Brownback is back…

31 05 2007

Sam Brownback has an opinion piece in today’s New York Times elaborating on his disbelief in evolution. We’ve got him all wrong, he says; he’s not a creationist, he’s… well, a creationist. Hope that cleared things up for you. Quote the *gag* Kansas Senator;

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

So science can keep moving along, just so long as it supports the “created order.” Sounds awfully familiar, but certainly it’s a new take on the debate in an attempt to compromise, right? What I can’t stand is all the posturing by creationists about how much they “love” science, but whenever something conflicts with their faith, they try and shove it under the rug. Why? Because “faith” (faith in what? That you’re right 100% of the time based upon your own interpretation of an ancient and mutated book?) trumps reason and observation every time. Quote the Senator;

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love.

[emphasis mine]

Yes, faith has always led the way to new discovery, rather than hanging back, trying to pull us backward into dogmatic, tribal religion. I’m sure that in Brownback’s view, however, some faith is more equal than others; I don’t suppose he’ll be looking to Norse creation mythology to help us “see more clearly.” I also like how he threw in some baraminology for good measure; species can change, but they were all “created kinds.” He’s not a “creationist,” no; he just believes that there were some created kinds, created by a creator who sustains his creation. Why don’t we ask Brownback how old the earth is and watch his head spin.

Evolution is something of an issue at the moment, but like others I don’t see it being even a little-ticket item in (as the Daily Show aptly puts it) the clusterf#@k to the White House. Even so, I just don’t understand why people like Brownback think they’ve got any kind of scientific authority on the issue; even candidates who accept evolution seem to do so because of political strategy and beliefs, so don’t go asking John McCain to tell you what a hox gene is or what he thinks of Pakicetus. If a candidate accepts evolution, great, but I would much rather see them refer to good scientists than trying and filter what is or is not true through their theological (and hence political) beliefs. Steve Reuland at The Panda’s Thumb also chronicles Brownback’s battle against gravity, and I can only wonder if any of the other candidates that do not accept evolution will volunteer some editorials in which they’ll proceed to fall all over themselves, muttering about faith and reason.

More thoughts on “The Last Dinosaur Book”

31 05 2007

Late last night I was able to polish off the concluding chapters of W.J.T. Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book (see some of my initial thoughts from yesterday), and overall I can’t say I loved it or hated it. Mitchell does make some good points about dinosaurs as totems, but it takes a lot to pull the good ideas out from the surrounding mire of prose, at times. Indeed, I feel that in Mitchell’s quest to obtain objectivity in the work (he never particularly cared for dinosaurs and called upon paleontologists primarily to make sure he got his science right [which he doesn’t always, anyway]) may have undermined his purpose; divorcing “dinomania” from any personal feelings probably makes it more cryptic and prone to mistakes in analysis.

In fact, part of the problem is that outside of the most famous dinosaur images or ones that he has come across reading the Sunday funnies or The New Yorker, much of “dinomania” is left out. The most glaring omission (and one that should have been fairly intuitive to include) is the dinosaur as our reptilian analog. Yes, at the beginning of the book Mitchell wonders if some reptilian race will one day look upon the dino-fascination of the 1990’s, but dinosaurian “people” have shown up in popular culture, most notably in the series V, both incarnations of the show Land of the Lost, as well as the recent Lost World series. Likewise, the “cultural evolution” of dinosaurs in film is largely ignored, and I can’t help but think that their appearance in the early days of film had a substantial impact on their cultural image.

I also have to wonder why Mitchell doesn’t make the big connection between dinosaurs and people; even though we know we lived in entirely different times, the two are almost always together. What is a dinosaur narrative without people? At least in terms of visual media and books, if people are not involved then it doesn’t seem to be quite as interesting. Some way or another dinosaurs need to be suppressing our evolution, stalking us, helping us, be stalked by us, etc.; if there is no human connection it doesn’t seem to work. Take, for example, a series of beautiful comics Dark Horse Comics put out a number of years ago. Entitled The Age of Reptiles, two series were published (entitled The Hunt and Tribal Warfare), and I have yet to run into anyone else who has even heard of the books. While the stories feature human themes of revenge, I can’t help but wonder if the disconnect between human and dinosaur (to the best of my knowledge there’s no “dialog” and we are not put into the mind of the dinosaur as in Robert Bakker’s Raptor Red).

Mitchell also spends a fair amount of time going over the destruction/resurrection of the nuclear family in Jurassic Park and the sexual latency undertones in Bringing Up Baby. To tell you the truth, I could see how Mitchell could make these connections but I didn’t really feel they rang true, and it seemed more to be grasping at what dinosaurs were supposed to represent in these films rather than why we are making films about them in the first place. The subject is in the scope of the book, of course, but I just felt it was reaching a bit too far, especially in the case of Jurassic Park.

Mitchell takes more potshots at science and sociobiology throughout the second half of the book as well, and I can’t help but wonder if he is a bit threatened by the science. Personally, I think some ideas in sociobiology have some merit while at the same time I don’t consider animals (or ourselves) to merely be the larger manifestation of selfish genes wandering about shooting genetic material at each other, either. Even so, I can’t imagine why Mitchell is so threatened by the idea that some of our cultural practices might have a biological basis due to past evolution; we didn’t show up, fully formed, ready to paint the Sistine Chapel. We are animals, but we are not “just” animals either, and to ignore either point is a mistake.

I also have to wonder about when dinosaurs are divorced from their scientific meaning. When you visit a museum, the bones of the dinosaurs are (or are supposed to represent) the real animal, something that lived and died millions of years ago. When you go home with a fuzzy raptor plush from the museum shop, however, does the dinosaur still represent science? In many (if not most) cases like this, the dinosaur has been transferred from its natural history heritage to one of playmate, companion, protector, or dragon; if the dinosaur is not an “imaginary friend” of a child it is usually manipulated in play to attack or defend itself from hordes of little green army men or other dinosaurs. At least that’s what I suspect. Mitchell gets close to this idea a few times (the transfer of natural history object to monster), but doesn’t seem to quite jump the barrier.

