Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Disabling the Cain myth

August 20, 2009

There was a bit of stir in the blogsphere recently concerning a certain visit of freethinkers, scientists, and assorted godless heathens to a certain Creation “Museum”. The Creation Museum, located somewhere in Kentucky, of course stands out as a shining example, a tremendous monument to humanity’s ability to remain stubbornly and willfully ignorant, while still somehow retaining the ability to read. The event was sponsored by the Secular Student Alliance (Go here to get involved.) and was a resounding success, such as from the above links and here (with associated links), and elsewhere.

Other than that, I won’t say much about the visit as I was unfortunate enough not to go and much more about can be found elsewhere. I was sent a book from this Hall of Ignorance previously, which when I free up some time I hope to review a bit of here. A cursory glance reveals extremely poor and misrepresented science, lies, and ad hominem attacks against Charles Darwin. Wonderful. Now one of the items I saw when looking through the various blog reports concerning this Cargo Cult Museum was an entire panel explaining from where Cain picked up his wife. Given the absurd starting assumptions, the only possible answer is that his wife was his sister.

As luck would have it, I came across this very topic discussed at GodAndScience.org. Not surprisingly, the author supports Ken Ham’s (the creator, if you will, of the afore-mentioned Baffle ’em with BS Museum in Kentucky) proposition. For a site advertising itself as showing God through science, I was surprised at how little science there was in this particular post. The idea is that man (an creation) was formed to perfection. Therefore no genetic flaws. So there will not be the genetic problems of inbreeding right from the start. These imperfections started multiplying after the so-called fall. So, at the time, marrying your sister was fine. I had seen further arguments elsewhere that this is consistent with the longer lifespans in the earlier parts of the Bible, presumably believing that genetic mutations necessarily lead to shorter lifespans.

The problem is that this is not how science is done. You don’t start with a conclusion based on an old book you think is right, and throw around some sciency terms, like genetics, in an effort to arrive at some self consistency. You might as well analyze the science in Lord of the Rings. You may get some cool ideas and interesting consistencies, but it is still fiction.

Let’s start with the idea of perfection, which I guess means no genetic defects, whatever that means. A genetic characteristic is beneficial ultimately in the “eye of the environment”, so I’m not really sure what this perfection entails at a reasonable level of precision. Certainly there are some defects which turn out to be harmful, some neutral and a few of which happen to be advantageous for a particular environment. I presume the biblical justification is that Adam was made “in the image of God”, since I can’t find any Bible references to Adam being genetically perfect. So God has genes, and specifically none of which are defective? Has anyone done a genome sequence of God to discover by how much we differ from genetic perfection? Or is being made in the image something different? Perhaps spiritual awareness? Would this entail knowledge of good and evil? God supposedly knew good from evil, but humans had to eat magic fruit to obtain this? So, perhaps not a perfect image? How did the introduction of sin lead to genetic defects and how can you test this? So right away our first assumption leads to more questions for which no clear answers are available.

At one time I did hear arguments that the old age (some to past 900, including Adam) to which people lived in the pre-flood era were consistent with the idea that human started with “perfect” genes before the fall. It is not at all clear to me how a lack of genetic defects leads to lifespans on the order of those mentioned in the Old Testament. I’ve seen no scientific evidence to support this. Other interpretations hold that the numbers associated with the long ages held only symbolic meaning, so not all Christians buy into a literal long lifespan picture presented by the Bible. That the earliest humans had the longest lifespans also flies in the face of available evidence (also mentioned in the discussion at the bottom of the page here). Note that the average life span in the Neolithic age, that is 9500 B.C., close to 5000 years before Creationists say we had the first human, was about 20.

So, how could this be made somewhat scientific? First thing to do is forget the Bible. You want independent evidence that will corroborate it, not by starting off with the Bible as your conclusion. Where is the evidence that the earliest humans had far fewer genetic defects? What predictions does this model lead to? Should we see an increase in the number of genetic defects through human existence? Should we expect a continuous rise in defects (accounting for systematic error due to pollutants in our industrial age)? If you want to take the approach that the earliest humans were living over 500 years of age, apart from old mythological stories, where is the actual evidence? Bone analysis can tell us something about age and we haven’t seen anything like the claimed ages in the Bible.

We do have bones from some of the earliest humans from 195,000 years ago. We also have the skeleton of a 25-35 year old woman from France who died about 13,000 to 15,000 years ago, roughly 7000 years before death came into the world, according to Creationists.

