Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sagar: Hovind in all his glory!

"Dr." Kent Hovind goes around the country giving presentations on why scientists are wrong about evolution and why the world really was created 6000 years ago. We mentioned Hovind a while back, and I just watched one of Hovind's presentations on youtube. The link is here . Besides just being funny, this clip is unique from other clips and debates we have seen in that you get to see a Creationist present to a pro-Creationist audience. The jokes and rhetorical choices he makes are definitely not ones that would work amongst most university audiences. If you have time, you should definitely check this person out.

Bytheway, Hovind has an amusement park where he portrays dinosaurs and humans living together at the same time. No joke here. Just thought you should know.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Dino Comics (from Joy)

Click on the comic to read it in full. So, this is tangentially related, but awesome and silly. This is from You should read them everyday, I do. The humor might be a little hard to get into at first, but you will soon realize that they are smart and clever! Trust me. (oh and also this week is guest comics week, so they aren't like normal...go back in the archive a bit.) So it is revealed. I am a comics nerd.

Sagar's New and Hot (Week 7)

Darwin did a lot of letter writing. I mean a LOT. Nearly 14,500 of his letters exist today. I know we have talked earlier about the Darwin Correspondence Project, which tries to collect all of Darwin's correspondence, but today, all of Darwin's correspondence which has been stored by the Project offline has debuted online. The database contains more than 50,000 pages of text and 45,000 images. The actual letters are housed in University of Cambridge. Maybe we should go?

The website for the database is found here , and an article about the database is found here .

Roarke's New and Hot (Week 7)

In news related to last week's discussion about genetic engineering, doctors in Britain have this week received governmental support for cosmetic genetic screens for the first time. A couple with a history of a genetic disorder that causes involuntary squinting requested that the Bridge Center Family Clinic in London screen embryos for the disorder and choose one that does not carry the allele for the disease. This marks the first time that doctors have been allowed to conduct a genetic screen of embryos for a non-life-threatening disorder. While critics argue that this is the beginning of a trend that will lead to the genetic engineering of "perfect babies," supporters contend that even seemingly non-life-threatening disorders can lead to severe distress, financial strain, and even suicide.
Read the article here.


Anne's New and Hot - week 7

As many of you know I had the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in the Galapagos while I was living in Venezuela. I went twice, and my trips there were probably the most memorable travel experiences I have ever had. When visitors travel to the Galapagos there are always experienced naturalists on the crew. I still remember the naturalist on our trip as being absolutely amazing and fantastic. After our trip, my family kept in touch for a while and we even arranged for him to visit us in Venezuela. Gradually though, we lost touch. I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to find him and get back in touch, and I was able to find his e-mail. He doesn't do as many Galapagos tours now and is involved in other projects, but when he does he focuses particularly on Darwin. I haven't found out much more than that yet, but I plan on continuing the correspondence. If any of you have anything that you would like to find out about, I would love it if you would generate some questions to ask him! I'll keep you all updated on what I find out!

I included some information about Klaus, our naturalist and some pictures from our trip with him.

Klaus Fielsch
Born in Quito to a German-Ecuadorian family, Klaus Fielsch went on to study at Montclair State University in New Jersey and New York State University (becoming trilingual in English, Spanish and German). Pursuing a lifelong interest in nature, Klaus started working as a naturalist guide in Ecuador’s upper Amazon Basin in 1989, was assistant director of a biological research station in Cuyabeno along the Aguarico River in 1991, and has been working full time as a naturalist guide in Gal├ípagos for over a decade. Klaus is also an avid mountaineer, surfer and diver and recently served as the naturalist guide for the filming of Master and Commander. He is now in much demand as a guide for TV nature specials on Gal├ípagos.

Joy's New and Hot, Week 7

Evolutionary Trees and Math

My article comes from and is about how geometry and topology are helping biologists make better use of evolutionary trees. It begins with a hypothetical situation: an oceanographer buys whale meat at a market in Japan, and is told that it is the meat of species that can be legally killed. He tests it only to determine that it is from an endangered species, which it is a crime to kill. The oceanographer goes to the authorities and is faced with this question: how sure is he that it is actually the endangered species?

