Thursday, May 31, 2007

Lauren's Extra New and Hot

What I Think About Evolution

Remember the Republican Debate and the three candidates who rose their hands when asked if they did not believe in evolution? Well, this is an editorial written for the New York Times by Sam Brownback, one of the three. He writes that he believes in microevolution but that he does not accept the deterministic view that no intelligent presence was involved in creating life (I think someone posted something about one of the three saying something like this after the debate, but I couldn't find it).

Brownback seems to endorse the NOMA argument that we discussed last night- he thinks that "the scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths." It seems that he thinks that science answers questions like why does this work the way it does, and why are there all these similarities between species, etc, but he also insists upon asking the question "why are we here?". He claims that because the questions are different, both are important, and says, "Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose." By stating this, he acknowledges that he thinks humans have a special place in the world, a belief that he expresses later by saying, "I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose."

He also states that he thinks that some aspects of evolutionary theory are true, but that he rejects the ones that interfere with the "truth" of the creation of man. While claiming to be reasonable and accepting of science, he clearly does not realize that rejecting a theory because it does not fit in with an unproven ideology is unscientific.

While he tries his best to come across as rational, I am by no means convinced. Probably the main point of the editorial is that he is saying what he thinks he needs to say to get the votes of the people: he needs to appear rational enough for secularists but religious enough for the religious right. And, as we discussed last night, trying to assign meaning and purpose to life tacitly gives credence to religion. I do not know if he claims to need meaning in order to placate the religious right or if he actually does feel a need to find the meaning of life. To me, his seems to be a sadly human-centric view of the universe.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Alex's Book Review

Michael Ruse: Can a Darwinian be a Christian?

Click here for my review.

Josh's Extra New and Hot

Check out this article from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Even though my last post was about animal sexuality, I just couldn't pass this one up (let's chalk this up to the "If it ain't broke..." philosophy).

A recent study by the London Zoological Society shows that female cheetahs in Tanzania are far more promiscuous than previously thought. It turns out that in a sample of 47 litter where there were multiple cubs, only 57% were all from the same father, leaving a whopping 43% of cheetah cubs familys with mixed siblings. The study took 9 years and 171 faeces (yes, I'm using the British spelling) samples to reveal that mommy cheetahs were not so chaste. This may even be an underestimate since "Cheetah cubs suffer high mortality on the first few weeks so it was difficult to get samples from all of them" according to Zoological Society scientist Gotelli in a BBC interview.

Why is this occurring? The best thoughts on this tie directly back to our good friend Darwin. Mating with many different males increases genetic diversity and thus ensures that if one of the cubs is not well adapted to his environment, then another of her cubs will be and can pass on her genes. Because cheetahs are endangered, this is considered a good thing because it cuts down on the possibility of inbreeding.

Zooming the scope from micro to macro, this also may be a good thing due to the psychology of cheetahs. Male lions and leopards are commonly known to kill off babies in the pride that are not related to them in order to ensure that their own genes get passed along. This is not seen in cheetahs probably because the males have a difficult time telling which cubs are theirs and which are not. This increases the number of cheetahs, which is important now that they are becoming rarer and rarer.

I'll have to be honest that another reason that this caught my attention was the fact that this article was about promiscuous cheetahs. My first reaction, upon reading the article, was envisioning a group of cheetahs on stage with Jerry Springer waiting anxiously for paternity tests and fighting over who fathered whom with a weeping girlfriend cheetah. Of course, I returned from my amused wanderings, and then wondered why I was trying to apply human morality and ethics to a group of cheetahs. Cheetahs breed in this manner due completely to the science natural selection without any regard for the beliefs and whims of any person (or deity for that matter!).

I'm reminded of the Darwin's comment on the problem of the ichneumon wasp which puzzled religious scholars, pre and post Darwin. The ichneumon wasp lays its eggs in moth larvae which, when hatched, will eat the wasp from the inside out, saving all the vital organs for last so as to keep the larvae as fresh as possible but incidentally inflicting the maximum amount of pain possible on the larva. In contrast to happy stories about God creating humans and puppies (or nice dinosaurs) to live in peace, this unfortunate example clearly does not tell the glory of God as the Psalms proclaim. Darwin had the following to say about it:

"I am bewildered… I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars. Or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed."
-Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 1960

So before we start attacking nature with our own morals, let's remember that the universe doesn't revolve around us and our silly conventions. Rock on, promiscuous cheetahs.

Chad's New and Hot (Week 9)

For this week, I found two articles that both talk about speciation as a result of animal behavior. The first dealt with the speciation of tropical fish based on the tendency of coral reef fish to associate with fish of the same color. The study, performed by Oscar Puebla of McGill University, tracked the behavioral patterns of coral reef fish in dives for periods of one hour.