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Learning compassion and human evolution

April 14, 2009

From NPR, I came across an interesting study from USC that looked at compassion linked to physical pain, contrasted with “learned compassion” related more to psychological pain. It is reasonable to expect that empathy (see one interesting detailed study here), linked to empathetic neural “mirror” circuits in the brain, was likely an adoptive survival trait. This is kind of a short circuit that could have helped to recognize when another in the social group is in pain and needing help, or for quickly learning things to avoid.

What the USC study showed is that empathy related to physical pain was much more quickly processed (hardwired) then nonphysical pain. Antonio Damasio, coauthor and David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at USC and the director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, says:

… early humans were probably more likely to survive if they could tell when a friend needed help or a foe was in pain.

“It probably took longer in evolution to get to a stage in which human beings could look at another human being, not see anything externally wrong with them, but imagine that there was something quite wrong in terms of their feelings, in terms of their mental pain,” he says.

Damasio says people still aren’t born with this sort of compassion. They have to learn it.

What I found interesting was that many of the same brain systems were involved in processing both the physical and psychological types of empathetic pain. But processing physical pain empathy was nearly instantaneous whereas to process more complex emotional pain took about 6 seconds longer. It seems as if the appropriate brain systems were co-opted via appropriate learning to give the same effect as an originally evolved function. There are possible implications for raising children.

That raises questions about the effects of news programs and video games in which a traumatic psychological event may flash by in a just a second or two, Damasio says.

He says that might not be long enough for children who are still learning compassion.

Possibly, if children are not learning the full range of compassion, they may not acquire these skills. As empathy and compassion are the foundation of our morality, this could be detrimental to society.

This is also consistent with the argument against the theistic argument that a god or religious thinking is necessary for morality. Morality emerges from the empathy and compassion built into our naturally evolved brains. That does not mean that we don’t need some early foundational training, or brain mapping, to handle more complex social issues.

All eyes on Texas

March 27, 2009

It looks like we have narrowly averted a major assault against science education in Texas, but that Champion of Ignorance, Dr. McLeroy continue the assault with what has been termed a death of a thousand cuts. One of his wedge arguments he tried to get in is to examine the sufficiency or insufficiency of a cell to have formed from natural selection. I touched on that a little bit here where I pointed out some plausible scenarios that could kicked off the whole shebang. Of course, to rigorously examine this far beyond the scope of high school biology. The only reason for wanting students to think natural selection may not be “sufficient” is to try to seed doubt. Normally, doubt is a good thing of course. Scientists doubt themselves all the time, and if not, they’ll get corrected later if need be. But the doubt McLeroy wants to sow is that evolution may not work, and this simply goes against everything we know in biology. Muddying the water with doubt about well established scientific principles is not appropriate in a science class.

Next, we had stuff on how the universe formed. Somebody named Cargill seems to have wanted standards with more “humility”, recognizing that there are “other theories out there”. It was laughable that she couldn’t actually name any other these relevant theories. I’m also not too sure that high school students are prepared to go into discussing anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background and relation to various inflationary models. Is this what Cargill had in mind? Somehow, I doubt it. And these are the people deciding the future of education for our country? I shudder in fear.

It is frustrating dealing with Creationists, but I almost wish that they just went ahead and said textbooks needed to discuss strengths and weaknesses of evolution. If I were to write a biology textbook (which I won’t; I’ll leave that to actual biologists who know much more about the material than I), I would do this in the first chapter:
We will now examine the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.
Strengths of evolution: See the rest of the book.
Weaknesses of evolution: None.
Done.

Science education under assault again in Texas

March 25, 2009

Once again, somebody in Texas has decided that our science education is too good and wants to undermine it with nonsense. A dentist, Dr. McLeroy has decided to ignore a century and a half of observation, experimentation, all the overwhelming evidence in support of evolution, and the general consensus of every working biologist to say that there are “problems” with evolution and kids need to know this. Although active research continues on various mechanisms, and on particular details, there is no disagreement on the basic and central fact of evolution in general, or how it so comprehensively explains all the evidence in front of us. In one of the most ludicrous and inane situations ever, this has now come before the Texas School Board. This is extremely important because this may well determine whether or not future textbooks on a national scale will deal with real science or will get muddied up with time wasting nonsense. From the article:

The textbooks will “have to say that there’s a problem with evolution — because there is,” said Dr. McLeroy, a dentist. “We need to be honest with the kids.”