The dinosaur transition also fits into the idea of the dinosaur as a transitional object; it is (as Mitchell notes) a totem, especially for children, and imbues children with a certain amount of perceived power. A dinosaur as an imaginary friend can come in quite handy, and even though dinosaurs may crop up in nightmares they don’t exist today and so are “weakened” to an extent. I can’t help but remember one interview with a young boy in one documentary who said who would run down a predatory dinosaur with a cannon if he came across one, and the ability for a child to be the hero-soldier slaying the dragon is a powerful image when everyone (even the dinosaur) seems bigger than you are. Even outside of imaginary context, children take much pleasure in being able to stump/correct parents and teachers when it comes to dinosaurs, and if you need evidence of this just try using the word “Brontosaurus” in the company of some enthusiastic young dinophiles and see what happens. Sure, mom, dad, teacher, and pastor might be “in charge” of them, but any youngster can be an “expert” in an area unfamiliar to adults. It doesn’t matter if what they dig up in the backyard are only dirt clumps; to them (as it was for me at that time) it’s a matter of making a big discovery that will award fame & fortune.

Children do fear dinosaurs, however; I remember visiting a “Dino-Mation” exhibit at a local museum when I was young and seeing my favorite animals made flesh scared the daylights out of me. “Yes dad, I can see the T. rex just fine from around this corner.” My father even walked up to touch the Triceratops to show me there was nothing to fear, but there seemed to be something counterintuitive about walking up to what appeared to be a towering Tyrannosaurus when at any moment if might dip down and bite my head off. I can’t remember if I got closer or not, but even though I loved dinosaurs they are also nightmare creatures; their bones are safe, but when they are fleshed out they can be exceedingly scary. When we can control dinosaurs in our imagination or media, however, it’s a different story; be it Dino Riders or The Flintstones control over dinosaurs makes us more comfortable with them, unless (like in Jurassic Park) we lose that control and become prey again.

The image of dinosaur studies in the media vs reality probably helps the image of the famous paleontologist along. Paleontologists are called in on TV and elsewhere to make sense of the fascinating bones in the ground, and often the bones seem to willingly give themselves up to the scientists. I can’t recall any documentary where a field crew went out and found nothing at all; we always seem to arrive on the scene just as the skull or biggest bone is being uncovered. The geology of the job, the prospecting, the sickness, the long days, etc. often get left out, giving the public the image of unbridled discovery. Likewise, dinosaurs must have a name, and while (in reality) you can spend your entire career on just one dinosaur, paleontologists still seem to carry the mantle of Cope and Marsh in pop culture, digging up and naming as many dinosaurs as they can, the rest being self-evident. Indeed, it seems to be the mystery and excitement of discovery that is most interesting, not the prep of the bone, cladistic analysis, or science that takes place between shipping the bone to a lab and its appearance in a museum (or of the dinosaur in a piece of paleo-art).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is this adventure mystique (again, note the connection dinosaurs have with people) that reminds us of big game hunters, cowboys, and Teddy Roosevelt with a different twist. As Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote in the introduction to Charles H. Sternberg’s autobiography The Life of a Fossil Hunter;

The one is as full of adventure, excitement, depression, hope and failure, as the other, yet there is ever the great difference that the hunter of live game, thorough sportsman though he may be, is always bringing live animals nearer to death and extinction, whereas the fossil hunter is always seeking to bring extinct animals back to life.

Dinosaurs, as we know them, could not exist without us. Whether it be in fiction or in science, we “bring them back to life” in one way or another. Paleontology is not merely stamp collection, merely laying out bones in a jumble; if we can’t piece together the animal or tell something about its lifestyle, then we’re merely gathering funny bits of rock. The entire enterprise requires as much creativity and imagination as any of the arts (although, as Mitchell notes, dinosaurs are banned from the art museum), and so the jump from scientific restoration to tales of time-traveling hunters looking for a Tyrannosaurus is not a stretch. Sure, come up with any method you like of getting dinosaurs and man together, but it is interesting that once together stories seem to keep the dinosaurs as science deems them to be. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, (Godzilla, for one), but the creatures seem fantastic enough in of themselves that they don’t require much embellishment once they are found together with man; why reinvent the dragon when science has already provided a menagerie of real ones?

I’m not an iconologist, nor do I carry any other title that would make me an authority on dinosaurs and culture, but I think there is far more to the story of dinosaurs as cultural icons than Mitchell takes time to note. There is a definite transition and mixing of the scientific dinosaur, the dinosaur of our nightmares, the dinosaur under our control, the playmate, the protector, the dragon, etc. Maybe it’s because the scientific object moves from something real to an imaginary friend or pop icon that it later gets abandoned, treated with indifference by many adults. Sure, it’s interesting, but aren’t dinosaurs just kid’s stuff? Paleontologists are often said to be boys who never grew up, but while paleontologists are living out the dreams of many a 7-year-old, they are also writing technical papers about their finds that would utterly confuse plenty of those who think the field childish. Maybe it’s our own concept of dino-mania that drives us to later give up learning about the animals; we become over-saturated and associate everything involving the animals with being immature, relegating dinosaurs to the intellectual dust bin. While dinosaurs may face some amount of mental extinction because they are not “proper” objects of study and time, it’s hard to ignore a dinosaur, and I have the feeling that they’ll still be stomping across screens and having their stuffed effigies showing up in toy shops for some time to come.

Responding to Bob

30 05 2007

Every now and then I get a comment that needs some clarification (and maybe some good ‘ol refutation). I did this quite often during my early blogging days at ProgressiveU, moving long discourses out of the comments and moving them to the front page so that everyone could benefit from what the writer had to say (and hopefully from my response). Hence, I’ll be responding line by line to a recent comment by “Bob G” on my post “Creation Museum Aftermath“, and my regular readers will probably get a new post or two out of it on the topic of color change in animals (if I can muster up something good on such a complex topic, that is). Anyway, what Bob has to say will appear in b-quote format, my responses in the usual format.

You are both partially right about the chameleon. The adaptation of transitory color change is for the primary purpose of camouflage in the chameleon, the squid, octopus, etc. The use of the attribute has secondary use for hiding, predation, and communication. Which came first? I would argue for camouflage. One has only to observe geckos at my Florida home. White on white substrate, black on black substrate, etc. However, its throat bag is always red for communication purposes. The squid has intricate color used for communication, but when under predation or stalking, it goes drab. When used for territorial ambitions, it flashes every color under the sun.