“Predatory Hypoplectrus fish were observed tracking other non-predatory fish species with similar color patterns to surprise their prey, which are usually not afraid of non-predatory fish species. They were also observed mating with partners with similar color patterns. Having identified behaviours that segregate the fish into groups and small but statistically significant genetic differentiation, the researchers concluded that each of the
13 color morphs of hamlet fish classifies as an incipient species.”

The reasons for this color-specific behavior are yet unknown, but Dr. Frederic Guichard, an assistant professor at McGill, claimed in the article that this showed a new possible means of speciation based not on physical mechanisms (like Darwin’s finches) but on rare behavior.

The other article discussed the link between the evolution of trichromatic vision (the ability to distinguish between red, green, and blue) and the development of primates with red skin and hair. Originally this ability was used to forage for ripe fruit and young foliage. However, by careful study of a phylogenic tree that tracked and linked this evolutionary ability to sexual selection.

“They found that the species that could discern red and orange hues were more likely to develop red and orange skin and hair, as well as highly social habits that make it easier to visually compare mates. In fact, the more social the trichromats are, the more red coloring they show.”

I found these two random articles pretty cool because they demonstrate two of the main points that keep coming up in class: First, the more that we understand about the development of traits and species, the more links that we find to Darwin’s theories of natural and sexual selection. Second, they remind readers that evolution is an constant, ongoing process. Here are the links to the two articles on coral reef fish and trichromatic vision.

Joy's New and Hot and Book Review (week 9)

Animal Personalities!

Everyone who's owned a pet knows that animals have personalities. When I read this I thought
about cats and dogs, but the article says that personalities have been identified in over 60 species, including fish, insects, and mollusks. Scientists are looking into how these personalities might have evolved. The article says that in many cases, personalities are shaped by how much an animal has to lose (in terms of reproduction), and the more an animal has to lose, the more cautious it will tend to be over time and in many situations. The scientists present two observations: variations among personalities are often structured around willingness to take risks, and secondly, individuals often have to choose between reproducing now or later. (Reproduction now diminishes resources for future reproduction.) The researches came up with a mathematical model of how this decision creates populations where some choose to reproduce later, while others choose to reproduce now. Those who choose to reproduce later are less risky in their activities, whereas those tho reproduce now are willing to take more risks. This could be an explanation as to why different individual animals display different personalities.

Also here is my book review of Gould's Rocks of Ages. Just be glad I read it so you didn't have to!

Anne's Book Review - "Letter to a Christian Nation"

Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” presents compelling arguments describing how religion stands at the core of the problems we face in today’s society. However, at the same time his insistence that the only solution lies in the total eradication of religion must inherently strike a nerve in the millions of people in the United States that consider themselves members of a religion. Although Sam Harris focuses his arguments on the extremists and fundamentalists, he also asserts that the moderate religious followers allow for the fundamentalists to flourish and contrive evil schemes like September 11. While his assessments may contain a strand of truth, I think that by placing his argument in his book he isolates those very people who he needs as his allies. If indeed, Sam Harris has a vision and hope for the future, I think he should reach out to these people rather than alienating the atheists even further.

While I find some of his more extreme statements objectionable, Harris presents the crux of his arguments in a clear and understandable format of letter addressed to Christians. His discussion of the perverted Christian view of morality in relation to modern issues of abortion, stem cell research and sexually transmitted diseases shows how important it is to change the conception of what is most important in our world. If morality is the alleviation of human suffering, Harris argues, then Christians have a skewed vision of right and wrong. Harris also addresses the conflict between creationism and evolution. His exasperation at the creationists who discount the obvious scientific evidence of evolution shows how the eternal conflict between religion and science remains to be reconciled. Sam Harris’ letter outlines the most relevant problems in the United States today and in the end shows how important it is for us to try to change our ignorance before it is too late.

Michael Behe as a propagandist: Robbie's Week 9 New and Hot (and review)

I just read Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, in which he tries to use the argument of irreducible complexity as evidence of design. I wrote a pretty scathing review of the book on Amazon; I think the Behe was wrong or actually unfounded in making a lot of his claims.

I decided to do a little research on Behe, who's listed as a senior fellow on the Discovery Institute Website. It says that "Behe's current research involves delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures," which basically means that Behe has been doing whatever he can to show that proteins could not have evolved.

One of the peer reviewed articles in favor of design on the DI website was wirten by Behe in the journal Protein Science in 2004. It was called "Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues," with the conclusion that the mutations required for evolution to produce functioning proteins are so improbable that proteins could have not evolved. This was an irreducible complexity argument without the use of the word irreducible complexity.