The vast majority of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

Yes, they say, there are unanswered questions — transitional fossils yet to be unearthed, biological processes still to be discovered. There is lively scientific debate about some aspects of evolution’s winding, four-billion-year path. But when critics talk about exposing students to the “weaknesses” or “insufficiencies” in evolutionary theory, many mainstream scientists cringe.

The fossil record clearly supports evolution, they say, and students shouldn’t be exposed to creationist critiques in the name of “critical thinking.”

“We will be teaching nonsense in the science classroom,” said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The reporting here is not as good as it should be. A passing reference is made that “transitional fossils” are “yet to be unearthed”. Technically true. Making fossils does require a special set of circumstances and we are fortunate to have those we do. More fossils would be useful, and it is noteworthy that each new fossil discovered lends further credence to evolution. However, an unfortunate implication is that we are still hoping to find transitional fossils. In fact, we already have transitional fossils (and see here).

Again from the article:

The textbooks will “have to say that there’s a problem with evolution — because there is,” said Dr. McLeroy, a dentist. “We need to be honest with the kids.”

No Dr. McLeroy, there is no problem with evolution. There is no controversy in the science community on whether or not evolutionary processes are responsible for the immense diversity of life on our planet. There is a problem though and the problem is with your understanding of evolution and how the entire science process works. Do not inflict your willful and arrogant ignorance on Texas and the rest of the country. It may surprise you to know that having a scientifically literate populace will be a national strength. Going the direction you propose is to start on the path towards backwards medieval thinking, abdicating scientific leadership.

The school board is meeting this week, so Texans, do the right thing. I’ve lived in Texas for several years and know that there are some bright people there. Contact anybody on the school board you know. I can’t believe we really need to say this, but let’s fight to have actual real science in science classes. It’s the right thing to do.

Back again and what’s happening

March 5, 2009

Well, it looks like I’m back. We just had a brutal and bloody week with layoffs. Lost a lot of good people, and a lot of experience and knowledge. It was almost like breaking up a family. Somehow I survived, though not happily. Suffice to say I expected to be writing a much different post now, and to have more time to do so.

So, let’s get back up to speed on what’s happening in the world. Rush Limbaugh was blathering on irrelevantly to some Republicans somewhere. Google it if you haven’t heard about it and are interested for some reason.

It looks like California’s Proposition 8 is back in the courts. The argument appears to hinge on whether or not it is an amendment or revision of the state’s constitution.

But Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine, predicts the case will turn on whether the court believes Proposition 8 violated the state constitution by skirting the Legislature.

“If it concludes, as I believe it should, that this is a revision, then it is unconstitutional,” Chemerinsky said. “The whole point of a constitution is to limit what the majority can do.”

Rightly said Erwin Chemerinsky. This bigoted monstrosity of legislation, which unnecessarily clamps down on the rights of others which infringe upon no one else, can not be overturned soon enough. It is an embarrassment to my state.

In other news, Jindal, governor of Louisiana, signed a law allowing nonsense to be taught as science in schools. Apparently he is determined to get Louisiana back on track to head to the 12th century and beyond. To send a strong message to Jindal, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology is boycotting Louisiana. A good move, in my opinion. In response, Michael Egnor, the notorious Discovery (of new ways to substitute science with politics) Institutionalist, had some amusing things to say. I highly recommend taking a look for amusement’s sake. Let’s see, we have argumentum ad populum, blah blah blah, and finally “If you don’t stop showing us how we’re wrong, we’re going to take your funding away”. Nice. I would like to point out to Egnor that one reason science gets funding is because it actually gets results. That is already far beyond anything the Deception Discovery Institute has ever done. Well, unless you want to count the results of lost and wasted resources in endless legal battles. Besides, he should be focusing on the next battle between science and his narrowly conceived world view. The failed philosophy of dualism and the fact that the well demonstrated physical basis for the mind has made the soul obsolete. Oh wait, he’s a brain surgeon. In that case, I suggest he read up on compartmentalization, as discussed by Sam Harris in The End of Faith, or perhaps ethics.

Back to the beginning–origin of life

February 16, 2009

One of the complaints I often hear from otherwise knowledgeable doubters of evolution is that science has not found out how life got started in the first place. This is invariably followed by there needing to be a supernatural cause. To use a crude analogy, if I find rat droppings in my house, but can’t see how the rat could have gotten in, this does not inexorably lead to a conclusion that a divine Rat Placer put the rat there. It just means that I haven’t found out yet how the rat got in. On the question of the origins of life, we have a difficult problem, to be sure. The fact that a problem is difficult does not necessarily mean that the solution is supernatural.

