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Discovering your inner fish, reptile, and monkey

by Donald Prothero, Apr 09 2014

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A review of Your Inner Fish, a three-part documentary series airing on PBS beginning on April 9, 2014

In 2008, Neil Shubin published his best-selling book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion Year History of the Human Body. Based on his experience teaching medical school anatomy at the University of Chicago, the book explored the evidence of our evolutionary past demonstrated in the peculiar jury-rigged anatomy of humans. Interspersed with the anatomical evidence of evolution were stories about his field work discovering important fossils that showed the transition from fish to amphibians (Tiktaalik), as well as other important finds. Shubin’s research is not only in anatomy and paleontology, but also in evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”), so there were many stories in the book detailing the new discoveries in genetics that explain the oddball poorly-designed way we are constructed, and how these genetic mechanisms were inherited from our ancestors. The book was named “Best Book of the Year” by the National Academy of Sciences. After his earlier career at the University of Pennsylvania, Shubin is currently the Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and Associate Dean for academic strategy of the university’s Biological Sciences Division. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. Continue reading…

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House of cards

by Donald Prothero, Mar 26 2014
The "Creation Museum" in Petersburg, Kentucky, ironically built upon rocks which disprove Noah's flood

The “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky, ironically built upon rocks which disprove Noah’s flood

A foolish man, which built his house upon the sand—Matthew 7: 24-27.

Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee—Job 12:8

During the Ham on Nye debate last February 4, Bill led off with a great example to throw Ken off balance. He pointed out that (ironically), the Creation “Museum” itself was built upon rocks which refuted flood geology! Bill even brought a piece of fossiliferous limestone from a road cut nearby to show that it was full of fossils, delicately preserved, and not the kind of thing a flood would produce. He explained it briefly, but I don’t know how many people got the point—and given the humorless nature of most creationists who don’t catch on to sarcasm and snark, I doubt they even noticed the irony that their entire model was refuted by the rocks beneath them at that very place.

Let’s look at the geologic background to this concept. First of all, how do limestones form? Geologists know from studying them all over the world, and looking closely at them in ancient settings, that limestones are produced by the accumulation of fragments of calcareous animals and plants (shell fragments, corals, pieces of calcareous algae) in warm, shallow, clear tropical waters, with no mud or sand from land that would clog the gills of the shelly organisms or corals, or make the water dark and muddy. Since many of these organisms (especially corals) only form big reefs in warm tropical waters, and since much of the reef community is plants (not only the calcareous algae, but also the algae symbiotically living in reef coral polyps), the water must be very shallow and clear to allow light penetration. Consequently,  modern limestones are formed in shallow clear tropical waters far from the mud of land-based rivers: the Bahamas, Bermuda, Yucatan, the Atlantic Coast of Florida (but not the Gulf side, where Mississippi mud darkens the waters), the Persian Gulf, and the southwest Pacific and Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Nowhere else! Not only is this a very restricted setting, but under no circumstances do limestones (today or in the past) show any evidence of being formed in the muddy, turbulent, cold waters of a typical flood—or even a supernatural flood. If you look at them closely, they are accumulations of layer after layer of fossil communities, slowly building on top of each other in quiet waters, often with delicate organisms (such as the stick-like bryozoans and delicate corals and sponges) buried in life position, with no evidence that they had been battered and toppled by the powerful energy of flood waters. Knowing this, right away we can refute “flood geology”, because there are many places in the world with huge piles of limestone, each made of layer upon layer of delicate fossils, that cannot be made by flood energy. Heck, even the creationists’ favorite example, the Grand Canyon, is built with many limestone layers: the Muav Limestone near the base, the huge thickness of Redwall Limestone at the cliff break, and the Kaibab and Toroweap Limestones that cap the rim. Continue reading…

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“Observational” vs. “historical” science? Pure bunk!

by Donald Prothero, Feb 26 2014

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One of the recurring themes at the Feb. 4 debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was Ham’s continuously harping on a supposed distinction between “observational science” (science we can observe in real time) and “historical science” (science that must be inferred from the past). This strange distinction is almost unique to Ken Ham, although I’m sure he borrowed from older creationist writings somewhere, since I remember reading about it when I researched creationism in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Ham kept pounding on it again and again, refusing to talk about any scientific evidence that couldn’t be witnessed in real time.

