“News flash: skeptics hack the Answers in Genesis website!” Or, at least, that was the joke Skeptic co-publisher Pat Linse made when I read her some pro-natural selection material from the young Earth creationist organization’s slick online portal.
For years, I’ve been surprised how rarely this is mentioned: young Earth creationists need Darwin to be right — and when you press them on it, they often agree that he was.
Doesn’t sound like the creationism you know? It’s not a hacker’s prank, and it’s not a radical re-thinking of creationism. It is, however, a nuance as important as it is surprising: creationist leaders share Darwin’s belief that species routinely change (and even originate) through mutation and natural selection.
Indeed, according to Answers In Genesis’ (AiG) current web feature “Top 10 Myths About Creation,” it’s a straw-man to suppose creationists think otherwise:
A popular caricature of creationists is that we teach the fixity of species (i.e., species don’t change). And since species obviously do change, evolutionists enjoy setting up this straw-man argument to win a debate that was never really there in the first place.
Lest we have doubt about what they mean when they insist that “species obviously do change,” the same AiG article clarifies,
Species changing via natural selection and mutations is perfectly in accord with what the Bible teaches.
Get this: a Chinese woman was recently scared halfway to death upon discovering a strange creature hanging from its talons to the wall of her bedroom, in the middle of the night. What was it; a bat? Some lizard?
Close – a snake. With a leg.
Sure, this is neat in itself – who’s ever heard of a snake growing a leg? The most common mutation observed in snakes is a second head (twice the creepiness for most, I’m sure). But what this is, is also clear evidence for evolution. Snakes evolved from previously legged species; occasionally, random genetic mutations can activate genetic markers (indicators for where to grow legs, teeth, skin or feathers, tails, etc. – just about anything) that had been switched off along the species’s evolutionary course. That is the case with this particular individual.
Climate could have a direct effect on the speed of “molecular evolution” in mammals, according to a study.
Researchers have found that, among pairs of mammals of the same species, the DNA of those living in warmer climates changes at a faster rate.
These mutations – where one letter of the DNA code is substituted for another – are a first step in evolution.
The study, reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could help explain why the tropics are so species-rich.
DNA can mutate and change imperceptibly every time a cell divides and makes a copy of itself.
But when one of these mutations causes a change that is advantageous for the animal – for example, rendering it resistant to a particular disease – it is often “selected for”, or passed down to the next few generations of that same species.
Such changes, which create differences within a population but do not give rise to new species, are known as “microevolution”.
The idea that microevolution happens faster in warmer environments is not new. But this is the first time the effect has been shown in mammals, which regulate their own body temperature.
The beautifully preserved remains of a 47-million-year-old, lemur-like creature have been unveiled in the US.
The preservation is so good, it is possible to see the outline of its fur and even traces of its last meal.
The fossil, nicknamed Ida, is claimed to be a “missing link” between today’s higher primates – monkeys, apes and humans – and more distant relatives.
But some independent experts, awaiting an opportunity to see the new fossil, are sceptical of the claim.
And they have been critical of the hype surrounding the presentation of Ida.
The fossil was launched amid great fanfare at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, by the city’s mayor.
Although details of the fossil have only just been published in a scientific journal – PLoS One – there is already a TV documentary and book tie-in.
Ida was discovered in the 1980s in a fossil treasure-trove called Messel Pit, near Darmstadt in Germany. For much of the intervening period, it has been in a private collection.
The investigation of the fossil’s significance was led by Jorn Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway.
He said the fossil creature was “the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor” and described the discovery as “a dream come true”.
The female animal lived during an epoch in Earth history known as the Eocene, which was crucial for the development of early primates – and at first glance, Ida resembles a lemur.
But the creature lacks primitive features such as a so-called “toothcomb”, a specialised feature in which the lower incisor and canine teeth are elongated, crowded together and projecting forward. She also lacks a special claw used for grooming.
The team concluded that she was not simply another lemur, but a new species. They have called her Darwinius masillae, to celebrate her place of origin and the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin.
Dr Jens Franzen, an expert on the Messel Pit and a member of the team, described Ida as “like the Eighth Wonder of the World”, because of the extraordinary completeness of the skeleton.
It was information “palaeontologists can normally only dream of”, he said.
In addition, Ida bears “a close resemblance to ourselves” he said, with nails instead of claws, a grasping hand and an opposable thumb – like humans and some other primates. But he said some aspects of the teeth indicate she is not a direct ancestor – more of an “aunt” than a “grandmother”.