What makes the problem difficult is that there are a daunting number of variables. We don’t know precisely where molecules first started utilizing energy to reproduce themselves, or precisely what the environment was like in which it happened. The whole planet was the stage with varying environments and billions of molecular reactions going on for nearly a billion years. We can make some reasonably educated guesses and go from there though. Of course, even if we succeed in creating synthetic life, there could still be some uncertainty if what we produced was what actually happened. There could perhaps be a multiplicity of ways for things to get started. That doesn’t mean we stop looking though.

So, it was interesting to see this recent article from PhysOrg.com on this very question.

“I look at the origin of life as the result of combinatorial chemistry on a global scale,” said Deamer, a research professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC who is also affiliated with the Department of Biomolecular Engineering in UCSC’s Jack Baskin School of Engineering.

The power of combinatorial chemistry lies in the vast numbers of structurally distinct molecules that can be synthesized and tested at the same time. Similarly, conditions on the early Earth allowed not only the synthesis of a wide variety of complex organic molecules, but also the formation of membrane-bound compartments that would have encapsulated different combinations of molecules.

“We have made protocells in the lab–artificial compartments containing complex systems of molecules,” Deamer said. “The creationists charge that it’s too unlikely for the right combination to have come together on its own, but combinatorial chemistry gives us a better way to think about the probability of life emerging from this process.”

In other words, the space of chemical combinations that could have gotten life started is enormous. As the molecules became organized and utilized resources for growth and reproduction, a confined space, as the article goes on, means that there will be competition for resources. It is evolution at the biochemical level. Some chemical strategies will be more successful than others.

It is interesting that membrane bound compartments were mentioned as one of the pieces of the puzzle needing to eventually fit. Not too long ago it was proposed that the function of the cellular membrane may have been performed by sheets of mica (also discussed here. It is interesting speculation. From the Astrobiology.com article:

Hansma says that her “soup and sandwich” mica hypothesis is supported by several lines of evidence, including the many chemical and physical similarities between a cell interior and the space between mica sheets. For example, both environments are potassium-rich and negatively-charged. Such similarities suggest that mica “would have provided a very hospitable environment to the earliest biomolecules,” says Hansma.

In addition, the confined spaces formed by mica layers would have provided the isolation needed for Darwinian evolution. What’s more, the expansion, contraction and movements of the mica sheets caused by temperature changes and ocean currents would have helped rearrange molecules and trigger the formation of bonds between them, as required for life to originate.

The mica boundaries could have acted as de-facto primitive membranes. It is an intriguing idea, but since Hasma first proposed this a couple of years ago, I haven’t read anything else about it. I would be interested to see any experimental results with likely chemical combinations between mica, in effect trying to emulate those possible early Earth conditions. It’s stuff like this that makes me want to build a lab in the garage. Then, of course, get funding, hire a team and find collaborators, make a clean room to make sure everything is sanitized (including the mica) to rule out false positives, etc. etc. It’s hard to be a mad scientist creating life these days.

Happy Birthday Charles!

February 12, 2009

darwin1

Today, February 12, 2009 happens to be 200 years after the birth of the well known scientist named Charles Darwin. It happens that he was not physicist, but I gather he was some sort of biologist of note. Among some of his accomplishments was, based on extensive notes from his sea voyage on the Beable and much further careful observation and incredible insight, he proposed and elaborated upon a theory of natural selection which describes how life evolves and species can transmutate into new species. This unassailable principle is now the foundation upon which the entire science of biology rests. Much has been learned since then, of course. We know the role genes play in producing traits, for example, of which Darwin was unaware. More continues to be learned. This does not in any sense diminish the grand feat he had accomplished however. Many of his insights are just as valid today as they were in the late 1800s.

Rather than try to describe the awesome grandeur of the process of life on this planet that evolution describes, I’ll let Darwin speak for it. From The Origin of the Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Ah, nice. He mentioned gravity. With his mind, it seems almost a pity he wasn’t a physicist.