As many scientists have discussed, this distinction is complete bunk, and only Ken Ham and his followers seem to think that it makes any sense. Naturally, he pounds on this phony, self-serving, artificial distinction because it plays in his favor. Each time Bill pressed him on one point or another, Ham retreated behind his dodge of no one can know anything of “historical” past, then made the ridiculous assertion that the only reliable source of information about the past is the Bible. (Bill was too much of a gentleman to challenge him on this and ask Ken how he knows this. As Ham always says, “Were you there?”). Most of science tells us that the earth is old, that life has evolved, and so on. Ham wants to throw all this information away, so he creates a convenient but ridiculous distinction that serves his purposes—but bears no relation to what real scientists do or think. Continue reading…

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Hearts and minds

by Donald Prothero, Feb 12 2014

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I write this post just a few hours after watching the Ham on Nye “debate” last night. I’m still mulling over the details, and checking on line to see the evolving reactions to the events, but it’s running through my head so much now that it’s time to write it down so I can get back to work. Fittingly, it will post on February 12, Darwin’s 205th birthday. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

Let me start at the beginning. I was at Michael Shermer’s New Year’s Eve party last December 31st.  This is not just your average New Year’s Eve party: it’s in Shermer’s magnificent glass-walled view house at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains with an amazing panorama of the lights of the city below.  He had his telescope out on the porch, and we all got a view of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. The guests include Mr. Deity and “Lucy” (Brian Keith Dalton and Amy Rohren), D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, lots of scientists including several JPL people, Shermer’s grad students—and Bill Nye. Late in the evening, Bill comes up to me and mentions that he had agreed to debate Ken Ham. He knew I’d beaten Duane Gish back in 1983, and that I was familiar with battling creationism over the past 35 years. After I talked to him and realized that the debate was set and he could not back out, I offered to help him prepare. Then about 3 weeks ago, he emailed me and we made arrangements. He spent a day in Oakland at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), where a bunch of their staff helped him analyze Ham’s past debates and arguments (they have archives of every creationist out there), and suggest strategies. Since Ham had voluntarily  set the debate topic to defend the scientific value and truth of the Bible, Bill was not in the usual dilemma of having to defend and explain complex topics of evolution. Normally, creationists employ the “Gish Gallop” to keep the scientist on the defensive, trying to undo the mistaken ideas and lies the creationist has just said, and replace it with a more complex explanation. Instead, the NCSE staffers  recommended that Bill use this to his advantage, and do a “reverse Gish Gallop”: pile on the examples one after another, so that Ham wouldn’t have time or ability to answer them all. Continue reading…

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New NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 07 2014
Photograph of Ann Reid

Ann Reid. Photo by Chris Condayan, asm.org. Courtesy NCSE

Our colleagues at the National Center for Science Education have welcomed their brand new Executive Director Ann Reid, who began her new job yesterday (January 6, 2014). A molecular biologist, Reid is the successor to outgoing executive director Eugenie C. Scott, who held the post for an astonishing 27 years. On her retirement, Scott became the Chair of NCSE’s Advisory Council.

With its mission to defend the teaching of evolution and climate science, the NCSE is among the most essential organizations to operate within the general sphere of scientific skepticism. It is also a shining example of the power of constrained focus. I happen to know, for example, that Genie is a fellow “Bigfoot skeptic”: she is not only the Chair of the venerable Bay Area Skeptics, but also a physical anthropologist with a specific interest in pseudoscience related to her field—which is to say, Bigfoot and the Yeti (video). Nonetheless, the NCSE has never tried to tackle a broad portfolio of paranormal and pseudoscientific topics. Instead, they picked a tightly focused mandate, and made themselves a credible, reliable national voice on that topic in particular. Very often, simplicity is strength. Continue reading…

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Hogwash!

by Donald Prothero, Dec 04 2013

Our ancestor? Not likely...

Our ancestor? Not likely…


This past week I’ve been getting all sorts of questions from  people about the strange study just reported in the British tabloid The Daily Mail. Some scientist in Georgia claims that humans are formed by hybridizing apes and pigs. At first, I thought it was a hoax or some outrageous parody or Poe, or possibly an example of the media distorting the original results beyond all recognition, because it’s so crazy that it’s hard to imagine any legitimate scientist making that claim. But a little digging shows it’s not a hoax or parody: there is a crackpot scientist out there who had made the claim, and naturally the media loved it and published it without any fact-checking (as usual).