Here, Bob was referring to my comment that Denyse O’Leary (as well as NY Times columnist Edward Rothstein) didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to color changes in chameleons (Family Chamaeleonidae). There are lots of little critters called “chameleons” because of their ability to change from brown to green, but these are anoles, lizards belonging to the Family Polychrotidae (I even had a few when I was kid). True chameleons often hunt their prey by acting like a stick (in fact they use the same jerky-motions employed by praying mantis on the hunt) and do not change colors to blend in with their environment. Rather, true chameleons change color to show their mood or can be used as an indicator of health; going blue, lime green, and orange all over isn’t going to help you hide from predators or camouflage you when hunting prey.

Little anole lizards, however, do change color based upon illumination as well as to mood (particularly excitement/aggression). They lack the vibrant color combinations of true chameleons, but they can still go between a dark chocolate brown to brilliant emerald green (with the characteristic ruby dewlap, too). Cephalopods are a whole other matter, not only changing color but texture as well, and they use their dazzling quick-change abilities to hide, communicate, and even “hypnotize” prey. I’ll write more about their abilities in the future, but for the present moment it’s safe to say that true chameleons and “New World” anoles go about color change in different ways.

As a much published and patented scientist (biochemist – AND RU undergraduate – “upstream red team”), I am amused by the need for scientists to organize into camps; I used to call it scientific colonization, but now I feel that it may be just a common herd instinct.

This is a fairly general statement; are we speaking of big ideas in science (we are accept gravity because of a herd instinct) or smaller issues? I assume that what Bob meant was when it comes to creation vs. evolution scientists are usually in either one camp or another, but there seems to be a fair bit of diversity when it comes to divine intervention and science (ranging from young earth creationism to ID to theistic evolution to atheism, with lots of different views in-between). For my own part, I see no reason to infer divine intervention when there is no evidence of being any. Answers in Genesis knows this well, which is why they refuse to think about anything without including the Bible; if we look at nature, forgetting religious doctrine or dogma, no divine purpose or plan is apparent. The book of Job tells us that if we listen, nature will speak to us, even teach us, but looking at nature in and of itself there is no semblance or vestige of design.

Bottom line: Darwin and Ken Ham are predominantly dead wrong! But some of their ideas are borne out in principle and fact. Their basic underlying premises are demonstrably refutable. By the way, a recent volume of Nature (v.446/15 pp246ff.) has a great tribute on the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus. From that review, one can readily see that the idea of species is totally fabricated.

I think the comparison of Ham and Darwin is a rather false dichotomy; what has Ham ever done to help bring understanding about the natural world (and no, a Creation Museum does not count)? If we are to make comparisons, then why not Owen, Huxley, Steno, Mantell, Buckland, Lyell, Agassiz, Lamarck, Buffon, Cuvier, or even Ussher vs. Darwin; at least then we’re comparing apples to apples, in a sense. Darwin was wrong about plenty of things, but science has overturned some of his ideas through finding out more about nature; Ham is wrong because his arguments run counter to observations from the natural world. While Darwin has transformed into something of an icon to some, he is important to remember (if for no other reason) because he scientifically showed evolution to be real and credible; previously it was mere rumor and required someone to come along and show it to be real. To the best of my understanding, natural selection, sexual selection, and other ideas that Darwin put forward are still very much legitimate, so I don’t see why we should discount Darwin as predominantly wrong.

So the “Origin of the Species” did not have to be that long a book. It just had to say that man invented species, and Linnaeus was the inventor. For example, the Galopagus finch’s beak was not a step toward evolution into a new species. It was a result of differentiation of an already present gene in the genome, so this is an ANTI-evolutionary adaptation that prevents the need to “evolve” into another beast. This is referred to as “genetic spread” in the genome of a “species”. The genome of a vertebrate especially is so vast, and many genes cooperate to produce the phenotypic variation we see. To top it all off, there are “nonsense codons’ that were thought to be inactive, but become activated by an external stimulus. This can then alter phenotype. Let’s give a round of applause to laMarck.

Lots of people aren’t especially happy with On the Origin of Species (at least not until the more poetic parts at the end), but I would disagree; it had to be a long book. Darwin had to back up his assertions with evidence, and if I were him I’d probably right a thick book as well. Darwin could not simply put out a 20 page memo and expect everyone to accept his ideas, especially during the time of prominent scientists like Richard Owen; if he was going to prove his point, it was going to take a lot of work and a lot of examples from his own experience and that of others familiar with artificial selection and how animals can change. While it is well known that what actually constitutes a “species” has been exceedingly hard to nail down, it is not entirely arbitrary either.

I also must admit that I’m a bit confused by the “ANTI-evolutionary adaptation” statement, and it hints at baraminology (God created different “kinds” that have some sort of genetic barrier that keeps them from evolving into new species/forms). In order to pick this one apart, we need to get a little more specific. By now most people are familiar with the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant, and they have shown that populations of finches on the Galapagos islands experience changes in beak size/shape based upon seasonal changes (which in turn influences food availability). As in one case, when only a few, hard seeds were left, only birds with larger beaks could feed and so there was a directional selection towards birds with larger beaks (and this change, of course, was heritable, so the beak size of the populations offspring changed as well). If the environmental pressure that caused the large-beaked birds to be favored continued, we’d see a continuation of the trend and possibly even see the birds change in other aspects in response to a changing ecology; there is no contention about this. Such pressure was never manifested, however, and so finch beak sizes seem to change in response to wet years and dry years, the cycle causing differing beak sizes to be favored at different times, and the birds are quickly adapted. No one is suggesting that a macromutation would be required in one generation or the birds would have to change into a new kind of “beast”; there is enough existing variation to adapt the birds in response to their environment, and this is hardly “anti-evolutionary.” If there is indeed some kind of genetic ceiling that does not allow for speciation, the burden of proof is on the creationists.

I must say now that I am a Christian, and believe in the design of man by a Supreme Being. BUT I do not place myself with Young Earthers. I have met very few “IDers” who believe the earth is young. No one knows how old the earth is. The tautology of dating fossils by the strata, and then the strata by the fossils leads to these stretches of the imagination. Then “validation” of other technologies sets in, such as radiometric dating, magnetic orientation, etc., to arrive at the date that is already accepted. Using Ken Ham’s personal beliefs in a young earth or the dragon mythology to discredit the ID group is using straw man agruments, and is patently unfair.