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

The same old design arguments

January 26, 2009

Flitting across my feeds, over at what appears to be yet another conservative web site, I was treated to the ill founded ramblings of a certain Phil Harris. He says that he does have a strong interest in science, and for this I commend him. I wish him success in his explorations of scientific understanding. Unfortunately, he seems to have not yet mastered some basic critical thinking. I also recommend he actually learn some biology. His arguments are those which have been endlessly refuted in too many sources to be enumerated here. That people keeping making the same arguments, the basic refutations of which are too easily found with even the most casual investigation, shows an unwillingness to step outside their bubble to examine the evidence and counter arguments.

He writes:

Who am I, and why am I here?

It is a question that Richard Dawkins and other rejectionists can never answer through the scientific method; although, they claim all mysteries of the Universe would surely be unraveled given enough time and study. In a rather perverse twist, it is those who believe that life continues that are assured to know all there is to know, while those who reject life beyond death will simply evaporate, along with the composite chemicals that give the illusion of self, knowledge, and consciousness.

Who he is an incredibly complex carbon based sentient lifeform descended from primate ancestors we share in common with modern day primates. This lineage goes back several billion years to before multicellular organisms arose. Furthermore, I would imagine he fulfills several other societal roles. This is an incredibly rich legacy. I fail to see how invoking any supernatural entity adds any depth. Why is he here? I am not sure why the question is even valid. Purpose is what you make of it. We have the power to create our own purpose. Adding a god to the mix does nothing.

Further, I’m not sure that Dawkins and others would claim that everything that can be learned will be given enough time and study. We keep learning more, to be sure, and fitting more pieces to the puzzle. It is not clear to me when anybody will ever be able to claim that the puzzle is complete. We must also remember that scientific theories are “true” on a provisional basis. Experiments must always be performed to test theory and you never know when some unexpected result may force modifications to a theory, or even overthrow it. Further, his notion that those who reject an afterlife will simply evaporate away is somewhat strange in context. In the highly unlikely case of an afterlife in any objective sense, I fail to see why those of us who see no evidence for one now would simply not be able to take part in it. Even most fundamentalists think we atheists will spend eternity enjoying the pleasure of each others company in hell. Or something like that.

Well, he goes on. For example:

It is amazing to realize that such an incredible chemical accident occurred on a planet that hangs in an orbit so precisely tuned distance-wise to the Sun. How fortunate that this same planet includes physical systems of weather and climate that insure fresh water cycles in such a way to support life of all types.

What would be more incredible is if our planet was more too far away from the sun for our kind of life to exist, and yet, here were are. It would simply be amazing if we were living on the sun without any alterations to our physical composition. I don’t see why it is so hard to understand that the reason the planet seems so finely tuned for our kind of life, is because these are the conditions for which our kind of life evolved. If there were different conditions, it would possibly be a different kind of life. We still, so far, have only a sample size of one in comparing planet biosphere evolution pathways. We haven’t even ruled out life on other bodies in our own solar system yet.

Finally:

This clump of self-aware chemical compounds will continue to believe that there is more to the story of life and the Universe, than an unbridled, unstoppable run of chemical reactions. In fact, until Richard Dawkins can demonstrate the acquired ability to mix up a batch of molecules and produce a single blade of grass that is eager to join the evolutionary process, then I will take by faith that God does exist.

Nobody thinks one can mix a bunch of chemicals and have grass pop out. That sounds suspiciously like how a creationist would think. Grass itself is the result of painstaking years of evolution in the plant world (not that the division between plants and animals is always so clear, so I understand). He is talking about the earliest chemical evolution which was the precursor of life on this planet. In fact, this is an active area of research (a 1999 sample of the sorts of this type of research can be found here, more here (concerning how life may have started between layers of mica), and more discussion at the inevitable wiki. One of the factors that makes this a hard problem is that we don’t really know for certain all the precise variables that were in play when it happened. We can make some good educated guesses and probably get reasonably close. We may even succeed reproducing a scenario with an entirely different set of variables than the ones that actually started things off here.

His main argument is that life is very complex and we don’t understand how it came about, so there must be a god to give us all meaning. This is incredibly faulty reasoning. Again, not understanding how life came to be, and especially not understanding evolution, does in no way constitute positive evidence for a god. It is only evidence that it is a hard problem to solve in the one case, and evidence of not even trying to understand basic biology in the other.

