Monday, 30 April 2012

More Rapid Human Evolution

Tibetan Plateau
In Rapid Human Evolution we saw how the Fore people of Papua New Guinea evolved resistance to the prion disease, kuru in as little as 200 years under intense selection pressure, so giving the lie to Creationist claims about evolution. This blog is about an almost as impressive example of recent human evolution, albeit at a somewhat slower rate, but not, like the Fore example involving a single gene, but involving more than 30 genes. Again, the observable facts destroy another Creationist myth.

This example is found in Tibetans who have adapted to live in the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau, over 13,000 feet above sea level, where oxygen levels are 40% lower than at sea level. (To be technical, it's not the ratio of oxygen in the air which is lower but the air-pressure itself. This means the partial pressure of oxygen is 40% lower than at sea level, so it is much harder for it to cross the thin membrane in the lungs into the pulmonary capillaries, where it can be taken up by the haemoglobin in blood.)

Tibetan woman
A team of researchers from China, Denmark and the University of California at Berkely, examined the genome of 50 ethnic Tibetans and 40 Han Chinese, from whom Tibetans diversified about 3-6,000 years ago. They found more than 30 genes with mutations which related to how the body uses oxygen.

One of the team, Rasmus Nielsen, a professor of integrative biology at Berkeley said, "For such a very strong change, a lot of people would have had to die simply due to the fact that they had the wrong version of a gene".

Amazingly, and as a rather nice example of how evolution can work counter-intuitively, two of the mutations found normally cause low haemoglobin levels. The body's normal response to high altitude, and one which most of us would experience if we moved to Lhasa for any length of time, is to make more red blood cells in response to low oxygen, by a similar mechanism by which you recover from severe blood loss. The kidneys produce a hormone called haempoetin which stimulates red blood cell production. So, one might expect adaptation to high altitude to involve making more red blood cells with haemoglobin in them, not less.

However, a long-tern effect of more red blood cells is that the blood is thicker, so blood pressure tends to rise to push it around the body. This causes 'altitude sickness' in non-adapted people, one effect of which is reduced fertility and higher infant mortality. Han Chinese living in Tibet have an infant mortality rate three times that of Tibetans. So, coupled with other changes which allow their bodies to use oxygen more efficiently, these mutations counter the tendency to make more haemoglobin, so avoiding altitude sickness, while still being able to live with 40% less oxygen.

So we see in this example how humans can adapt to new environmenrts by a simple process of Darwinian Evolution by natural selection acting on variations in the genome and, when the conditions are right and selection pressure is high, how this can take place over a very short period of time. It also demonstrates that a mechanism clearly evolved for short-term emergency situations like blood loss and temporary high altitude, such as might well have occurred in a nomadic hunter-gatherer, is not always suitable for a permanent solution and may actually create a long-term problem which needs to be countered. In this situation, a mutation which would normally be disadvantageous because it would prevent this short-term solution, is actually an advantage.

As always, the change in information in the genome can have an entirely different meaning in one environment to that in a different environment. Disadvantageous mutations for the Han living in Beijing gave their Tibetan offshoot a distinct advantage in high Tibet. No change in information but an entirely different meaning determined by the environment.

So we see the claims made by Creationist 'scientists' and information theorists such as William Dembski, that evolution is impossible because no new information can arise in the genome, exploded by simple, observable evidence. Very frequently, evolution does not require a change in information, it occurs because of a change in the environment. One wonders why Creation 'scientists' don't simply revise or discard their hypotheses when they are so fatally falsified by the evidence, until one sees the income their book sales and lecture tours generate.

Reference:
Sequencing of 50 Human Exomes Reveals Adaptation to High Altitude, Xin Yi, et al; Science, 2 July 2010: Vol.329; no.5987; pp.75-78

Further Reading:
Tibetans Evolved to Live High Life, Study Says (National Geographic)
Tibetan DNA study reveals human evolution (CNN Health)
Scientists Cite Fastest Case of Human Evolution (New York Times Science)
Rapid Evolution Seen In Tibetans (USA Today)
Tibetans Underwent Fastest Evolution Seen in Humans (LiveScience.com)





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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Religion And Neurological Disorders

Lobes of the human brain
Neurotheology is a branch of psychiatry which studies the correlation between neural phenomenon and 'spirituality' or religious experience. These 'experiences' can be
  • The perception that time, fear or self-consciousness have dissolved
  • Spiritual awe
  • Oneness with the universe
  • Ecstatic trance
  • Sudden enlightenment
  • Altered states of consciousness
The American behavioural neurologist Norman Geschwind identified a collection of signs and symptoms associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, and particularly associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, now known as Geschwind's Syndrome, which include hyper-religiosity and hyper-morality or more precisely hyper-moralising, fainting spells and pedantism.