First, the assertion: a Georgia geneticist, Dr. Eugene McCarthy (a sad coincidence that he has the same name as the groundbreaking anti-Vietnam War presidential candidate in 1968) claims that humans have evolved by hybridization between a boar and a female chimpanzee. Anyone trained in genetics or evolution will immediately do a double-take reading this, because it so far off the edge of crazy that it cries out to be examined further. So you click on the link, and what do you find? Is there a ton of genetic data, peer-reviewed and published in a respectable journal, that would allow us to take the claim seriously? No, not even close. Not only is it a wild claim made on a personal website without any peer review (the classic sign of crackpot science), but the evidence is not genetic at all, even though the author claims to be a legitimate geneticist! Once you go to the original link, you find that it’s a list of superficial fleshy similarities between the soft tissues of pigs and humans: naked skin, thick skin, sweating, protruding cartilaginous nose, eyebrows, heavy eyelashes, short thick upper lip, earlobes, and a long list of minor similarities in the skeleton and rest of the anatomy. Anyone who is a vertebrate anatomist familiar with phylogenetics will immediately notice that these are highly correlated characters that all occur together when a a lineage becomes less hairy, or else they are symplesiomorphic features shared by most placental mammals. What the list doesn’t  point out is all the huge and fundamental differences in the skeleton he doesn’t mention, especially the unique “cloven-hoofed” even-toed hands and feet of pigs with the “double-pulley” astragalus bone, which unites them with all other artiodactyls (the “even-toed” hoofed mammals), a feature seen in no primate or any other organism on earth; and the huge differences in the skull, braincase and ear region that allow any competent anatomist to immediately distinguish a pig from any primate. Once again, it’s a classic case of someone not trained in a given field (anatomy and phylogenetics) dabbling in someone else’s orchard, cherry-picking data he doesn’t understand, and ignoring everything that flatly contradicts his ideas. Surprisingly, the one thing I would expect  him to list—the low-cusped bunodont dentition of pigs and primates—isn’t mentioned (again, it’s convergent evolution since pigs and many primates have an omnivorous diet, as do bears and peccaries, who also convergently evolve bunodonty). As P.Z. Myers pointed out (he calls it the “MFAP hypothesis”, “monkey fucked a pig”), it’s very similar to the long-discredited “aquatic ape” theory of Elaine Morgan—cherry-pick a handful of superficial anatomical characters associated with loss of body hair in apes and tell a just-so story, ignoring all the rest of the evidence.  Continue reading…

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Junk science and junk bonds

by Donald Prothero, Nov 20 2013

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In previous posts, I’ve written about creationist Ken Ham’s efforts to get an “Ark Encounter” theme park built near his Creation “Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky. When it was first announced, they promised to make it the Seventh Wonder of the World, and even the Governor and State Legislature of Kentucky agreed to tax breaks and new roads to help them out. The Ark model will just be the centerpiece of a huge amusement park to sucker in the rubes. According to Mark Joseph Stern, writing for Slate.com:

Like most of Ham’s projects, Ark Encounter promises to be a heady combination of hands-on fun, perverse indoctrination, and apocalyptic terror. According to Ham’s fundraising newsletters, the ark itself will contain three levels of “edu-tainment” about Noah’s menagerie—which, as noted in his magnum opus Dinosaurs of Eden, included every species of dinosaur, even T. Rex. (How did they fit? As always, Ham has an answer: “When it came to the very few dinosaur kinds that grew to a very large size, God probably sent ‘teenagers,’ NOT ‘fully grown adults’ on the Ark.”) The ark’s exhibits will likely follow the lead of the Creation Museum, intertwining spectacularly weird animatronicscomically idiotic sophism, and menacing warnings of cultural decay.

Continue reading…

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Bellybuttons and Testable science

by Donald Prothero, Oct 09 2013

What did Adam and Eve never have, yet they gave two of them to each of their children?