Spaceflight and evolution

January 25, 2009

There was an interesting article at Space.com concerning whether or not our expanding into space should be a series of incremental steps or be done in sweeping bold moves. This is analogous (and overlaps) the debate on whether or not space exploration should be done by machines or humans. I am of the opinion that this should not be an “either or” question. Let’s do both. Keep an ongoing background of steady incremental moves occasionally punctuated by something big. Globally, we have the resources. For the U.S., all the money going into Iraq, part of our bloated defense budget, and all the waste are resources we can use. Robotics and AI development will increase how much and how quickly we can obtain information about extraterrestrial locales using only machines and continued human exploration will continue to inspire (an excellent feedback loop) and present new challenges from which we can learn. Each can provide feedback to the other.

One question for many would be, why bother expanding our presence off the Earth? Yes, there are resources in space (asteroid mining, etc.), but the costs of getting there do, for the present, outweigh those benefits. As Arthur C. Clark, and lately Stephen Hawking Earth is only one fragile basket in which we are keeping all our eggs at present. If we (or our evolved descendants) are to survive long term, we need to get out of this gravity well. According to Hawking from the previously linked article:

“Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy,” Hawking said. “If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

We Homo Sapiens have evolved to be short term thinkers. Where do we get the next meal? Where do we sleep without getting eaten? Going beyond possible evolutionary pressures: When do I plant the wheat? What policies will get results that will get me reelected in 4 years? It is time to collectively move to the next level. Otherwise, the long term will be here and our descendants will not have the background and infrastructure in place to do what needs to be done to survive.

Now what I thought the originally linked article was going to discuss was possible directions of human evolution if we were to become a space faring species. The title of the article, “Human Spaceflight Should Drive Evolution” seems to have been derived from a quote by Dr. Kai Multhaup, a physicist working at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany.

“Human spaceflight is not just about science,” says Multhaup. “I see it as a driver for evolution. We are an exploratory species, and when we have the technology to go somewhere, we do. It’s about culture and the human desire to evolve and expand, and to protect ourselves against catastrophes which can erase life on planets and end civilizations.”

In principle, I agree with him, but one must also remember that the human exploration which did occur in the past was driven by economic gains. Space must provide economic gains to provide the impetus. One way for this to occur and to help with our energy needs on Earth is the use of solar powered satellites, an idea I think the Obama administration should be pursuing with more vigor. One of the pieces which could help to make this viable would be permanent maintenance space stations. This would be a bold move establishing a more lasting foothold in space and helping immensely with our energy needs here on Earth. It would simultaneously be an incremental step as we start climbing out of this gravity well.

How does this tie in with evolution? I imagine that a large permanent facility would largely mimic Earth conditions so that a space environment would probably have little effect on the reproductive success of humans in terms of adaptive traits, neglecting radiation effects for the moment (a well built station will try to minimize radiation exposure). But what if the conditions were slightly different (more weighlessness, etc.)? Going back to thinking long term, there could be an interesting experiment to try, using mammals to try to approximate us as closely as possible. Keep in mind that I’m not a biologist, so I’m just thinking out loud here. Have rat colony (in careful isolation, of course) on the space station. Keep it supplied with food or whatever it needs to survive and keep the colony alive without interfering with breeding patterns for 100-200 years. Rats can have grandkids in a matter of months, so 100 years would be time for about 3600 generations (assuming 3 generations in 1 month for simplicity. As a physicist, not a biologist, I’ll also assume the rats are spherical.). I’m assuming this might be enough to detect some evolutionary changes. As we have seen evolution in lizards in about 30-40 years, it should probably work. Keep a parallel experiment running on Earth for control, using the exact foods, etc. Observe how they are starting to diverge. This may provide some clues as to what directions we humans may take, should we ever become the space faring species I think we must.

Of course, this assumes that we will be able to have such a long lasting station and that we would be able to keep an experiment running on this time scale. If we can achieve enough economic success and prosperity to think in terms of such long range goals, I think we’ll be well on our way.

Science experiments for creationists

January 21, 2009

Over at Pharyngula, it was noted that there was to be a Creationist Science Fair. In the comments, I offered one suggestion that students could do for an experiment, which I’ll touch on here in a bit. But one experiment does not a science fair make. Since, in their web site, they claim to, unlike other educators, “teach the scientific method”, I thought it might be nice to offer a list of experiments to help them out. I have not heard of any creation scientists doing any experiments after all, so this may be a way to prod them a bit. One of the first experiments we here about, of course is in Genesis 30 (the one I commented on). From the Skeptics Annotated Bible we read:

30:35 And he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.
30:36 And he set three days’ journey betwixt himself and Jacob: and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.
30:37 And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. (30:37-39)
30:38 And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink.
30:39 And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.