Until recently, this could be a large problem, since the g
enome of all whales hasn't been mapped. Using evolutionary trees could be problematic because if the data provides evidence pointing towards different trees, the biologist has to determine between these which is the best. If the different trees are relatively close together, getting it wrong might not be too bad, but if the trees are far apart this could be a problem. However, Susan Holmes, a statistician here at Stanford (I always think it's cool when I read about people from here in the news), and mathematicians Louis Billera and Karen Vogtmann from Cornell have developed a new way to use evolutionary trees to determine more accurately to what species a certain creature belongs.

They made a sort of evolutionary "forest" out of the trees, creating a three dimensional representation. The biologist can take his average evolutionary tree, and trace the shortest line between it and the surrounding trees to see what his average tree is most closely related to and then pick a more accurate match for his mystery species. I'm gonna be honest, the article talks about negative curvature and some stuff I don't quite understand about the math. However, I just think it's neat to look at how different fields intersect and use one another, like math helping out biology. The researchers have used this method to create a free software program that's going to be added to a statistics program called R that biologists are already using. They are currently working on developing more accurate algorithms.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Dani's New & Hot :: Rovers & Sitters

My new & hot this week is an article in Medical News Today this past Monday.

The article talks about research on fruit flies that may shed light on the issue of if survival of the fittest is true, then why is there is so much natural genetic diversity. It is an interesting paradox; you'd think that if the best fit survived, when all the surviving individuals in the long run would have very similar genomes. However, as can be seen on all levels of organisms, genetic diversity runs rampant and also allows natural selection to occur.

Anyway, the article explains how there are two types of foraging genes in fruit flies (which are also found in humans...I wonder what we forage for...), the Rover gene and the Sitter gene. The experiment involve the idea of "negative frequency-dependent selection," which says that individuals that are not the same as everyone else has a better chance of surviving. The experiment found that Rovers in a population predominated by Sitters survive better and that Sitters in a population predominated by Rovers have higher survival rates. This is because these unique individuals in the population have unique ways of finding food and thus are competitively advantageous. This data shows that there isn't always one best fit variant, but that one variation helps to promote the other, and thus genetic diversity is maintained in the population, and natural selection can occur.

Darwin's Obituary: Robbie's Week 7 New and Hot

A cartoon featuring Darwin by Thomas Nast, father of the political cartoon, in an 1871 Harper's Weekly. People had quite a sense of humor back then.

I thought that Darwin's obituary, published on April 21, 1882 in the New York Times, was a good look at how Darwin was viewed during his own life and shortly after his death. In some ways, things haven't changed too much; Darwin is clearly well respected, but his ideas aren't well understood:

"He did not construct a theory of the cosmos, and he did not deal with the entire theory of evolution. He was content to leave others to poke about in the original protoplasmic mire, and to extend the evolutionary law to social and political phenomena. For himself, he tried to show how higher organic forms were evolved out of lower. He starts with life already existing, and traces it through its successive forms up to the highest--man."

There are a lot of other passages like this in the obituary: well intentioned, mostly correct, but fundamentally off the mark in a major way. It's surprising to me that natural selection was perceived in a distorted way even around the time of Darwin's death, especially given the care with which Darwin laid out his argument in the Origin of the Species. I'm curious why this was (and still is) . . .

Kate's New and Hot (Week 7)


My article this week is from CNN, and it's about a new species of hummingbird that has been discovered in the cloud forests of Colombia. It's called the Gorgeted Puffleg (Eriocnemis isabellae) and is one of 15 species of the Puffleg genus.

The article is also about how the species is in danger because it is very rare and has only been found on one mountain range. Slash and burn farming by coca growers is depleting the hummingbirds' environment and having a disastrous effect on their numbers.

