Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Thursday, April 14, 2005

National Academy of Science in USA asked to defend evolution

The president of the NAS of the USA, Bruce Alberts (coauthor of one of the most widely used textbooks on cell biology), has written to all members of the academy, asking them to publicly defend evolution against the quasi and pseudoscientific claims of intelligent design and creationism. Spurred by Michael Behe's egregious misrepresentation of Alberts' views in defence of ID, he writes:
I write to you now because of a growing threat to the teaching of science through the inclusion of non-scientifically based "alternatives" in science courses throughout the country. ...
Recent tactics to cast doubt on the veracity or robustness of the theory of evolution have included placing disclaimer stickers in the front of high school biology textbooks (Cobb County, GA and Alabama; proposal before the Missouri House of Representatives), mandating or recommending the inclusion of Intelligent Design in high school biology courses (e.g., Dover, PA; Cecil County, MD, respectively); development of statewide lesson plans that encourage students to examine "weaknesses" in the theory of evolution (Ohio), and plans to revisit parts of state science standards that focus on evolution (Kansas State Board of Education). If these challenges have not yet reached where you live or work, they are likely to do so in time.
We stand ready to help others in addressing the increasingly strident attempts to limit the teaching of evolution or to introduce non-scientific "alternatives" into science courses and curricula. If this controversy arrives at your doorstep, I hope that you will both alert us to the specific issues in your state or school district and be willing to use your position and prestige as a member of the NAS in helping us to work locally.
I hope that he is heeded in this matter. Scientists generally do not like to get involved in public controversies - they are not trained for it and often come across looking like the caricature the media has for scientists - as elitist ivory tower types. But if they don't step on the rise of "fake" science, which finds its way into television shows such as the X Files and (by report) Revelations, in which science is always shown to be wrong in favour of whatever is the latest popular superstition (often someone who claims to be able to cure cancer if only the Establishment would allow him), then science will become a marginal feature of modern life.

This condition is known, generally, as a "dark ages".

[Via Sarkar Lab]

Slime, politics and systematics

Systematists are an odd lot, in my experience. They range across all spectrums of sociality, interests, personal hygeine, and politics, as do we all. But sometimes it is hard to tell if they are being Ironic or Earnest, particularly when they live in the UK, where Irony is not a Trope, but a Way of Life.

So when a couple of systematists name Slime Mold Beetles after members of the current American Administration, and assert that "We admire these leaders as fellow citizens who have the courage of their convictions and are willing to do the very difficult and unpopular work of living up to principles of freedom and democracy rather than accepting the expedient or popular," as did Quentin Wheeler, then at Cornell and now at the Natural History Museum in London, it is hard to know if this is tongue in cheek or not.

Since they also named some of the beetles after their family members, one has to assume it is Earnest.

Wheeler, coincidentally or not, coedited an important book on species concepts, which has confused me no end, so perhaps it is Irony after all.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Hobbit not a pinhead

Those who have been following this particular story will know that Prof. Jacob, whose lab destroyed the jawbones of the newly-discovered Homo floresiensis, while taking a cast of it (possibly through spite but more likely through a failure to supervise a novice technician or student, in my view), also thinks that the specimen is a pathological microcephalic, which, in layspeak, means that the individual has an abnormally small brain that occurred during development, and is not representative of his or her species.

Well it's not. At least, it's not according to an analysis of a "virtual endocast" (that is, a cast of the inside of the braincase made by computer aided tomography - CAT - scans) published this week in Science. The authors compared the Hobbit with a modern woman, a microcephalic human, a chimp, and a Homo erectus skull, all scaled down to the same cranial capacity of 417cm3. There was no indication that it was closely related to humans, or that it was microcephalic, and it is unlikely to have been descended from an erectus population, they claim.

More fun to follow, I imagine...

[Thanks to Stan Gosnell for picking up the mis-spelling of the Hobbit's specific epithet. What can I say? I'm a philosopher, so details don't matter.]