I’ll tackle the last comment first; I didn’t say that ID advocates believe as Ham believes, but they have been awfully quiet about his funhouse. Like I said in my initial post, if ID advocates are so concerned about sound science, why don’t they speak up? Intelligent design is predominantly based in Christian doctrine, and I’m finding that, more often than not, believers in ID use creationist arguments (like baraminology) to fill gaps not spoken of by the likes of Wells, Behe, Dembski, etc. There is nothing unfair about stating the fact that the Discovery Institute and proponents of ID usually do not make disparaging remarks about creationists because of the “Big-Tent” strategy they need to keep their support, and judging from the comments/posts at places like Uncommon Descent and Overwhelming Evidence creationists arguments are often tied up with intelligent design.

The assertion that “no one knows how old the earth is” is also incorrect. While relative dating is important to paleontology, it is not the only technique we have, and until we had radiometric dating we had no idea how old the earth truly was. Prior to absolute dating technology, “deep time” was divided up into sections based upon fossil content (in fact, mass extinctions helped to make natural boundaries in the timescale), and multiple independent tests have over-and-over-again confirmed an earth that is approximately 4.6 billion years old. This wasn’t some number arrived at from fossils and then “confirmed” with later techniques; in G.G. Simpsion’s The Meaning of Evolution he states that the oldest rocks then known were about 2,000,000,000 years old, although there could be older rocks (and we’ve found them, confirming our hypothesis). Even prior to that, when stratigraphy was first conceived by William “Strata” Smith, Smith’s student calculated the earth to be about 96 million years old. Evolution even entered this debate when Lord Kelvin tried to show that evolution didn’t have enough time to progress by calculating an earth about 20-40 million years old, but the assumptions on which he based his calculations later were shown to be wrong (i.e. he didn’t account for heat generated by radioactive rocks in the earth, but how could he? Radioactivity wasn’t discovered until 1896, shortly before his death). Simply put, prior to absolute dating techniques we had no way of knowing how old the earth really was, and relative dating tells us that some things are older than others but does not give us the date at which they were deposited. Absolute dating and relative dating work together to make sense of the strata; absolute dating is not crammed into a pre-existing paradigm at all.

BUT, apart from gradualism that Darwin said was his achilles heel, Darwin had a lot of correct things, so let’s not throw out the baby with the bath.

Just to make a quick note, much is made of “gradualism” and the lack thereof, but I think there is a bit of semantic misunderstanding going on here. While the term has come to mean “slow change,” when I see the word “gradual” I can’t help but think of “gradations.” Being that (outside of polyploidy, perhaps) big saltational changes are not known to occur in evolution, of course it would move forward by “gradations,” but the speed at which it does so is variable. I can’t conceive of any evolutionary “speed limit” that all life must obey without variation, so I would personally like to divorce the notion of “gradual” from “slow” as it is confounding this issue.

In the Bible, God separated the animals by their “kinds” not species. And I believe these “kinds” are still the same, but with genetic elements lost, not gained, over time. So the genetic spread becomes sparser. This has been shown unequivocally with humans, in which a lot of the genome was lost by hardship ages ago, so the recombination variety has become paltry over time. That is why species are not necessarily created (mutation = death is the rule so far in experimentation), but become extinct over time. That is why there are hundreds of “species” going extinct each year, and will continue to do so.

It’s unfair of me to associate Ken Ham’s ideas about dragons (on which ID is mum), but yet here comes baraminology once again. The point Bob is trying to make here has recently been put forward by creationists like John C. Sanford in his horrible book Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome. The general idea is that God created everything perfect, but after the Fall sin, death, etc. came into play and so creatures have been “degrading” ever since. Sanford expresses this towards the end of his book showing how the lifespan of mankind has been dwindling since Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, but this is a rather poor argument. If we’re to play along and take the Bible literally, God put a limit on man’s age in Genesis 6:3 to no more than 120 years (which has been broken, by the way), which skews the results. Even if we were to discount this, would mankind eventually lose years off the upper limit until we were no longer able to reach reproductive maturity? Or would we all go from birth to adulthood in, say, 5 years time? Such notions are not consistent with reality and the “declining age model” does nothing to disprove evolution, an old earth, or any other scientific claim.

We also must consider what is meant by “degrading.” Does this mean reduced reproductive vigor or ability to speciate? Apparently not, given the diversity of life long after whenever the “creation even” occurred. Creatures like ammonites don’t play by these rules either, naturally gaining complexity in their crenelations (and even uncoiling into some odd shapes) before they ultimately went extinct 65 million years ago. Bob’s idea also plays into a sort of Platonic ideal from which all animals descended; of course God would have made the first ones perfect, but given what evolution has shown us there must have been very few “created kinds” if at all. It’s odd that Bob points out that the “species” concept is entirely man-made, but misses the point that created “kinds” are also arbitrary and created by man. Where would you divide fish from tetrapod, archaeocete from true whale, dinosaur from bird? In fact, created “kinds” work to say “don’t look behind the curtain” when it comes to established evolutionary transitions, attempting to separate naturally occurring transitions.

If there is some kind of genetic ceiling or barrier to evolution, then it is up to creationists to prove its existence. We know populations can speciate, so what is holding life on earth back from speciating so many times that it looks entirely different from a previous ancestor while still carrying along some inherited characteristics (homologies)? In order for baraminology to work, speciation must be denied, and given that we know speciation to occur, the pseudoscience becomes untenable. The only safe created “kind” would be the earliest common ancestor from which all life arose, but that would require oodles of evolution and so that stance is rejected by creationists. Bob’s argument above also reminds me of the “Bad genes or bad luck?” problem that David Raup presents in his excellent book Extinction. It’s not an either/or question, and mutations are not exclusively bad. Indeed, mutation is often discussed as if there was only one kind, but there are in fact many and it’s important to know what genetic material is being mutated and whether there’s another intact copy of that same information that will keep a potentially lethal mutation from killing an organism. Hell, if mutations were always bad, always degrading organisms, than how could some bacteria come to have the ability to break down nylon (a synthetic material not in existence until the middle of the last century)? There is certainly more to the picture than the simple “most mutations are bad” argument.