This article was pretty controversial; in an editorial in Protein Science, the editor concludes:

"Prof. Lynch’s approach of testing the problem raised by Drs. Behe and Snoke within the modern framework of evolutionary biology represents the desirable scientific approach (Lynch 2005, this issue; Behe and Snoke 2005, this issue). As Bruce Alberts wrote in a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times (Feb. 12, 2005): "In evolution, as in all areas of science, our knowledge is incomplete. But the entire success of the scientific enterprise has depended on an insistence that these gaps be filled by natural explanations, logically derived from confirmable evidence."

I guess this is true; this may be part of the desirable scientific approach because other scientists pretty much killed Behe's claim. Still, I think Dawkins has a better point in "The God Delusion:" Behe has devoted his career to developing confusing propaganda rather than finding truth.

Selling evolution - new book - Bob

Writing about evolution is clearly a growth industry.
My friend Casper turned me on to yet another episode in this saga.

Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s
Theory Can Change the Way We Think
About Our Lives
by David Sloan Wilson
Delacorte Press: 2007. 400 pp. $24

It is reviewed in NATURE|Vol 447|31 May 2007

More summer reading???

Anne's New and Hot - week 9

Interesting Plane Experience and Sam Harris's Life

So, I was sitting on the airplane reading “Letter to a Christian Nation” and the person next to me kept glancing over. Finally, the person spoke up and asked me if I liked the book and that in their opinion that Sam Harris is a “complete psycho”. I told him that I was reading the book to gain a broader perspective on the debate between creationism and evolution in the United States today, and that I don’t agree with every claim that Harris makes. The man next to me wasn’t too happy even being near close to the book, though and looked pretty uncomfortable. I can see how Harris generates extreme reactions because his writing is also extreme. I was really interested in finding out more about the man, Sam Harris, and how he came to develop such extreme opposition to all religion. The Washington Post Published an interesting article in the wake of an evening debate between Harris and a former priest at the New York Public Library. And in the long article there are brief biographical segments that I found quite intriguing.

Apparently, Sam Harris went to Stanford as an English major, but then dropped out of college, after having a life changing experience after experimenting with MDMA, or ecstasy. He said, “I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.” Harris began to Study Buddhism and Meditation and traveled to Nepal and India. While, there he spent years at a time in seclusion and meditation, like the Buddha himself. He also read hundreds of books on religion. In other words, Harris was as deeply spiritual as one could possibly be, but not necessarily religious. He re-enrolled in Stanford in 1997 to complete a degree in philosophy. During his second phase at Stanford he began writing a lot, leading to his book, “The End of Faith”.

Knowing more about Sam Harris and his background definitely gives Harris more credibility in my mind. He never discounted religion from the start; in fact he became seriously engaged in religious experiences. I still don’t personally agree with all that he says, but knowing a bit more about how Harris came to the conclusions that he did puts his letter in context.

The article also quotes a retired Stanford Professor of religious studies. I found it interesting in light of the opposing view of another Stanford Professor of theoretical physics, Leonard Susskind, whose praise is quoted on the back cover of Harris’s “Letter”.

The Article: “Atheist Evangelist” by: David Segal The Washington Post, October 26, 2006

It can be found here:

Alex's Extra New and Hot

Okay, so I found these two things just last night, and I actually think they are probably superior to the one that I found before. Click below for the two links:

Dolphin Braininess due to Social Life.
Is Our Style of Language in Our Genes?

Ok, so the first article is really straightforward. It talks about how two studies have been published in the last month or two with somewhat similar conclusions. Both studies contend that a good explanation has been found for the reason why dolphins are so smart. We all know that dolphins are probably among the most intelligent species on earth. They behave in a very intelligent manner and they are easily trained, in addition to the fact that they have one of the greatest brain-to-body-mass ratios out of all the organisms on earth. Anyways, both studies suggest that this over-sized brain is at least partially due to the intellectual demands of living in a highly social society. Anyway, I'm not too sure how the studies themselves were actually conducted, however the two articles did state that they are two alterative theories for the evolution of large brains in cetaceans: 1.) their ancestors' re-migration from land to sea; 2.) their brain's use of echolocation. The other two explanations are sort of brushed off.

I think the second article is really interesting. Long story short, there are two genes that are associated with brain development, ASPM and Microcephalin. These two genes are of particular interest because both have changed very recently in terms of human history. ASPM most recently changed approximately 5800 years ago (a blink of an eye in geologic time), and microcephalin most recently changed about 37000 years ago. In any case, the researchers at the University of Edinburgh divided up some of the major languages on the planet into two categories: tonal languages are like Chinese that use pitch changes to convey meanings of words, and non-tonal languages like English that don't.