In the 1980s cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger claimed to be able to induce a religious state by electromagnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes, though the validity of these results have been questioned.
The features of seizures beginning in the temporal lobe can be extremely varied, but certain patterns are common. There may be a mixture of different feelings, emotions, thoughts, and experiences, which may be familiar or completely foreign. In some cases, a series of old memories resurfaces. In others, the person may feel as if everything—including home and family—appears strange. Hallucinations of voices, music, people, smells, or tastes may occur. These features are called “auras” or “warnings.” They may last for just a few seconds, or may continue as long as a minute or two.

The 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was himself an epileptic, gave a vivid account of an epileptic seizure in The Idiot:
He remembered that during his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up with vigor and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final second…in which the fit came upon him. That second, of course, was inexpressible.

Next moment something appeared to burst open before him: a wonderful inner light illuminated his soul. This lasted perhaps half a second, yet he distinctly remembered hearing the beginning of a wail, the strange, dreadful wail, which burst from his lips of its own accord, and which no effort of will on his part could suppress. Next moment he was absolutely unconscious; black darkness blotted out everything. He had fallen in an epileptic fit.
Saul seeing the light on the road to Damascus
(Tonic phase)
Now compare that with this account, reputedly by Saul of Tarsus, though he probably didn't write Acts in the Christian New Testament:
And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. And I said, What shall I do, LORD? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.

And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.

So here we have an excessively religious, moralizing Jewish pedant, exhibiting Geschwind's Syndrome, suddenly hallucinating, seeing bright lights, just like Dosyoyevskey's 'Idiot', hearing voices, and emerging from the experience an excessively religious moralizing Christian pedant complete with a Greek version of his Hebrew name.

And just about all of the subsequent growth in early Christianity can be attributed to Paul's excessive religiosity and moralizing pedantry.

I don't think we need look too far to see the neuropathological cause of Christianity. I wonder how much temporal lobe epilepsy and other neuropathies like schizophrenia contributed to other religions, and what part it plays today in the excessively religious, moralizing pedants who try to tell us how to behave, who to vote for, who and what to hate and when to kill them.
Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief. During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.

Jonathan Edwards, Olympic Gold Medallist, Atheist.
Former Evangelical fundamentalist Christian and presenter of BBC TV religious programmes.


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Saturday, 28 April 2012

Creationists Don't Have A Leg To Stand On

Creationists really do need to get a grip.

Problem is, they only have two limbs to do this with, unlike all the other modern anthropoid apes, which have four. This is because we've had to adapt one set of limbs for walking upright. For that, we need a rigid foot with an arch to transmit the force our leg muscles are applying from our ankles to our toes, and especially our big toe, so that, as our body moves forward we push on the ground with our toes and so keep the momentum going.

Australopithicus afarensis (Lucy)
(Reconstruction)
This would be hard to do for long if we had feet like hands, and running would be all but impossible. Bipedalism had certainly evolved in apes by about 4 million years ago and possibly as long ago as 7 million years, as the fossil remains of Ardipithicus ramidus and Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy) shows, although A. ramidus could probably grip branches when climbing trees.

But what about those muscles which were once used to grip with the feet? Well, one of the more important ones was the plantaris muscle. It's still there but serves no purpose at all. In fact, 7-10% of us are born without them and suffer no ill effects or disadvantage at all. It is regarded as disposable and is sometimes removed by plastic surgeons to be used in reconstructive surgery elsewhere.

It is merely a vestige; yet another fossil from our past when we could get a grip with four hands instead of two. No intelligent designer would include something useless that its design can do without. The human plantaris muscle, like all the redundant structures which abound in nature, is the work of an unintelligent designer without a plan and a process which is slowly eliminating it, with no particular hurry because it doesn't do any harm either. This is one of the ways in which we know the human foot evolved and was never intelligently designed.

Further reading:
What does it mean to be human? (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)
Evidence for Human Evolution.


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I Have Primitive Ears

Darwin's Tubercle on Homo sapiens and Macaca fascicularis
I'm not one to boast, but I have primitive ears. I have the sort of ears of which my remote ancestors might have been proud, if they had had the cognitive ability to be proud.

I have Darwin's Tubercles and I can wiggle my ears without wrinkling my forehead. Both these things are vestigial fossils of my remote ancestry.

Darwin's Tubercle was described by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, although he called it the Woolnerian tip after the sculpture Thomas Woolner who actually first recorded it.

It has no known function in humans, but in our simian and anthropoid cousins it, or rather the point, is probably useful in focussing sound. It is a vestige of the ear point found in many simians and, presumably, in our common ancestors. Mine is larger on the right ear than on the left, where it's a tiny little nodule I can just about feel but the important thing is that I have them. Only about ten percent of us do.

And, I can wiggle my ears!

To quote from Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne:
... if you can wiggle your ears, you're demonstrating evolution. We have three muscles under our scalp that attach to our ears. In most people they're useless but some people can use them to wiggle their ears. ... These are the same muscles used by other animals, like cats and horses, to move their ears around, helping them localize sounds. In those species, moving the ears helps them detect predators, locate their young, etc. But in humans the muscles are good only for entertainment.
But, to be fair on the rest of you, it's not just me. We're all walking evidence for Darwinian Evolution. These quaint little vestigial structures merely confirm what the rest of our anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and genetics are all shouting at us so loudly that those who are afraid to hear it have to howl even more loudly to drown it out.