Answer: parents

—Old children’s riddle

A classic example of an untestable theory to explain nature was the “Omphalos” hypothesis of Philip Henry Gosse. He was a well-respected naturalist in early nineteenth-century England who had written best-selling books about natural history. He was also a very devout member of a Puritanical sect called the Plymouth Brethren. As a good naturalist, Gosse was finding more and more evidence that life had evolved (long before Darwin), but as a Biblical literalist, he felt obligated to follow creationism. Gosse resolved his problems by publishing Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot in 1857, just two years before Darwin’s book was published. The curious title omphalos means “bellybutton” or “navel” in Greek, and refers to the common theological conundrum of the day: if Adam and Eve were specially created and did not have human parents (and therefore no umbilical cord), did they have a navel or bellybutton? Many religious artists avoided this issue by painting Adam and Eve with a fig leaf not only over their genitalia, but also over their midriffs. Gosse’s answer was yes, of course Adam and Eve had navels. According to Gosse, God created nature to look as if it had a history, to look as if it had evolved, but in reality it was created quite recently. In order for the world to be “functional” God would have created the earth with mountains and canyons, with trees that have growth rings, and with Adam and Eve with a navel. No evidence that indicates the presumed age of the earth or events in the past can be taken at face value. In this manner, Gosse felt that he had solved his own dilemmas about the fact that nature appears to have evolved, yet this solution allowed him to retain his creationist beliefs.

Continue reading…

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Stephen Meyer’s Fumbling Bumbling Amateur Cambrian Follies

by Donald Prothero, Aug 28 2013

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A review of Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen Meyer (HarperCollins, New York, 498 pp.)

In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.

—Proverbs 13:16

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man


The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

—William Shakespeare, As You Like It

 

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a well-known phenomenon in psychology first named in 1998, but it has been recognized since before the Bible and Shakespeare. In a nutshell, it is (as Bertrand Russell put it) 
”The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”. There is also another well-known psychological phenomenon: motivated reasoning. Our brains have many blind spots in them that allow us to reconcile the real world with the world as we want it to be, and reduce the clash of cognitive dissonance. The most familiar of these is confirmation bias, where we see only what we want to see, and ignore or forget anything that doesn’t fit our preferred world-view. When this bias emerges in argument, it takes the form of cherry-picking: finding a few facts out of context that seem to support what we want to believe, and ignoring everything else that contradicts what we are trying to promote.

The entire literature of creationism (and of its recent offspring, “intelligent design” creationism) works entirely on that principle: they don’t like any science that disagrees with their view of religion, so they pick tiny bits out of context that seem to support what they want to believe, and cherry-pick individual cases which fits their bias. In their writings, they are legendary for “quote-mining”: taking a quote out of context to mean the exact opposite of what the author clearly intended (sometimes unintentionally, but often deliberately and maliciously). They either cannot understand the scientific meaning of many fields from genetics to paleontology to geochronology, or their bias filters out all but tiny bits of a research subject that seems to comfort them, and they ignore all the rest. Continue reading…

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In the belly of the beast

by Donald Prothero, Jul 31 2013

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A Review of Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Lines,

by Jason Rosenhouse

(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, 256 pp.)

I’ve spent over 40 years of my life wrestling with the problem of creationism, while trying to maintain my research career, keep up with book deadlines, teach my classes, and take care of my family. As I described in my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, battling the evolution deniers seems to be a thankless, never-ending task because no amount of effort in science education or good science in the media seems to make any difference. Their numbers (around 40% of Americans) have remained constant in the polls over many decades, no matter what approaches are tried. This is an endless source of frustration for many of us, since creationism is like the many-headed Hydra in the labors of Hercules: every time you cut off one head, it grows back two more. Science never seems to make any progress in blunting their efforts to contaminate schools with their religious dogma. At the end of my 2007 book, I tried my best to delve into the psychology and motivation of creationists, and to understand why they can deny obvious reality and tell outright lies over and over again without any guilt or self-awareness.

But I rarely spend much of my precious time reading their literature any more (I’ve read much of it over 40 years, and it never changes), let alone paying my hard-earned money to hear them speak day after day. Listening to the way they lie and distort the facts, and call professional scientists evil, is too much for me to sit through without getting upset. But Jason Rosenhouse has a much stronger stomach for their garbage than I. He attended one creation conference after another, calmly listening to their preaching and talking to the attendees while maintaining his cool. For that alone, I am in awe of him.

Rosenhouse is Associate Professor of Mathematics at James Madison University in Virginia, having previously taught at Kansas State University, so he is close to the epicenters of much of the creationist movement in this country. He regularly discusses the topic on his EvolutionBlog. As he describes, he is culturally Jewish but became an atheist, yet he has the patience of Job to sit through days and days of creationist drivel and read their atrocious books without getting angry. He is genuinely interested in understanding who they are and what motivates them, and why they can shut themselves out of so much of scientific reality and believe so much that is patently false.

Continue reading…

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