So, I think the safest course is to not follow the groups, be they evolutionists or crationists, but to use scientific method and common sense to arrive at a question that no one can ever suitably answer.

Appreciated advice, but the problem is that nature does not work by “common sense.” “Common sense” is (to play with the order a little) what people “sense” in “common,” and would be no different from going along with a consensus for its own sake. As I’ve written before, I am such a strong adherent to evolution because of my own experience; I have not been indoctrinated or brainwashed, but have looked into the claims of ID/creationism and evolution long and hard. Not surprisingly, evolution always comes out on top. Sure, there are plenty of things that I don’t yet understand and when I come across such a notion I try my best to grasp it, but I am not simply adhering to evolution because anyone told me to.

Sorry for the rambling discourse, I hope y’all get the drift.

Bob from Exeter NH
PS. Great web site!

Thank you for the compliment and the comment Bob. I have to say, however, that even though you claim not to be a young earth creationist you seemed to take some potshots at the science that has determined the age of the earth and introduced the creationist argument of baraminology at least twice. This is why intelligent design irks me; if they would just come out and say they were creationists, or at least embraced some creationist arguments even, then I would still vehemently disagree but at least I could say they were being forthright. At present, however, they seem to be noncommittal about lots of important issues like the age of the earth, what deity intervened and when, etc. Hardly scientific at all, really. If anyone pushes those issues aside, tries to say “Oh, we don’t need to know that” I have to wonder how much they really care about understanding the world we find ourselves in. While many people who identify themselves as intelligent design supporters get frustrated when I call them creationists, I really don’t know what else to conclude; ID is essentially creationism “lite” (or micro-creationism, if you please), and often times any old mish-mash of creationist belief is used to plug the holes not filled by top ID advocates.

In any event, I recognize ID as a different “species” in the genus “creationism”; it might have a few different attributes, but the homologies are still so prevalent that there can be no mistaking its affinities.

Initial thoughts on “The Last Dinosaur Book”

30 05 2007

Yesterday afternoon The Last Dinosaur Book by W.J.T. Mitchell and a reprint of Charles H. Sternberg’s 1909 autobiographyThe Life of a Fossil Hunter arrived in the mail. Not knowing where to start (it all looked so good), I picked up Mitchell’s book and as of last night I am a little more than halfway through. Before I get into my current criticisms/concerns about the book, I do have to say that it is perhaps one of the most enjoyable books (aesthetically speaking, at least) that I have read in a while. The book is chock-full of illustrations, from some of my favorite Mark Hallett and Jim Gurche works to various cartoons to medieval woodcuts; Mitchell’s book is certainly pleasing to the eye (although some of the video-captures from TV and films are a bit blurry, grainy, or otherwise of lower quality).

As beautiful as the book is, however, I think it was a mistake not to include any “dinophiles” or paleontologists in creating the book, a point that Mitchell points out in the beginning to instill an air of “objectivity.” The reactions of paleontologists to the book, given what is reproduced in the acknowledgments, didn’t seem to be especially favorable though, and perhaps Mitchell kept them out of the process in order to write the book he wanted to write instead of hitting a brick wall every page with a collaborator. While Mitchell’s central premise (at least so far) as dinosaurs as a totem seems to have some validity, in many parts of the book he seems to dig too deep in the wrong places to provide answers for why dinosaurs are portrayed the way they are in the media. Rather than dinosaurs appearing large, dumb, and drab being a product of their perceived connection with extant reptiles and differing views of evolution, Mitchell suggests that that new brightly-colored dinosaurs reflect the acceptance of multiculturalism, their drab appearance having more to do with racial tensions than science. While we certainly cannot ignore the cultural context in which dinosaurs find themselves in or regard dinosaurs as immune from cultural biases/preferences (we know this not to be true), it seems that Mitchell is trying to make dinosaurs a culturally monophyletic group, when in reality the dinosaurs of science and the dinosaurs of pop culture are different sorts of animals (even though they often take similar forms and do intersect).

The book is much stronger when Mitchell gets into the history of paleontology and what various fossil collectors thought about their finds. There still is a bit to be contentious about, but the history of paleontology seems to give Mitchell a more solid base from which to work and the chapters become more enjoyable. Obviously I still have a large portion of the book to go so I’ll do my best to reserve final judgment until I finish the last page, but overall I think Mitchell makes some good points along with some blunders that could have been avoided given a different reference point.

I have to say, however, that the book got me thinking about why I care so much about the extinct animals. Outside of the mythological archetype of the dragon (something big, fierce, and “safe” given its extinction) I think there is a bit of a “control” issue when it comes to dinosaurs. We know they are (were) real, but are long gone, so in order to encounter them we have to raise them from the dead, transport them to the present, or meet them on their own turf, all three common scenarios requiring human intelligence and ingenuity. Once the dinosaur is here, it can either be friend or foe (it depends on what story you want to tell, and there’s plenty of both kinds), but there is usually a “Frankenstein” type issue of trying to control a living creature that doesn’t always submit to being controlled (i.e. Jurassic Park). At best, they are our pets and companions (The Flintstones, Denver the Last Dinosaur, Theodore Rex, , etc.), and at worst they are mortal enemies that wish to devour us (Godzilla, King Kong, Jurassic Park, Dinosaurs Attack!, ), perhaps as some kind of payback. Indeed, we can’t talk about dinosaurs without talking about mammals, especially the idea that our ancestors were underfoot during the time when dinosaurs were the biggest and most fierce creatures, and there are often themes of maddened guilt/remorse (Carnosaur) or “What if?” scenarios thrown in to dino pop culture. It seems that we either feel somehow responsible for the dinosaurs demise or we want to “replay the tape” and see what would happen if they didn’t die out, both scenarios often ending up being tragic (exceptions include Dinotopia).

