Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

All of science owes debt to Darwin

Posted in News by Rodibidably on February 9, 2009

[Originally posted at: The San Francisco Chronicle]

The shy young naturalist Charles Darwin, who voyaged around the world aboard HMS Beagle and became the bearded sage of rational scientific thought, is having a birthday this week – his 200th – and celebrations have already begun throughout the Bay Area, and indeed on every continent.

“No one,” says Kevin Padian, a Berkeley biologist and tracker of dinosaur evolution, “has influenced modern thought, modern science, and indeed our modern culture more than Darwin.

“His influence is everywhere, and science would be impossible without him.”

Every true scientist at work today is in fact a Darwinian.

They are decoders of the human genome, immunologists battling AIDS, stem cell researchers seeking tomorrow’s cures, anthropologists unearthing fossil hominids to define our human ancestry – even the “astrobiologists” seeking life on other planets while they study organisms living in extreme conditions on Earth.

[Read the rest of this post at: The San Francisco Chronicle]

Billboard Honoring Darwin, Urging “Evolve Beyond Belief” Posted in Grand Junction, Colo.

Posted in FFRF by Skepdude on February 9, 2009

Feb. 9, 2009

The bicentennial of the birthdate of science great Charles Darwin this Thursday is being honored in Grand Junction, Colo., with a billboard placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with help from its local members and Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers. The billboard just went up at 1713 U.S. Hwy 50 (facing south) early this week.

The year 2009 is also the 150th anniversary of the release of Origin of Species, Darwin’s seminal work on evolution.

The pleasing image reads: “Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief,” and employs a stained-glass window motif and features the iconic image of Charles Darwin, as well as the Foundation’s name and website,

The Foundation, a national watchdog and the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) has 13,600 members nationwide, and 400 members in Colorado.

The Foundation has also placed billboards “praising Darwin” this month in Dayton, Tenn., and Dover, Penn., homes of the most notorious classroom battles over the teaching of evolution.


Darwin’s 200th anniversary: Lessons still to be learned

Posted in News by Rodibidably on February 9, 2009

[Originally posted at: The Guardian]

The Daily Telegraph called him “the greatest naturalist of our time, perhaps all time”. For the Morning Post he was “the first biologist of his day”. The Times saluted the rapid victory of Charles Darwin‘s great idea and said that “the astonishing revelations of recent research in palaeontology have done still more to turn what 20 years ago was a brilliant speculation into an established and unquestionable truth”. The Manchester Guardian said that “few original thinkers have lived to see more completely the triumph of what is essential in their doctrine”. The St James’s Gazette predicted that England’s children would one day be taught to honour Darwin “as the greatest Englishman since Newton”.

These responses appeared in print on 21 April 1882, after the news of Darwin’s death at his home in Down, Kent. The writers were people who knew the Bible, and they addressed readers who had grown up in an overtly devout society. Many remembered the religious and scientific uproar following publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. It argued, with detailed evidence, that life’s extraordinary variety had stemmed, over an enormous period of time, from a common ancestry, and that the mechanism was the operation of natural selection upon tiny variations in heredity.

But Darwin’s audience heard only part of the story. The clinching discovery of the biochemistry of genetic inheritance and therefore of random genetic mutation – the famous double helix of DNA – was not made until 1953. The mostly anonymous contributors who rushed to judgment that morning had before them only a fraction of the findings that now support the theory of evolution: a theory as confident as the predictions of Newtonian physics at speeds significantly lower than the velocity of light, as sure as the thesis that matter is composed of atoms. They could have been forgiven for their sometimes equivocal salutes.

[Read the rest of this post at: The Guardian]

Egnor in Forbes on Evolution

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on February 6, 2009

Our favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, has published his ill-informed and logically-challenged opinions on evolution in a business journal. Darwin’s day is just around the corner (February 12th is the 200th anniversary of his birth and this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of the Species), and so it’s a good time for a creationist smack down. As usual Egnor gets everything wrong. He clearly does not understand evolutionary theory, or simply does not care if his straw men are accurate or not as long as he gets to regurgitate the standard anti-evolution propaganda.

In his article he makes a number of wrong or misleading statements, some in question form. He substitues assertion for evidence, and fallacies for logic. His objections to evolution begin with this:

The fossil record shows sharp discontinuity between species, not the gradual transitions that Darwinism inherently predicts.

Wrong.  First, I must point out that Egnor insists on referring to evolutionary theory as “Darwinism.” As many others have pointed out before, this is a propaganda tactic to attempt to diminish evolutionary theory to the quaint ideas of one guy. It is also misleading, for the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory differs in significant ways from strict Darwinian theory.


The Vatican and evolution: the usual crap

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on December 2, 2008


The news coming out of the recent, and much trumpeted, Vatican-sponsored conference on evolution isn’t that good, according to a brief article that appeared in Science magazine on November 14. Molecular biologist John Abelson commented on the most controversial figure at the conference, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn: “He believes there are gaps in evolution and [that] God acts in those gaps.” Oh boy, not the “gap theory” again?