The overall trend that the researchers found after removing biases due to geography and such was that people who spoke tonal languages LACKED the most recent mutations in ASPM and microcephalin, whereas people who speak non-tonal languages do possess the most recent versions of these two genes. So depending on how confident we are in these conclusions, this is definitely evidence to the assertion that languages is hard-coded into our genes. Which I think is kinda cool. Because I think there's a few things that we can infer from that. For example, languages definitely evolve very quickly in today's society, so is that indicative of how quickly evolution in progressing as well? That's probably something interesting to think about.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Roarke's New and Hot (Week 9)

A collection of papers soon to be published in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology presents a new methodology that can be used to observe evolution in action. By studying the rapidly evolving E.coli bacteria, the scientists performing these studies are able to gain new insights into how organisms are able to adapt to environmental changes and fluctuations. These particular studies focused on how E.coli evolves to deal with changes in acidity, which is relevant to the occupation of human intestines by the bacteria.

The scientists had four experimental groups: one exposed to a constantly acidic environment, one to a constantly basic environment, one to a randomly fluctuating environment, and one to an environment that changed from acidic to basic every 24 hours. Each group was left in its experimental environment for 1000 generations and then tested in acidic and basic environments. The researchers found that the groups placed in a constant environment survived well in the environment they had been exposed to, while the groups placed in fluctuating environments performed well in both acidic and basic environments. As the article states, this demonstrated that the "jack-of-all-trades" can be the master of some as well.

While this is only one study that can be done using E.coli as a model, it opens the door to many other new studies of how rapidly evolving populations can quickly adapt to new environments. Exciting stuff!

Read the article here.
(The paper isn't published yet.)


Becca's New and Hot #2 Week 9

I posted once this week, but when I read this article on moth evolution at breakfast this morning, I was prompted to write again. Says Nicolas Wade, the author of this article and also one of the books assigned for the Hum Bio core, "Every feature of a butterfly or moth, throughout its life from egg to adult, has been shaped over millions of years of evolution for specific purposes." Those specific purposes are basically escape from predators and parasites, for apparently monkeys and birds love to eat moths-- they taste "like raw shrimp." This made me think about fitness; are these ornate moths and butterflies more evolved than other species? Are they more fit for their environments? I also thought about the fallacy that some reading this article might commit: assuming that evolution had an end goal in "designing" the butterfly and moth patterns. Of course, evolution has shaped the moths and butterflies. But as we know, evolution did not shape the designs to promote survival; rather, the species with the most fit designs survived. Beyond helping me to synthesize some of the ideas to which we've repeatedly returned in this class, the article gives very interesting examples of butterfly patterns and their supposed purposes: those that look like dead leaves, those with patterns that accentuate movement to make them look like they're too fast to catch, those that camouflage well. Here are some pictures-- the first blends into tree bark, the second looks like sunlight streaming through a dead leaf, and the third looks like a dead leaf. I think it's a very cool application of what we know!

Dani's New & Hot (Week 9) and Book Review

My new & hot this week comes from USA Today. The whole article can be found here.
The article is entitled "Why Do Flowers Grow Like So?" and it talks about the discovery of two genes in Robbie's favorite family of plants, Arabidopsis, whose relative amounts determine how the plant flowers. The question that instigated this research was that theoretically, there should be no limit on the number of ways a plant can flower, but regardless of these immense possibilities, why do are plants found to only flower in THREE different ways? And what determines how the plant flowers?
The same type of question can be posed for animals as well. Wouldn't two noses enhance a bloodhound's sense of smell? What about three? Four? A hundred? So why has nature selected against animals with extra body parts? And why has nature selected against animals with fewer body parts? For instance, we can surive on one kidney, so why do we have two? One for backup? Then why don't we have a backup heart?
On another note, today in my Biotech class, Hank Greeley, a professor from the law school came in to talk to us about ethics & genetics. His presentation was pretty interesting, especially because he started off talking about the DNA database tha we had discussed last week or so. He brought up some interesting points about CODIS:
• arrests have been made on relatives of databased individuals due to partial matches
• about 14% of the population is in the database, the majority of which are males, 42% are African American
These details would indicate that a partial database such as CODIS discriminates against African American males.
And finally, Darwin + Stanford = LOVE:
Book Review
I've decided to post my book review on this blog instead of on Amazon because it is more of a personal reflection than a objective book review:
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I began this book with high expectations because of what others had said about it and also because of its general popularity. Maybe it is because my expectations were too high, but I was quite disappointed in the overall argument provided. Overall, I think Dawkins, in the process of trying to get his point across, undermined some of his arguments along the way.