An interesting side note is that Colombia has the world's largest variety of birds, with over 1800 species :)

Becca's New and Hot-- Week 7

My new and hot for this week expands on our discussion last week on the GOP debate, and specifically the question, "Do you believe in evolution?" I found an article from the Charlotte Post (located at entitled, "Complexity comes up short in Darwin debate," which discusses the injustice of asking candidates to "choose between religion and science." There were several points raised in the article which simultaneously terrify and amuse me.

First, the writer applauds John McCain's answer to the question-- that is, "I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also." Whereas I myself, and I believe the majority of the class, found this answer ridiculous, the article says quite the opposite: "This is what you call a slam dunk. McCain was able to acknowledge both science and religion and make them mutually inclusive." I argue otherwise-- I think McCain's belief that "the hand of God" is present in his view of the Grand Canyon shows the weakness of his understanding of evolution.

Similarly, Huckabee's recovery attempt after answering that no, he did not believe in evolution (and suffering the contempt of much of the country) shows the superficiality of his concept of evolution. According to the article, "After the debate, Huckabee said, 'I wish life were so simple. If it were, we'd be in a game show and not running a presidential campaign. ... If I'd had time, I would have asked whether he meant macro or micro evolution.'" Excuse me? Huckabee goes on to explain that while he does know that species adapt and mutate, he believes that "the design has a designer and the creation has a creator." While qualifying his statements may pacify a few shocked by his original "no" answer, it does not change the fact that he does not believe in the science--and therefore doesn't change my view a bit. (Also, side note: I was confused about this, but the article explains that microevolution allows the possibility of a creator, but macro does not. Good to know).

The real thing to take from this, though, is the writer's overarching point: "In a nation where 91 percent of citizens profess to believe in God, it's a safe bet we won't see an atheist in the White House anytime soon. But what about a president who doesn't believe in Darwin? Are Darwin and God mutually exclusive?" Are they? And if voters believe they are, what are the implications for the country?

Last note: Alan Dershowitz, a famous criminal lawyer, spoke this weekend in MemAud. He mentioned the different religious views expected of leaders of different countries, paraphrased as such: "In the United States, you cannot be an atheist and be president. In Israel, you must be an atheist to be president. In France, you must be an atheist, but the God you don't believe in must be the Catholic God." The intersection between religion, science, and leadership has huge and various consequences for different countries-- very interesting to think about.

Josh's New and Hot (Week 7)

The New Billboard

The Old Billboard

Click here for the press release.

Seems that threats to evolutionary thinking are ramping up after the Republican debate where our future leaders affirmed that they don't believe in science. The latest campaign to stop the flow of rational thought is a "Who is your Creator" contest held by the eponymous organization who is offering $5,000 to the lucky entrant. The taks is to formulate a 4-part legal opinion which makes the case for teaching creationism in classrooms.

As Prof. Siegel told us, this campaign is really not trying to prove "Intelligent Design" is science but rather that evolution is not science and thus "Intelligent Design" must be taught as an alternative. It really is interesting how the contest encourages its entries to completely muddle something that is not an argument by attacking evolution with tactics it has used to prove that creationism is not real science.

For instance, the first part of the winning entry will address the banning of any criticism of evolution. The contest suggests that "A Humanist judge will obsess ever whether a belief or theory is Christian while ignoring the religious implications of teaching the theory of evolution." Religious implications of evolution?! Honestly.

The second part is to encourage the courts to define a standard of science. This too is very scary as it is asking the courts, non-scientists, to make concrete decisions on what science is and is not. This effectively is entreating the courts to make all scientists and researchers beholden to a political establishment. This second part subjugates scientific thought.

The third section of the contest is too rich to not post the entire blurb. "
Thirdly, a successful contestant shall explore whether there is any reliable scientific evidence or facts supporting the theory of evolution, based on the standards developed above. He or she shall also explore the scientific evidence or scientific facts disproving the theories of evolution. The courts cannot define science much less authoritatively determine whether evolution is science, so this section is critical
." Enough said!

The fourth section is asking the entrant to propose a way that evolution and "Intelligent Design" should be taught in schools. I thought this was decided in Mclean v. Arkansas Board of Education and, most recently, Kitzmiller v. Dover. Intelligent Design is not science and evolution will be taught in public schools!