Schönborn is infamous for an op-ed piece he published in the New York Times, “Finding design in nature,” in which he referred to neo-Darwinism as a “dogma,” a word that really should never be uttered with contempt by any member of the Catholic Church, ever. Despite Pope John Paul II’s conciliatory statements toward science in general (he pardoned Galileo) and evolution in particular, Schönborn dug himself deeper and deeper in the editorial: “Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.” Ah yes, as opposed to those most empirically based of all doctrines, the teachings of the Catholic Church!

Apparently, good ol’ Christoph gave an acceptable talk at the Vatican conference, making the distinction between “evolution” (ok) and “evolutionism” (bad). The problems started during the following Q&A session, when the Cardinal apparently felt more free to speak his mind, so much so that even Francis Collins complained! Collins, you might remember, is the former director of the human genome project, who recently flirted with intelligent design in his book, “The Language of God,” nonsensically subtitled “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Even so, Collins wasn’t too happy about Schönborn’s reservations concerning evolution’s ability to explain “all aspects of biology.”

The above mentioned Abelson, on his part, didn’t mince words: “It was preposterous … a step backwards.” For Gereon Wolters, a philosopher at the University of Konstanz in Germany, Schönborn “is just repeating this creationist gibberish” so popular in the USA. Just about the least damaging statement that the Science reporter could find for Schönborn was from director of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Peter Raven, who commented that the Cardinal’s lecture was “confused.”

Why, why, why, one would want to ask. Why is Schönborn insisting in picking a fight with science, knowing full well the past history of such conflicts, where the Catholic Church has invariably come out looking foolish? On the part of the scientists, why did eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking agree to lend credence to the conference, and even to be touched on the head by the Pope? (What for, a benediction of the man who famously said that his theories allow him to look into God’s mind?)

The answer to the question of why scientists are so complacent with the Church is that it is hard to refuse a free trip to Rome and the occasion to schmooze with the Pope. Heck, even I would have accepted the invite, though I might have tried to steer clear of any head touching by Ratzinger and his associates. The answer to the question of why people like Schönborn keep spouting patent nonsense is more complex, but it must have a lot to do with the realization that if the Church were to fully embrace the Darwinian view of the world it would be really hard to hang on to silly notions like the trinity, original sin and my favorite, transubstantiation. The God-of-the-gaps retreat is a desperate position, but it does allow Schönborn to keep both face and a steady income. Which is why scientists should not attend religious conferences: let the religionists deal with “the problem” as best as they can, but do not lend them a crutch on which to fool the world into thinking that what they are saying makes any rational sense at all.


Is human evolution over? Nah.

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 17, 2008


A recent article in the Times (of London) quotes Steve Jones, a renowned geneticist author of Darwin’s Ghost (nothing less than an updated version of Darwin’s Origin of Species), as saying “Human evolution is over. Quite unexpectedly, we have dropped the human mutation rate because of a change in reproductive patterns.” What’s he talking about?

Jones maintains that older men (35+) contribute most of the new mutations entering the human gene pool, and those people ain’t reproducing as they used to. Really? Perhaps Jones has forgotten that for most of human history people were highly unlikely to live to, let alone reproduce, at that old age (by Pleistocene standards). Besides, what are we to make of cultural trends (in Western societies) that postpone reproduction for both men and women?

Well, Jones says, “In the old days, you would find one powerful man having hundreds of children,” citing the example of Moulay Ismail from 18th century Morocco who (allegedly) copulated with an average of 1.2 women per day for a straight 60 years (without Viagra), thereby producing a whopping 888 children (nicely symmetric number, which probably doesn’t take into account the human tendency for exaggeration and the likely fact that some of Ismail’s concubines were having, shall we say, side jobs). At any rate, these “old days” are just not old enough to be evolutionarily relevant. The appropriate time frame, again, is pre-agricultural time, when most of human evolution took place. And in those old days there simply wasn’t enough food to go around for a single man to maintain dozens of sexual partners and their offspring.

“In ancient times” continues Jones in the Times interview, “half our children could have died by the age of 20. Now, in the Western world, 98 per cent of them are surviving to 21.” The key words here, of course, are “in the Western world,” as infant and child mortality (and hence the opportunity for natural selection to do its work) are still astronomically high outside of Western societies (and a few others, like Japan). Besides, here is an area where I’m going to be glad that natural selection has a little less wiggle room than it would have without modern medicine.

Finally, Jones complains that human populations have become too large (certainly true from the point of view of our environmental impact) and interbreed too much (I will refrain from engaging in ethnic jokes by pointing out that only a Brit could complain about too much sex. Oh, darn, I just did engage in an ethnic joke). The problem here is that this reduces the relevance of the chance factor in evolution, which is associated with random fluctuations in gene frequencies in very small populations. But human populations have probably very rarely been small enough for so-called genetic drift to have a major effect, and Jones seems to be forgetting that the flip side of that coin is that large populations carry more genetic variation, and are thereby better suited to respond to selection.

As for the last comment in the published interview: “History is made in bed, but nowadays the beds are getting closer together. We are mixing into a global mass, and the future is brown.” As in: we will all look the same, because biologically based ethnic differences will be erased by worldwide interbreeding. Well, to begin with, this is just not happening quickly enough for my taste. Talk about a truly color-blind society that would result from it! Second, I’m sure the human ability to arbitrarily define in-group and out-group membership, thereby continuing the self-destructive “us-vs-them” attitude that has characterized us since “the old days” isn’t going to be halted by a simple quirk of demography.