Speaking as someone who comes from a non-religious background and whose belief in God is fickle at best, but who also does not consider herself an atheist, this book did not further persuade me to become more or less of an atheist. And nor did Dawkins’s argument persuade me in the non-existence of a supernatural being that has the potential to control all aspects of the world. In fact, I am perhaps even more inclined to give a little to the religious faction in that after reading The God Delusion, the one conclusion that I am thoroughly convinced of is that there is absolutely no way to scientifically prove the God Hypothesis, as Dawkins successfully hammered through in just the second chapter. I believe that this argument, presented at the very beginning (although I concede that it was necessary to do so) made me very skeptical as I read further.

Also, just to play devil’s advocate (no pun intended), Dawkins’s presentation about how scientists and other higher educated people are more likely to be non-religious can be undermined by the idea of self-preservation. The belief in an omniscient/omnipotent God renders scientific work useless. If every time an enigma about the natural world comes up and science cannot explain it, then religion would automatically say that this enigma is how it is because God decided to create it that way. And thus, problem solved, and no further experiments would be needed. Thus in a completely religious world, there would be no need for science, and scientists would have no purpose. Therefore, I argue that scientists are less religious not because they know better, but because they cannot be religious in order to preserve their purpose and distinction in society.

However, one argument that Dawkins brings up that I think is valid to consider when debating the existence of a supernatural God and the validity of religion is the question of “Who created God?” To me, the answer is obvious: Man did. [Sidenote: this is a quaint contradiction to the religious belief that God created Man.] Following on Dawkins’s train of thought, if God is the most perfect perfect being, then whoever created him must also be near perfection, a state which definitely does not describe Man, as both sides would agree. The idea of a God created by Man would not hold up in religion and thus the idea of God falls.

On the other hand, Dawkins does bring up a good point that in order for a God to create such complexity in the world, God himself would have to be extraordinarily complex. However, this argument does not prove the non-existence of God, as Dawkins tries to use it as evidence for his case because it only works against the postulation that God is a being. But what if God is a process or a means? What then? Does God, the process have to be extremely complex? Darwin’s theory of evolution is a great example where the means of complexity is very simple. Natural selection is so simple that it is intuitive.

In conclusion, Dawkins’s The God Delusion was a disappointment for me, but it did get me thinking on the creation vs. evolution debate and has allowed me to form my own opinions based on my personal experiences. The book provides some thought-provoking arguments but the arguments were not strong enough to persuade me on either position.

Erika's Extra New and Hot

"The exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt has many items to show a grasp of the depths of world poverty and ingenious ways to attack it. They include a 20-gallon rolling drum for transporting water, above."

“Design That Solves Problems for World’s Poor”

This article doesn’t relate directly to Darwin, but we’ve talked several times about attempts to right past wrongs, like using technology to counter the global warming that is resulting from technology. I also think it’s just a really good idea. This article describes the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum that honors inventors who design products to help the poorest in the world. It is housed in Carnegie’s mansion, which is fitting, as Carnegie himself thought that everyone wealthy had a duty use his money for the greater good. He believed that wealth would be most useful concentrated in the hands of a few, who would then become patrons of the arts and sciences, promoting a level of civilization that he did not believe possible without a wealth disparity. He himself founded libraries all across the country, and managed to give away almost all of his money before he died (for more of his philosophy, see “The Gospel of Wealth” Since there is such an enormous disparity between the industrialized world and the developing world, I’m sure Carnegie would have approved of using the amassed resources to improve others’ lives. I found it interesting that, after globalization has allowed developed countries to exploit the resources of the rest of the world, we are now trying to use globalization to make the situation more tenable.

Erika's New and Hot, Week 9, and review of The God Delusion

"Two days after the flyby, New Horizons took a picture of this alignment of two of Jupiter's moons, Io and Europa. The blue plume on top of Io, left, is dust particles arising from an eruption of the volcano Tvashtar."

“Jupiter Gets Its Close-Up”

This article was really exciting, and it also reminded me of the first major undermining of humanity’s special place in the world: the heliocentric model. When Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, the book (describing a heliocentric system) went largely ignored. Galileo first brought the heliocentric model to the public consciousness (and therefore the Church’s) with a series of discoveries he published in 1610 in The Sidereal Messenger. One of the most disturbing observations he made was that Jupiter has four moons (it actually has four moons and dozens of smaller ones he could not see with his telescope). That knowledge significantly undermined the argument that Earth was special and deserved to be in the center of the universe—who were those moons shining for? If Earth wasn’t the only planet with a moon, maybe it wasn't so special. Just under four hundred years later, we’re not only able to see all of Jupiter’s moons, but we can send missions there (and beyond) to take photographs. Galileo might have been unsurprised to hear that Io, one of Jupiter’s moons he observed, is incredibly active, but I bet this photo of a volcanic eruption would have significantly unsettled his contemporaries. It’s a remarkable photo. He might have been a bit sad, though, that we’re still having debates about whether literal interpretations of the Bible should be taken over empirical evidence…

Here is my review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I initially tried to publish it on Amazon, but it was over the word count so it didn’t appear, and now Amazon won’t let me publish this (shorter) version because it thinks I already have reviewed that book. So I’ve posted it here, sorry.