This really is not a debate that we should be having at this point. I can't believe that some religious radicals are continuing to push this issue. On the bright side, we'll have an endless supply of youtube videos telling us why a banana proves creationism.

Alex's New and Hot

Hi, so last week during class I mentioned this really interesting anime movie made in Japan back in the 80s or 90s, called The Ghost in the Shell. It's basically become a classic in the anime world and that's why I was really surprised that no one else had seen it. Coming out of Japan, I think there are only a few movies that are definitely must sees and I think this is one of them.

Click here for the main website. Go down to Menu, then go click on Story and it will give you a rough outline of the premise of the movie.

Basically in the year 2029, humans have become so integrated with machines that it's really hard to say who is human and who is machine, especially after one of the top secret government projects (a virus to infiltrate the enemy) becomes self-aware. And I guess on this level, it's basically the plot of the Terminator, only done much earlier and in a much more meaningful manner, in my opinion. Anyway, the main character is basically a human brain, I think, and her body is completely robotic, all cybernetic, etc. Her body has camouflage and so she can become invisible at will. The other thing is that basically everyone in this society is so engrained with technology that the virus-gone-awry is able to hack people to commit acts of terrorism.

In any case, this is a great movie that I think everyone should watch at some point.

As a sidenote, there is a really interesting fight scene near the end of the movie, basically the climax, where they are in some run-down museum and the giant robot is shooting at the main character. And basically you see the bullets destroying the walls of the place, and in one part, you see the "tree of life" getting shot to hell. At the top of this tree is "homidae" or something, I couldn't really tell at that speed. But I'm pretty sure it's basically another allusion to the whole human evolution at an ever accelerating pace business.

You can see it in this Youtube video at 3:38.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Chad's New and Hot, Week 7: Hoax of Dodos?

In response to the cable network Showtime’s plans to air the documentary by Randy Olson on intelligent design called Flock of Dodos, Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute, wrote a letter to Showtime’s CEO claiming that numerous points presented in the film are “wildly inaccurate.” In fact, the Discovery Institute has set up an entire website, called Hoax of Dodos, dedicated to shining light on what the Discovery Institute claims are falsehoods with Olson’s film. Among other points, both the article and corresponding website focus on two main points of contention.

The first is the claim made by Olson that modern biology textbooks do not contain Ernst Haeckel’s 19th century illustrations of various species of embryos as evidence in favor of evolution. The Discovery Institute responded to this by producing examples of textbooks that contain similar drawings of embryos and calling Olson an outright liar for not publicly acknowledging this fact now. Next, the Discovery Institute also argues that Olson greatly inflated the amount of the Discovery Institute’s annual budget for intelligent design. In his film, Olson claims that the Discovery Institute spends about 5 million dollars a year on researching and promoting intelligent design. The Discovery Institute claimed in response that their spending on intelligent design comes nowhere near this total and averages only about 1 million dollars annually. They went on to say that Olson got near this figure by including all of the Institutes revenues, which include grants from private sources that are intended to be spent over a longer period of time.

Though the Institute tries to back up its claims with graphs and photos and repeatedly calls both Olson and his film fraudulent hoaxes, their website really does nothing to definitively convince its readers. Instead, the entire thing just comes across as a petulant backlash to all of the criticisms made in Olson’s documentary.

Check out both the article and the Institute’s website, Hoax of Dodos.

Erika's New and Hot, Week 7 "Governor Proposes DNA Tests for Most Crimes in New York"

This article talks about how the governor of New York wants all convicted criminals, whether of felonies or of misdemeanors, to have their DNA tested. N.Y. has been testing DNA since 2000, but while it started out as just for sex offenders and other serious felons, it has gradually been expanded. On the one hand, many people are nervous about such an invasion of privacy- especially for people convicted only of misdemeanors, crimes that include petty theft, vandalism, public intoxication, and any other offense for which the conviction is less than twelve months (if longer, it's called a felony). For instance, the ACLU is worried about what else the DNA might be used for, besides convicting and exonerating criminals. DNA has much personal information that could be misused, and such a sweeping increase in the number of tests necessarily generates unease. Also, taking samples of all current offenders in the N.Y. prison system, of those on parole, probation, and the registered sex offenders, requires a total of 50,000 tests, which would cost the state $1.75 million. It is uncertain how much future costs would incur.