This is just begging for the experiment to be done. After all, one aspect of the scientific method (which they claim to be the only ones teaching) is reproducibility. As I noted in the comments earlier, the Bible does not give us the distribution or standard deviations of speckled or spotted cattle, so there is a chance to add to data to help our understanding of how viewing striped poles while conceiving effects heritable traits. Is this how zebras are made? I wonder if you could make striped people?

Now, the leg count experiment. From Leviticus:

Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;
11:22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.
11:23 But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.

So, collect insects, at least 100 or so, but 1000 would be a better test. They should be different types of insects, of course and scientifically classified as such. They could include such animals as flies, butterflies, moths, bees, a praying mantis, etc. Count the legs on each. Compute standard deviations and graph the results. Compare with the biblical claim of 4 legs to verify it.

This next experiment I call The Koala Bear March, is a little less doable, and I’m not so sure it would work, let alone that it would be instructional for students. But, if successful, it could remove one of the many many problems with the whole global flood. This is to reproduce and verify immigration patterns in the immediate post global Deluge period. Take one female and one male koala bear. Start them off near the top of Mt. Ararat and observe how they make their way from a mountain in Turkey to Australia. Since all vegetation had been killed in the flood and there are now no indigenous populations of eucalyptus trees between Turkey and Australia, it is likely that was no food for the koalas during this immigration. Of course, this would be an expensive undertaking, but I’m sure that funding could be found and the results put into a documentary form for the science fair project. There could even be a publication in there.

So, that is all I can think of at the moment (perhaps something to verify a hare chewing the cud?). It certainly isn’t easy to find experiments based on Bible stories as much of them were one shot deals. Feel free to come up with a few. But I did find another site with 4 suggested creationist experiments. Let’s have a quick look.

For the first experiment, the student blows air over a feather to see an uplift. This is to demonstrate how birds can fly. What is their conclusion?

You now have a working model of how a feather aids flight. When the air moves over the feather, in the normal position, it will lift upward.

The instructions to form a bird’s feather are found in their DNA. This information is different from genetic information which forms fingernails on people or scales on snakes. Feathers are extremely complex. For a great Science project research and discuss the extreme complexity of the feather’s structure, various types of fliers (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles); the DNA Code Barrier; and the mathematical impossibility of these different kinds of flying motions “evolving” by random chance.

Talk about intelligent design!!

Wow. So from the fact that feathers help a bird to fly, we conclude that there is a mathematical impossibility that it could have evolved by random chance. Wonderful. How one gets from feather aerodynamics to calculating mathematical probabilities in evolution (pure random chance is, of course, not the claim made in evolutionary theory) is not quite clearly spelled out, but I’m sure they did their homework on it. I wonder if they’ll mention that velociraptors had feathers?

Next, we dissolve an egg shell so that we have a “live model”, if you will, of a cell. O.K. I’m not sure what actual knowledge or aspect of the application of the scientific method this demonstrates, but sure. Since they are the only ones teaching the scientific method, I’m sure they got that thought out.

The third experiment is to create fossils, just how they were made in the flood. Wrong conclusions as well, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to explore.

The last experiment is pretty good, but could have been better. They freeze water and have it bust through a container to show volume expansion. It could have been better. Hypothesize that ice is less dense to explain the fact that it floats in water. Less dense means more volume for the same mass, by definition of density. So, design an experiment to test this. Design the experiment to actually measure by how much the water expands. Of course, then they ruin it. Instead of having kids wonder, research and explore how water got those properties (perhaps by suggesting further experiments. I guess it sort of depends on the grade level here I guess. But one could dig into the molecular structure at an advanced level), they invoke design. See, water expands when it freezes and that is necessary for life. Of course, that’s why it was designed that way by a designer. Clear as water. Well, mud anyway.

Now, of course, we can point and laugh at the creationist antics and silliness. But this is the type of standards we will eventually sink to if intelligent design/creationism is wedged into schools via so-called “academic freedom” bills, which incidentally seem to always single out evolution as one of the “controversial” subjects. The real victims here are the children. I’m sure there will be some who pull themselves up out of the mire of dogmatic and muddled thinking. But the potential of many more bright minds stands to be squandered, their potential opportunities to contribute to scientific progress gone.

Gone with the wind like that impossible feather.