There is also a definite romanticism about paleontology and the study of dinosaurs in general. While various Roy Chapman Andrews wasn’t the actual inspiration for Indiana Jones, paleontologists often fit that archetype, as well as that of the cowboy, intellectual, and even wizard rolled up into one. Rather than seeking out the dragon to destroy it, the scientifically-adept paleontologist seeks to reconstruct it and bring it to life (you can even throw in a “mad scientist” interpretation if you like). While the reality might differ from the image, paleontologists are given a charismatic pop culture status often not awarded to lab scientists, perhaps because paleontologists resemble (in appearance and in the work they do) the last of the cowboys, and their lives are perceived to be full of adventure, discovery, and mystery. This popularity is a double-edged sword, however, and sometimes these popular scientists are seen more as big children indulging in fantasy than contributing “real” knowledge, especially since the explosion of biotech, genetics, and microbiology.

In any event, I am enjoying Mitchell’s book, not because I necessarily agree with him, but because it’s causing me to think. I love the science and the cultural appeal of dinosaurs, and the wax and wane of their popularity is certainly interesting. We are entering a new age of paleontological discovery (be it fossils found in the Montanta Badlands or in a dusty museum drawer), but I do have to wonder what will become of dinosaur as we inch closer to more accurate understandings about them. Part of what spurs dinosaur popularity, I think, is when there is an imagery shift, just like the “dinosaur renaissance” changed our perspective of how they looked and acted. How many more renaissances will we have? I know science will not provide all the answers we want about dinosaurs, but what will become of our dragons when most have been discovered, studied, and portrayed with as much accuracy as is possible? Will dinosaurs continue to be popular, or will they lose some of their status when they can’t be repackaged or repainted anymore?

Post Script: Mitchell also makes some stabs of sociobiology as pseudoscience and the secular religion of “scientism”, never fully explaining what he means (I guess we’re just supposed to nod our heads). I am not suggesting that there are no problems with sociobiology or that there are no people who look to science for ethical teachings (big mistake), but it would have been nice if Mitchell explained his stance instead of simply stating such ideas as a matter of fact before moving on. All I can do with such statements is point them out and say “What the heck?”

Hogzilla II: Bringing Home the Bacon

29 05 2007

According to some recent news reports, “Hogzilla” may no longer be top hog when it comes to monster swine. If this tall-tale is indeed authentic, 11-year-old Jamison Stone killed a 9 foot long, 1,051 pound hog with a “Smith & Wesson customized .50 caliber revolver shooting 350 grain bullets” somewhere in the Alabama backwoods. The seemingly iconic image of the young boy with his prize pig has circled the internet, but there is certainly more than may initially meet the eye to the picture.

If you look closely, you’ll note that you can see Jamison’s knee sticking up above the back of the pig, showing that he’s kneeling. If the hog was as big as the image makes it seem, you wouldn’t be able to see Jamison if he were kneeling behind the animal. Such is a common camera trick used by hunters to make their prizes look bigger than they really are. While local news outlets might be eating the story up, reporters from hither-and-yon are a little more skeptical. Toby Harnden of the Telegraph writes the following in a wonderfully-titled article “Is 87-stone hog hunter telling porkies?“;

Is this one of biggest wild hogs to have roamed the earth? Or a hoax by Alabama rednecks, cleverly using perspective, knowledge of hunting and the power of the internet to have a joke at the expense of urban dwellers everywhere?

Apparently there are no remains to examine or exhume as with Hogzilla; Stone’s pig is already being processed into sausage, the head being prepared by a taxidermist. Lack of scientific (or even reasonably reliable) measurement hasn’t stopped Stone’s father from setting up, however, which touts his son’s kill and features some more photos of the pig. The extra photos show the use of forced perspective and camera tricks even more clearly, however, and the pig seems to be of varying size depending on what image you’re looking at. Is it a big pig? Surely, but not nearly as large as the well-publicized press image seems to support. Not surprisingly, however, Jamison already has a role in the upcoming schlock-film The Legend of Hogzilla (if you must see a giant-hog film, rent Razorback, which it seems the new film plagiarizes to some degree), and given the fact that there are some rather large boars roaming the south, I suspect every now and then a similar tale will pop up for a moment on the news feeds. I just hope the next time such an event occurs that experts are called in to examine and measure the animal, rather than having tons of snapshots and “just-so” stories floating about leaving no one with any answers.

Creation Museum Aftermath

29 05 2007

Now that Ken Ham’s funhouse is now open, I thought I would reflect on some of the reactions I’ve seen to the “House ‘O Lies” over the past few days. In case you’ve missed it, the Anti- Creation Museum Carnival hosted by PZ is a must-see, and the Panda’s Thumb has a few links relating to the opening as well.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention last nights let-down on Bill O’Reilly’s program, (mass-media isn’t geared towards intelligent debate or discussing complex issues, apparently) featuring Ken Ham and Lawrence Krauss, although DefCon has a few good resources up on their website. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the anti-Creation Museum t-shirts and bumper stickers, however; if the best comeback to creationist drivel scientists can come up with is “I went to the Creation Museum and all I got was stupider,” we’re not doing a very good job. (In fact the word stupider makes me think of the Robot Devil’s response to the word in the final episode of Futurama “Stupider?! That’s not even a word!”). Again, I’m not sure I could do better (and I do like the design of the shirts), but I don’t think the attempted catchphrase really works. Which reminds me, if you don’t already have one, you can order a shirt to let everyone know you’re a “Future Transitional Fossil.”

The Answers in Genesis homepage also gives some interesting insights into how politics are intertwined with creationist nonsense. Here’s a snippet from an article about the opening posted yesterday;

Judge Moore [“Judge Executive Gary W. Moore—the top elected official in Boone County, Kentucky”] said he also appreciated the message of the values that will be underscored by the museum’s presence in the area. “Thank you for the impact it will make in our community from the standpoint of belief, from the conservative values point of view. We know that the message that you will promote and teach here is a message that our world needs to hear today,” he added.

George Ward, secretary of commerce for the Commonwealth of Kentucky who represented Governor Ernie Fletcher, echoed Moore’s sense of appreciation for the economic impact to the area. “On the tourism side, it’s going to be a great complement to what we have at Big Bone Lick State Park,” he said. “I envisioned when I was here (nearly a year ago) that every Christian school … is going to have a field trip to the Creation Museum, and we’re really happy to have those visitors.”