However, such a widespread use of DNA tests could have great benefits. If a murderer had once been convicted of petty theft, he or she could be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If an individual were innocent, he or she could be exonerated, even decades later (as has happened in about 200 cases across the country). The bill would make it easier for defendants to ask for their DNA to be tested against the evidence collected in their cases. It has the potential to bring criminals to justice with more certainty, and allow innocence to be proven more definitively.

I thought it was interesting that DNA, which has been used to prove which species are related to which, is now employed to determine the innocence or guilt of humans. I do find it somewhat unsettling that the government would have access to such personal information- such information that so completely identifies each individual. However, if it can help justice be served...there are all those cases of people being wrongly convicted...what do you guys think?

Julie's New and Hot (Week 7)

In Time Magazine's "The Most Influential People in the World: The Time 100" issue, guess who appeared in the scientist and thinkers section? Richard Dawkins.

In "Richard Dawkins" by Michael Behe, Behe writes about Dawkin's popular and controversial The God Delusion, in which Dawkin states that "religion is a so-called virus of the mind, a simple artifact of cultural evolution, no more or less meaningful than eye color or height." The fact that Dawkins appears in Time's list shows how relevant and heated discussion on evolution currently is.

Two interesting/related comments...

I also saw a short Time article about the Time 100 dinner, which was held to celebrate the honorees. There was one line about Dawkins and Wikipedia:
"Jimmy Wales, inventor of Wikipedia, met with Richard Dawkins, the biologist and outspoken atheist, to explain why Dawkins' attempts to edit Wikipedia entries kept being rejected."
Interesting... This makes me wonder what type of edits Dawkins tried to make.

Also, when I checked out The God Delusion on Amazon, there were 753 book reviews!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Lauren's New and Hot (Week 7)

This New York Times article From DNA Analysis, Clues to a Single Australian Migration discusses how it was previously thought that Australia and Papua-New Guinea were populated by several migrations, but that now based on mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes of aborigines, scientists can trace the ancestry of all aborigines back to one group that migrated 50,000 years ago. Until very recently, this population has been genetically isolated from all other human populations.

It was previously thought that dingos had to have been brought by later migrations, so this new information means that either dingos were acquired through trade with other groups of people, or that there were subsequent migrations of people with dingos, and that the later immigrants died out without a trace. Also, a change from thin bones 45,000 years ago to thicker bones around 20,000 years ago led researchers to suspect that some aborigines bred with Homo Erectus, but the evidence of only one migration indicates that the changes in bones were due to adaptation of the existing aborigine population.

Based on the DNA, researchers have traced the migration of the ancestors of the aborigines from India (a major stopping point out of Africa) to Australia. This migration probably took about 5,200 years to complete. While aborigines never bred much with other groups of people since leaving Africa, their present morphology is still significantly different from of their African ancestors. Based on fossil evidence in Australia, these morphological changes are due to genetic changes after the migration.

Lonesome George (again). Another New York Times article by the author of the article Becca posted last week, At Last, Hope for Lonesome George lists names suggested by various readers for the name of George’s potential mate. The final decision appears to be that Esperanza (Spanish for Hope) would be the best name for her- if she exists, for as long as she lives there will be hope for Pinta tortoises. This article does not really have any news in it, but I thought it would be fun to mention given that we have discussed Lonesome George the past two weeks.

While not new and hot, this does relate to Josh’s New and Hot last week, and our discussion of the distinction between chimpanzees and humans. This page includes several articles discussing the blurred line between human and chimp ancestors, and suggests that humans and chimps did interbreed shortly after the two species diverged, and that we have evolved to be more different since then.