The story of the giraffe’s neck is a classic of high school biology textbooks. For this reason everyone “knows” that giraffes evolved longer necks in order to reach the leaves at the top of trees. However, this has never been clearly established and the real story is much more complex. There is, in fact, an enduring controversy over exactly what factors lead to the elongation of the giraffe neck, highlighted by a recent study examining one hypothesis – sexual selection.
But before we get to that study, some background on giraffe necks.
The most obvious feature of the giraffe is its long neck. For some reason the evolution of the giraffe neck became the standard example in textbooks. Stephen J. Gould did a survey of biology textbooks and found that 100% used giraffe evolution as the example to distinguish Lamarckian evolution from Darwinian evolution (which itself is based upon a misconception of Lamarck’s career, but that’s another story). Meanwhile, Darwin did not use the giraffe’s neck as an example of natural selection, and regarded it as a speculative “just so” story.
Since Darwin there has been speculation and controversy over the evolution of the giraffe’s neck, but never any consensus. There is therefore a stark contrast between the scientific reality and the textbook fiction regarding giraffe evolution – but what’s new.
The standard (textbook, that is) story is that ancestral giraffes were selected for longer necks because that enabled them to reach leaves higher up in trees than other animals. Therefore in times of scarcity they would have access to food that other animals could not access, and this conferred a survival advantage. There is nothing wrong with this story, and it likely holds a kernel of truth. There is simply no evidence to support this particular selective pressure, and there are plausible competing hypotheses. Unfortunately the giraffe fossil record is sparse, so we cannot turn to fossil evidence to settle the question.
It is true that the giraffe’s reach does give them access to leaves in tall acacia trees. It also gives them access to leaves deep within trees. However, giraffes also feed off low bushes by bending their neck, and they do not show any preference for high or deep leaves during the dry season when food is scarce. So at least at present the long neck does not seem to be a significant hedge against starvation.
An alternate hypothesis is that the long neck evolved in response to the evolution of long legs, which themselves evolved for some other reason, such as speed in evading prey. Giraffes cannot support themselves with their knees bent. In order to drink water on the groun they must splay their forelegs (with knees straight) and then use their long necks to reach the ground. Therefore it is possible that necked elongate simply to keep up with the growing limbs.
Other hypotheses include the increase in skin surface areas for cooling, and increased head height to keep a better eye on predators
The joke is getting so overused now it is becoming a cliche in skeptical circles – what happens when a paleontologist fills in a gap in the fossil record? They create two gaps, one on each side. But it is often used because it pithily exposes the intellectual buffoonery of those evolution deniers (aka creationists) who deny common descent. What is a “gap;” how big does it have to be to call into question common decent; or rather how small do the gaps have to shrink before creationists will accept common descent?
Perhaps the biggest outright lie in the creationist camp, still frequently parroted, is that there is a lack of transitional fossils in the fossil record. That is why it is important to showcase to the public the steady stream of beautiful transitional fossils that are being added to our already copious fossil record.
In the most recent issue of Nature, scientist present yet another pesky gap filled in with a transitional fossil, this one an early pinniped – which includes seals, sealions, and walruses.
The fossil is between 20-24 million years old and is dubbed Puijila darwini. Here is the technical description from the Nature article.
The new taxon retains a long tail and the proportions of its fore- and hindlimbs are more similar to those of modern terrestrial carnivores than to modern pinnipeds. Morphological traits indicative of semi-aquatic adaptation include a forelimb with a prominent deltopectoral ridge on the humerus, a posterodorsally expanded scapula, a pelvis with relatively short ilium, a shortened femur and flattened phalanges, suggestive of webbing.
What this means is that the creature was able to walk on land, was likely a carnivore, but had some early adaptations to the water, such as webbed feat. Think of an otter (it was 110 cm long) with a long tale and the teeth of a dog. The earliest pinniped fossils come from 20-28 million years ago, about the same time as this fossil, and already have fully developed flippers.
This fossil suggests answers to several unknowns – what evolutionary path did pinnipeds take, what are their closest relatives, and where greographically did their evolution take place? This fossil suggests they evolved in the fresh waters of the arctic, as opposed to the the northwestern US, where the earliest pinniped fossils were found. This one fossil does not settle this last question, but does suggest the arctic as a viable alternative.