As others have already noted, it will be interesting to see if any court cases are generated because of local field trips to the creationist indoctrination center. Why not go to a reputable museum instead? It’s out of the range of plenty of people, but if you’re in the New York City area, the new Mythic Creatures exhibition is certainly worth a visit. Ironically enough, Edward Rothstein (who came out with a rather limp review of the Creation Museum) has also written a review of the new AMNH exhibit, although he doesn’t seem to be able to put 2 and 2 together when it comes to the realities of mythological creatures and they way the Creation Museum uses dragons to make the case that dinosaurs once walked with man. As John Hawks notes, perhaps Rothstein’s specialty is reporting on unicorns and dragons rather than museum displays.

What has most intrigued me, however, is the response from the ID community. Always pushing hard to make sure they’re not dubbed “creationists” but realizing that they can’t survive without the help of the “Big-Tent” Christian mentality, almost nothing has been uttered about Ham’s museum by the Disco Institute or any of its cronies. If they are so concerned with good science, why aren’t they just as pissed off as everyone else about the Creation Museum? Do they really believe in a young earth or vegetarian Giganotosaurus? In this debate, silence=complacency, and although Denyse O’Leary claims she has “little use for creation museums” she doesn’t seem to have anything else to say on the topic. Indeed, her reaction to Rothstein’s article seems to fuel O’Leary’s frustration that reputable museums receive public funding to educate visitors about evolution more than anything else. Likewise, the Discovery Institute has nothing to say about the museum at all, which tells me that they’re simply ignoring the problem because they need some amount of support from young earth creationists (if they aren’t themselves) to function.

O’Leary also belies her lack of knowledge about chameleons and evolution in her discussion. Quoting the misconception that chameleons change color to hide from predators put forward by Rothstein, O’Leary writes;

The creationists could well be right about the chameleons [changing color to communicate]. Darwinian theory needs the colour change to be a survival mechanism and interprets just about everything in that light. The chameleon itself may not have any such need. If you think that everything about life forms exists in some relation to a survival mechanism, you have spent too much time among Darwinists.

To put this in proper perspective, in the 4th grade I entered my first science fair, and my chosen topic was “Why do chameleons change color?” Looking through a few very basic science books and magazines, I discovered that the color change was not primarily used to hide but rather for communication, especially aggressiveness. Sure, chameleons have had selective pressures act on them so their “normal” color states would be likely to resemble their environments and so they could do a decent impression of a stick in order to sneak up on insects, but scientists have known for some time that the primary purpose of chameleon color changes is not some sort of camouflage mechanism. If I was able to figure this out in 1993 (I was 10 years old at the time), either O’Leary doesn’t understand the state of modern science or she didn’t care to actual research her assertions. I vote for the latter, which would be par for the course when it comes to many “anti-Darwinist” claims.

In any event, I don’t expect the creation museum to be making headline news for much longer, at least until a smart parent sues a Kentucky school for a field trip to the ghastly place. If you really must travel to the Creation Museum (and I eventually may just to check this place out for myself, although I’ll have the closest hospital on speed-dial in case my brain tries to detach from my skull and make a run for it), at least travel a bit down the road to Big Bone Lick, a place that has some of its own interesting mythological/paleontological history, as I outlined in my post The Dragons of Eden.

Repost: Army to bomb dinosaurs into the stone age?

29 05 2007

Update: I mentioned this about a month ago, and no one seemed to notice. Fortunately, however, the story has been picked up at Evolving Thoughts, Pharyngula, A Blog Around the Clock, and Our Descent Into Madness, so hopefully more people will get involved now that the story has hit some higher-profile science blogs.

Update the 2nd: Sean, via the Pharyngula comments, has rightly pointed out that nearly every post on this topic has used the words “bomb” or “bombing” in conjunction with army and fossils, at least implicitly connecting the idea that the army is going to somehow use dino tracks for target practice (we know they’ve used fossils before, and don’t even ask about what they did to whales during WWII). A little bit of research, however, tells us that it is unlikely that live munitions will destroy the ichnofossils; tells us that the Pinon Canyon site is a non-live-fire training area. This, however, isn’t exactly true as Fort Carson won the ability to have live-fire exercises (although they are, to the best of my knowledge, small-arms practice so far) in 2003, a point that seems to make many of the local people feel betrayed as they were promised live-fire maneuvers would not take place there). The “bomb into the stone age” line is just too juicy (or cliched, if you please) to ignore however, and perhaps a false image of what goes on at the training area has been created (although the military has been cryptic as to their plans for the site and perhaps could expand to some live-fire exercises; if they don’t tell us, how can we know?). Nevertheless, even though there might not be bombs going off at Pinon Canyon, this does not mean that the fossils will be preserved. Indeed, some reports (see the various links in the post) have suggested that some fossils on the existing base have already been destroyed, and obviously whatever tracks existed on the base would not be open to viewing by the public.

Hypothetical battles between the US Military and dinosaurs/assorted monsters have long been a staple of comic books (here’s a page from Star Spangled War Stories), but now it seems that the modern American military may yet blow up some dinosaurs, although it’s more akin to “[bombing] a dead horse”. Indeed, as stated on page 20 of the May 2007 issue of National Geographic, Colorado’s Fort Carson is looking to expand its current holdings into territory now containing private lands, Comanche National Grassland, and the site of some of the best dinosaur trackways ever discovered.

From agriculture to paleontology, everyone is going to lose if the Fort Carson expansion goes ahead as planned through the use of perhaps one of the most dishonest forms of land acquisition; eminent domain. So far, however, the army hasn’t exactly been forthcoming in its plans and claims that it would prefer to obtain new land from willing sellers rather than force it, but I don’t think anyone can blame me if I’m a bit skeptical about the military’s intentions. Why does the military need more land at all? So far I’ve seen excuses ranging from an increase in troops at the base to the need for training dealing with longer-range combat, but overall the officials involved have been secretive about their dealings and ideas for any expansion.

Needless to say, many farmers and people who live in towns that would be engulfed by the expansion (as far as we understand it, that is) aren’t too happy about this, and have set up the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coaltion (it could use a less awkward title, but it says what it is). While I am concerned about people being forced off their own land by the government, I also worry about the ecological impact of an expanded army base as well as the great loss such an expansion would be to paleontology. All we have left from the Mesozoic is in the ground, and if the army is allowed to destroy the trackways and skeletons found in the area, those resources will be forever lost. Hell, it’s already happening already, fossils being found throughout the area (even within the existing base) and who knows what else might be in the rock.