The God Delusion

This book succeeded in its stated goal of convincing me to accept my atheism. In the first chapter, Dawkins presents a scale of 1 through 7 on the question of the existence of God. I could only agree with 6; like Dawkins, I would respond, “Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there’” (51). While I found Dawkins’ style belligerent (for a mild example, a letter from the president of a historical society “damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind…every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice” (16-17)), I had difficulty finding holes in his arguments. However, his arguments raised tough questions, and I did not agree with all of his responses.

For instance, he firmly believes it is child abuse to deny a child the right to think critically, but instead to teach unquestioning faith in authority. I also believe in and value critical thinking above all others. For science, it would be horrible to believe in unexplainable mysteries and accept things unquestioningly. A group of people taught to obey authority figures could be led to commit atrocities. At the same time, I am not so sure that our empirical mindset is unquestioningly better. Dawkins makes a good point that few people raised in a well-educated, open-minded society would choose to live like the Amish, or in Saudi Arabia. Yet the Amish or Saudis who would choose to live in our society would necessarily have already accepted our paradigm- within their own, they would not want to, just as within the standards of our society, we would not want to live in theirs. That does not make us objectively “right.”

Dawkins wants the child to choose. I don’t know how that could be achieved- either he/she would learn to believe in science (empiricism, evidence), and therefore not believe Scripture, or learn to believe that truth is found in authority (sacred books), and therefore be unconvinced by empirical evidence. I believe it is better for people to think critically and question authority, but I don’t know if that is objectively true- how could I prove it- so how could I force everyone else to accept my source of truth?

Dawkins makes the optimistic assertion that there is no separate realm for faith because, ultimately, everything is a scientific question that could be solved by science. There is no room for God- the gaps in science are being filled, and the theologians’ desire to leave some questions unanswered is detrimental and hopeless. I agree, but I don’t believe that science can answer everything. Natural selection and a scientific origin of life do not and cannot give any ultimate meaning to life. I think there is none, but that answer is beyond the scope of science. I cannot think of a feasible experiment to demonstrate whether life has any meaning, even though it is a yes or no question. Dawkins finds meaning in that we are lucky to be here, but that is just his opinion. I agree that theologians have no monopoly on answers to those sorts of questions, but they do have special knowledge of particular answers, and if people want to find the answers in one specific book, it is reasonable that they would turn to those most learned in such matters. Probably, anyone’s answer is as good as anyone else’s, but since I can’t determine an experiment to determine which answer is scientifically true, I would not prevent anyone from seeking an explanation based on ancient documents that have withstood the test of time. I don’t agree that everything can be answered by science, or that there is no room left for God, despite my personal opinion.

I found Dawkins’ explanation of morality unsatisfying. He explained how morality would have been evolutionarily useful, and I agree. Christians certainly act no more “Christian” than atheists, and many horrible things have been done in the name of religion (though I don’t agree with him that the world would have been much better off without it- I think religion has been an excuse for, not the cause of, wars). However, he gave no reason for why we should still act morally, even though it was once evolutionarily advantageous and we still feel the urge to do so. He makes fun of people for fearing atheism because they don’t think people would act morally without feeling supervised. To me, that is not the question he should have addressed: removing any idea of ultimate meaning or purpose, what is the value of a human life? How does one find meaning in helping others, if humanity is just the current end product of an amoral process? For me, the danger in this mechanistic view of the universe lies not in its removal of a mind-reading punisher, but rather in the meaninglessness of it all. That we are the way we are because of impersonal mechanisms like natural selection is remarkable, but it does not make my life or my actions meaningful, as I would feel if I could believe we had been put here for a purpose. Dawkins finds science an inspiration, but that is his personal opinion. In The God Delusion, his advocacy of fearless critical thinking about every topic left me searching for a meaning of life that would stand up to such scrutiny, and his inspiration by science did not sway me. His book allowed me to say that I am an atheist, but I understand why the religious might want to protect their children from such doubts, however cowardly that may seem.