I can anticipate the standard creationist denial. They will argue that this fossil cannot be a direct ancestor to pinnipeds because it is as old, and not older, than the earliest pinniped fossils with fully formed flippers. This is true, as the authors of the Nature article readily state. Most fossils will not be direct ancestors to living descendants. This is because evolutionary relationships are bushy – they are not a ladder of linear progression. A randomly discovered fossil is therefore likely to be on a side branch, not one that lead directly to species that happen to be extant.
This question often puzzled me. I can understand the need for a God, as an embodiment of people’s moral ideals. So the fact that our society, which views itself as based on moral principles, is fertile ground for the belief in an über-moral deity. The Brits, on the other hand, have a long history of scandalous, sometimes murderous, behaviors of their political leaders and royals. They are well-versed in their Shakespeare and, like him are cynical about assertions of moral superiority of authority figures. Is there any wonder why only a small minority of the British go to church? This could also be the reason why the most ferocious critics of religion are British. See, for instance Richard Dawkins “the God Delusion”, in which he argues that God is, well, a delusion, religion is a virus, and the U.S. has slipped back to the dark ages. If this sounds extreme, try “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.
Why should a belief in a deity clash with acceptance of science? In fact, Dr. Francis Collins, a physician and scientist par excellence, is the director of the Human Genome Project. He is also deeply religious.
But consider this little nugget: In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, a view that denies the very existence of evolution. And in a 2008 Republican presidential debate, none of the five, or was it six, candidates raised their hands when asked whether they believed in evolution.
This is not the only domain where people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions; the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences; the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies; and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination.
It all begins in childhood.
In a review titled “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science”, two Yale professors of psychology, Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnik Weisberg, posit that the winter of our ignorance began in childhood. They review evidence from developmental psychology suggesting that some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal. This resistance stems from two general facts about children, one having to do with what they know and the other having to do with how they learn.
The firing of a magazine editor in Turkey over her intention to put a story about Darwin’s evolution theory on the cover has generated a flood of criticism. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with the editor about just how conservative Turkish society has become.
No issue divides Turks more than the country’s alleged creeping Islamization. Early last week, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (Tubitak) sparked an international controversy after it prevented the publication of a cover story about Charles Darwin’s evolution theory in Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology), one of the country’s leading science journals. The publication’s editor-in-chief, 41-year-old Cigdem Atakuman, claims she was fired as a result of the incident.
Secular Turks are outraged and the world is watching. Did Tubitak, which publishes Bilim ve Teknik, censor a feature about the theory of evolution under pressure from the conservative Islamic-oriented AKP-led government because it couldn’t be reconciled with Muslim religious beliefs?A senior Tubitak official has blamed the editor for removing the story, according to Turkish daily Hürriyet, saying changes were made at the last minute and rushed. But Atakuman has denied the allegation, saying the deputy head of the council, Ömer Cebeci, told her the cover story was too controversial and that he no longer trusted her to responsibly perform her duties. The paper claims the incident has been reduced to a case of “one person’s word against the other’s.”
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Atakuman defends her position and says she is worried about the future of bias-free science in her country.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Atakuman, is it true that you were fired?
Cigdem Atakuman: Yes, it’s true. Up until now, there has been no official statement. But I was made to understand, verbally, that I have no future as the editor-in-chief of Bilim ve Teknik.
The Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail is reporting that Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology in Canada, may not believe in evolution.
The situation is somewhat confusing. The article starts off with this:
Canada’s science minister, the man at the centre of the controversy over federal funding cuts to researchers, won’t say if he believes in evolution.
“I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Wait, what? Religion? The reporter says he was asked about evolution! This makes the issue a little muddy.
If Goodyear was asked specifically about evolution, then it’s not directly a question about religion, and the quotation doesn’t make sense. Either the reporter got it wrong, or the Canadian Minister of Science thinks evolution is religion. Or that being asked about evolution is akin to being asked about religion.
Let me get this clear: science is not faith-based. Evolution is science, and science is not religion. Therefore, being asked about evolution is not the same as being asked about religion.
However, if he was asked about his religion, and the context was whether his religious beliefs are in conflict with evolution, then the question is very appropriate. In fact, the situation would demand it. He’s the Minister of Science! If he thinks evolution is not true because he’s a creationist, then every scientist in Canada should be demanding Goodyear be fired.
Goodyear, apparently, disagrees.