Simply put, the expansion of Fort Carson is unnecessary, unwanted, and dangerous; a huge mistake in the making. The army must be prevented from gaining more ground in the area, for the people, ecology, and even fossils of the area are far more valuable and important than some extra elbow room for soldiers.

Book Notes; The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World

29 05 2007

Despite the busy weekend, I managed to polish-off Rob Desalle & David Lindley’s 1997 book The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World or: How to Build a Dinosaur. Spanning only 181 pages, it went fairly quickly, but in the end I wasn’t terribly impressed. While a book like this was certainly needed, it could have been so much more than what it actually was. The rhetorical technique of taking the reader step-by-step through a PCR process works, although the description is a bit dry and runs on long (just like, from what I’m told, running a PCR in real life). The authors also tend to bounce between vignettes from the book and the movie despite the fact that the movies are really quite different from their source material. This isn’t a major issue, but the authors seem to be picking and choosing bits rather than addressing the works as a whole.

Be that as it may they do a good job at describing how, at nearly every level, the park couldn’t have worked and the dinosaurs would have been nearly impossible to create (at least in any form resembling a dinosaur). The closing chapters on the simple logistics of the park, predator/prey interaction, and the issue of having enough space for the dinosaurs successfully takes down Crichton’s fantasy islands, although I wish a little more time was spent on these issues and as well as a little more scientific fact. I have no doubt their conclusions were correct in that, i.e. there was not enough space or food for all the herbivores and carnivores said to inhabit Site B, but they didn’t seem to put in as much effort explaining this as refuting the notion of getting dinosaur DNA from blood inside an amber-entrapped mosquito (although that is the bigger issue at stake).

Perhaps my favorite chapter, however, deals with Jurassic Park’s “conscience,” Ian Malcolm. While Malcolm seems to be able to predict that the system will fail and that the dinosaurs will escape with some accuracy, he never really explains his computations or thought processes to achieve these conclusions. Much is said of “Chaos Theory,” but it is never really explained and does not seem to hold up to scrutiny when looked at closely. Indeed, Malcolm is much like the book Crichton wrote; fun fiction, but no more scientific than Godzilla or Frankenstein. That very reason is why The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World is important; it’s easy to throw assertions about DNA, cloning, and dinosaurs around and seem scientific, but is it really anything of the sort? Hardly. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy reading the fantasy-laden Crichton novels or the high-tech films, but there is a difference between regarding them as science fiction and scientific possibility, and the idea that a real-life Jurassic Park might be possible someday soon was a notion that seems to have been supported by the filmmakers.

In any event, if you’re already familiar with the process of obtaining, processing, and studying DNA this book probably doesn’t have much new information for you. I was overall unfamiliar with the PCR process so I learned a few things there, but otherwise it’s a fairly easy read that doesn’t didn’t excite me or bore me. While there are certainly things that could have been improved (and some rather painful, obvious mistakes like calling Maiasaura “Maiasaurus”), it’d be a good read for anyone who is altogether unfamiliar with basic science dealing with finding, extracting, and studying genetic material and has an interest in dinosaurs. In the end though, I shouldn’t complain too much; I bought it for a penny and I certainly got the author’s two cents.

Monday Night Muddle: Krauss vs Ham on O’Reilly

29 05 2007

As PZ noted yesterday, Lawrence Krauss and Ken Ham both appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show last night and the YouTube video is now up (and PZ’s take on the subject appeared online just as I started typing this post, along with a transcript and some comments by Jason Rosenhouse). In case you haven’t seen it as yet, here it is;

Ham opens up with a classic bit of Gish gallop, all of the false claims he sputters out (especially about the creation museum being “mainstream science”) requiring more time to refute than is given to Krauss. Krauss doesn’t do a bad job overall, but (being the O’Reilly Show and all) the debate seemed more about religion than responsible science, and I think Krauss’ statements on the intersection of faith and science could have been better. I know it’s a hot topic (do we really need another round of calling people militant atheists or appeasers?), but for my own part I don’t have a problem with concessions like God started off the universe, knowing man would be created and intervened at a later point; as Krauss rightly notes that’s a religious notion and not science.

What irked me about Krauss’ response was his use of the term “purpose”, which immediately conjured up (at least in my mind) the phrase “purposeful arrangement of parts” and other ID catchphrases. I know this isn’t what he meant at all, but he needed more time than was given to explain (you can’t tackle an issue like this in sound bites). I’m not saying that everything else said by Krauss was therefore worthless, but when I hear the term “purpose” show up during these debates I do cringe, as it seems to make some room for intelligent design. Of course, I can’t guarantee that I would have done any better, and although I was not at the rally from what I’ve seen Krauss has done a wonderful job organizing people in response to the house that Ham built. It’s easy to be critical on my own blog without remembering the good, so I don’t want to primarily come across as a crank or malcontent.

In any event, it was a rather crappy interview. It was good to see the conservative newscaster side more with Krauss than Ham, but by the same token he was more concerned with Krauss’ allowance for God than with good science. In that way it reminded me of many debates about “science” on television that were really about religion, being able to drive gas-guzzling cars, etc., so it seems that unless science seems to be running in conflict with certain beliefs or market practices, many people just don’t care. Even so, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and I am thankful that there are people who are willing to confront creationists in the media even though the odds are stacked against them.

Anti-Creation Museum Carnival Now Online!

27 05 2007

The wait is over folks; head over to Pharyngula to have a look at the cream-of-the-crop from various submissions taking Ken Ham’s creationist funhouse to task. “The Dragons of Eden” and (surprisingly) “Screw the Creation Museum, Visit the AMNH!” both made the cut, so give those a look if you haven’t already. I’m off to movies for the afternoon, and then a wedding, but you can expect “Tales from Inversand,” “A T. rex by any other name,” and a post on Ornithosuchus (as well as book reviews for The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World and Dinosaur Systematics) in the coming days.

Oh, and for those who love red pandas, but sure to keep your eye on The Voltage Gate in the coming days. Jeremy has a series of posts coming up on the cute critters coming up, with some photography from yours truly.