Alex's New and Hot

"What's in a Name? The Future of Life"
by Kristen Philipkoski

I found this article the other day, it's somewhat related to Becca's story earlier this week what with it being Linnaeus's 300th birthday and all. This article goes into a little bit of detail about the man and his work, but otherwise, most of the article is actually a critique of the current Linnaeian system of classification. That is, it looks at the history of binomial nomenclature and basically says that it's a horrible system. A scathing critique, if you will.

The problem is, the naming scheme is not optimal. For the most part, the naming is very ad hoc and often times species are often named after really random things like the name of the discoverer. There's not a particularly elegant way of organizing everything. In addition, the currently classification system does not take into account a lot of the current advances in the evolution of life and molecular genetics.

The point is, many people think that the current system is really outdated, here is a quote:

"The binomial system for naming species is a necessary evil," says David Hillis, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Arizona who says he'd prefer a more precise nomenclature, such as registration numbers for all species. "No one would suggest such an awkward system today, but it is so entrenched that it is virtually impossible to change."

So people want to replace it with something that's perhaps more streamlined and makes more logical sense, but I guess the problem is that there's too much precedent. The Linnaean system has been around for so long that a lot of people think that it's going to be really hard to replace this system, so we might be stuck with what we have for a while now.

This is going to be a horrible analogy, but it's like Galileo/Copernicus vs. Aristotle almost. Aristotle had so much sway and power and he had tradition on his side that even when something else came along later that was better, people didn't really care and it was hard to get that new thing stuck. Eventually though, the better thing did stick around. Same with the recent demotion of Pluto as a planet. In any case, I'd be interested to see what people do with binomial nomenclature in the future.

Book review to come later.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Julie's New and Hot (Week 9)

"Nature's Tricks Help Moths Say 'Don't Eat Me"
by Nicholas Wade

New York Times, May 29, 2007

Butterflies and moths have evolved a wide variety of colors and camouflage patterns. Throughout these insects' lifetimes, they have evolved special traits to escape from predators. In "100 Caterpillars" and "100 Butterflies and Moths," Daniel Janzen and Winifred Hallwachs (with photos by Jeffrey Miller) examine these insects and their colorful appearances.

A few examples of these strategies that are mentioned in the article:
  • Calledema plusia, a type of moth, has a "silvery gash on both sides of its brown wings," which "mimics a shaft of light streaming through a dead leaf."
  • Pieria helvetia has a "disappearing act." When a predator is near, it will fly very rapidly, flasthing the red spots on its hindwings. Then it will quickly close its wings and is then invisible.
  • The most interesting adaptations are in the moth, Oxytenis modestia. As a caterpillar, this moth imitates bird droppings. At the end of the caterpillar stage, the moth mimics a green snake. As an adult, the moth imitates a leaf, but the shape and form of the leaf depends on the time of the year it is born. Moths born in the dry season mimic dry leaves by being light beige colored. Moths born in the rainy season look dark and moldy.
These adapations are incredible, especially the varied and specific ones of the Oxytenis modestia. The photos from the book that are included in the article are amazing as well. (Captions are also from the article.)

"DISGUISES The mechanisms for warding off predators include dark coloring that allows the H. amphinome to blend in to tree bark."

"Silver stripes on the C. plusia look like sunlight streaming through a dead leaf."

"During caterpillar stages, O. modestia bears a resemblance to a bird dropping."

"A pattern on Z. ellops mimicks a dead leaf."

"H. icasia releases a bitter yellow fluid if bothered."

p.s. Here is my review for Letter to a Christian Nation. In the book, Harris mentions (footnote on page 78). There are other links on this site as well to YouTube videos and other sites. Interesting stuff...

Kate's New and Hot (Week 9)

Pretty flowers...

Hey all, Last week I mentioned a really cool article about Carl Linneaus in June's National Geographic. Becca already posted about his 300th birthday celebration, but I just wanted to let everyone know about this article. It's pretty biographical...there's an online version here. There is a whole section that talks about evolutionary trees and stuff. Another interesting thing to note is that this article was written by David Quammen, author of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Quammen mentions Darwin once in the article: "But his passion for order--for seeking natural order--did move taxonomy toward the insights later delivered by Charles Darwin."

I really wanted to post these pictures from the article...I think they're incredible. I love NatGeo :)

Sagar: Fun With Limbless Lizards!

A new limbless lizard may have been discovered in India though the finding has yet to be published in a scientific journal. The discovery is significant because it seems for now that the species is only found in eastern India with its closest relatives being in Sri Lanka and South Africa! Lizards and snakes diverged on the evolutionary tree a long time ago. Limbless lizards are thus not snakes. I just thought this new discovery was interesting as it tangentially relates to our discussion last week about how the difference between two closely related species seems arbitrary. What makes this species a lizard and not a snake???? This new species sure does look like a snake. It seems nowadays, that species are traced genetically as well as morphologically making the classifications more legitimate. The link to the article is here .

