as well, many people translating that into real-time warfare and condemnation of people who disagree, convinced they’re right because they’re for God and anyone who is against them must also be against God. I would love nothing more for this issue to go away, but I know it most certainly won’t. To some it is a divisive issue in the church best avoided, but I think it is important to confront so that we can have reform and speak in truth to those who care to listen. I have never agreed with the idea of letting Christians proceed with being hateful, bigoted, or dishonest just because we share a religion. No, in fact, if anything right now there needs to be reform in the church because the “virtues” of judgement, hate, and blinding literalism have gotten to the point where Christianity resembles the Pharisees of the New Testament more than what Jesus ever envisioned. In any event, I have a feeling that there are many people (like myself) in the middle on this issue, acknowledging evolution for what it is but not losing faith because of it, but such people are often marginalized by the super-conservative and super-liberal, but if there is hope for greater understanding between faith and science it lies with these people.

Just goes to show you can’t trust the interweb

28 01 2007

Thanks to Pharyngula and Orac it has now become apparent that the homophobic Christian “Donnie Davies” I posted about in my “Highway to Hell” post is actually an actor attempting to do some comedy in the same vein as Borat; using people’s own ignorance and bigotry against them. Admittedly, I should’ve done some more research on the website, but I didn’t bother for the main reason that I see so many insanse claims made by actual organizations like Answers in Genesis that I don’t think twice about it anymore. To me, that is the saddest part of it all, being that even though the website was a spoof there are people who consider secular music, dancing, Harry Potter, and any number of things evil, and being that they are often very vocal I supposse I’ve become desisitized to it and not surprised when someone claims to have a Biblical basis for excluding or discriminating against someone/something.

In any event, this just goes to show that I should double check before diving in to such claims. If I’m going to be a scientist, I shouldn’t take things for granted or buy in to the uproar that often occurs on various blogs when issues like these come up.