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Lauren's New and Hot (Week 9) and Dawkins

This photo is of invasive goats and a native tortoise on the Galapagos. Here is the website the photo came from.

No kidding as slaughter of Galapagos goats nears completion

This article on the website describes the measures taken to save the Galapagos from goats. Whalers introduced goats to the islands in the 1800s, and the goats have caused significant problems for the islands in that they eat the cacti that normally feed Galapagos tortoises and otherwise disturb the environment. In the 1970s, a program was started to exterminate the goats. This program took off in the 1990s, and now goats have been nearly eradicated from some of the smaller islands and a portion of Isabela (the largest island). One method of eliminating goats is flying over the islands in helicopters and shooting the goats. New Zealanders experienced with shooting feral goats from helicopters were hired to perform this task. Another method used is to take goat-sniffing dogs on foot and shoot the goats. The most creative method listed in the article is the use of hormone-treated sterile female goats to lure wild goats.

Some people say that the extermination effort is necessary because otherwise the goats could destroy the fragile ecosystem. Poor people living on the islands make their livelihoods from selling goat meat, so they object strongly to the extermination effort. Without the goats, these people would have extremely little to eat or live on.

One interesting reaction to goat extermination is that of natural resources management expert Robert Nelson, who says that the human impact on the Galapagos has been tremendous, and that goat extermination is merely an artificial means of trying to return the Galapagos to their state before human intervention. He says, "it is more like Disneyland than the real thing."

I have reviewed The God Delusion, and here is the link to my review. An amusing note: no one has marked my previous three reviews as helpful, yet within hours of my Dawkins review being posted, three people have marked it as helpful. I guess this shows how popular The God Delusion is. A preview of what I thought of Dawkins: overall it was a very well thought out book, however, he may have taken things a bit too far when he claimed that religion (including moderate religion) is the root cause of anything evil humans do. I can't help thinking that if it were not religion, something else would serve to do the same thing.

On an unrelated note, I was amused to find the following Daily article:What you didn't know about Darwin. The author takes the stance that Darwin delayed publication of the Origin deliberately out of religious concerns. This article amused me because it has a very cursory summary of a number of things we learned this quarter, and there are at least 14 students who already know the things that the author considered to be "What you didn't know about Darwin".

Sagar's New and Hot (Week 9)

Why are there no Unicorns? This is the question that scientists at the University of Calgary asked as they seeked to study evolutionary trajectories of species in general. Instead of directly studying the horse and the horse's lack of a horn, the scientists studied patterns of inflorescence (or the way flowers are arranged on a plant) in plants and asked why, of the infinitely many ways in which flowers could branch, only three types of branching predominate. The scientists developed a mathematical model based on empirical studies of the garden weed Arabidopsis that showed the three types of branching predominate because they follow naturally when growing tips on plants switch to make flowers. This study thus sugggests that the way genes control development does guide the way in which evolution occurs by providing a limited set of possibilities that species can evolve into. This article is light-hearted, an easy read, and short, so check it out here !

Also, I have reviewed Letter to a Christian Nation here .

Becca's New and Hot-- Week 9

May 23 marked the 300th birthday of Carl von Linne, more popularly known as Carolus Linnaeus-- or, the "Father of Modern Taxonomy." Sweden, Linnaeus's home, went wild celebrating, and Linnaeus's alma mater (the University of Uppsala) awarded honorary degrees to prominent figures in the world of science and beyond, including Jane Goodall, James Watson of DNA discovery fame, and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (random?). I thought it was interesting to hear what his contemporaries (or... more contemporary than we are) had to say about him. According to this article, "The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said there is "no greater man on earth." The German writer Goethe compared him to Shakespeare and Spinoza. The Swedish author and playwright Strindberg described him as a poet who happened to become a naturalist." The article goes on to describe him as a physician, linguist, ethnologist, ecologist, and botanist. It was Linnaeus who coined the term "Homo sapiens," or "man the rational." Sounds like another of the overachievers we've been learning about! Like Darwin's, Linnaeus's contributions to biology helped lay the groundwork for science up to the present. According to Jane Goodall, "The importance of Linnaeus is the way he grasped the similarities in structure between so many different organisms and laid them out in a way that's still useful today." She especially praised Linnaeus for grouping primates and humans together so long ago, noting that some scientists even today won't admit that we are related. Linnaeus made some very useful contributions, and it seems that he deserves his world-wide tricentennial birthday party.