Footnote: you may be able to wiggle your ears if you practice enough. Here's how: How To Wiggle Your Ears.


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Unintelligent Design And Vitamin C Deficiency

Vitamin C is essential for normal health. In fact, if you don't have enough vitamin C in your diet, you will die of an especially nasty disease called scurvy. Vitamin C is a relatively simple organic molecule chemically called ascorbic acid. Fortunately, a normal varied diet usually contains enough vitamin C, especially one containing fresh fruit and vegetables because plants manufacture vitamin C. When the cause of scurvy, which was a major problem amongst sailors on long ocean voyages, was discovered in 1747, simply adding lime juice to their diet cured it almost overnight, hence the British sailors who travelled to and from the New World earned the nickname 'Limeys'.

So, what about animals which don't eat lots of fruit and vegetables, animals like carnivores, or those who eat a fairly plain diet like many herbivores whose diet might or might not contain vitamin C? Not a problem for them because their livers manufacture ascorbic acid. Birds, and many other animals produce it in their kidneys.

Which begs the question: why doesn't our liver produce ascorbic acid if it is so essential for us?

Biochemical pathway for producing ascorbic acid from glucose
The daft thing is that, just like the vast majority of animals which do make their own ascorbic acid, we, along with a small number of other mammals, have the genes to make it, and our liver cells contain three of the four enzymes for making it out of glucose, just like all the others. The only problem is that the fourth (L-gulonolactone oxidase) is missing because the gene for making it is broken! A small copying error millions of years ago effectively turned off something which is essential for many other animals.

But why didn't that get quickly eliminated from the gene pool?

Almost certainly because of the alternative way to get vitamin C, and the one we now use exclusively, by eating food with enough of it. It almost certainly arose in an early ancestor whose diet was rich in fresh fruit and vegetables. Those who didn't make their own vitamin C were now saved from the need to get rid of the excess, so not making it might well have been an advantage in an environment in which their food contained enough of it. Even today, many of the members of our limb of the evolutionary tree have a diet which is mainly or wholly comprised of ripe fruit and leaves.

Chart of the Fossil Record of the Primates with the Occurrence of Active
L-Gulonolactone Oxidase in the Livers of Living Primates.
And those other mammals I mentioned earlier? Many of them are primates occupying branches on our limb of the evolutionary tree. If we plot these, together with what we know of their relationship to one another from fossil records and genetic evidence, the pattern is quite striking. All those who occupy one of the two branches which diversified from a common ancestor some 60-63 million years ago have the same genetic defect. The rest still make vitamin C in the perfectly normal way and don't need it in their diets.

All of this is, of course, fully understandable in terms of Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection and descent with modification, without needing to invoke magic and in which neither intelligence nor design played any part.

Can any Creationist explain why an intelligent designer would provide the mechanism for making vitamin C in our livers, and then break it, and why it would do the same in other species which just happen to look like they share a common ancestor with us which lived some 60-63 million years ago?

Further reading:
The Natural History of Ascorbic Acid in the Evolution of the Mammals and Primates and Its Significance for Present Day Man, By Irwin Stone
Vitamin C Deficiency In Humans: An Issue Of Evolution.





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Friday, 27 April 2012

Thinking Intuitively


A recent piece of research published in Science suggested a correlation between analytical thinking and disbelief in religion. This article on boingboing.net illustrated the difference between the alanytical and intuitive thinking with a neat example:
Q: If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

If you answered $10 you are inclined to believe in religion. If you answered $5 you are inclined to disbelieve.
To be honest, I answered $10, and for several minutes couldn't see what was wrong with that answer until I read the comments - which is rather worrying because I think of myself as an analytical thinker and earn my living at it - and yet, when I knew the right answer, I found it hard to understand why I found it hard to understand, if you follow me.

I've blogged a few times about how intuition is a poor measure of reality (see Xeno's Religious Paradox). This is particularly true in the realms of quantum mechanics and cosmology where the very small and the very large just seem to be counter-intuitive and yet the analytical tools of observation and mathematics tell us the counter-intuitive answer is actually the right one. A particle is also a wave and can be in several places at the same time; the universe is finite yet unbounded and everything really is nothing.

So, how does this translate to religious belief versus disbelief?

You only need to look at Creationist (and religious apologist) reasoning when they argue for whatever god they are promoting, to see how they overcome the absence of any direct, definitive evidence for their god, and the ease with which they use an argument which could just as easily, and with equal validity, be applied to any god, or indeed any other hypothetical cause of whatever it is they are attributing to their god. Arguments from ignorance and arguments from assumed or actual gaps in scientific knowledge (which are really the same thing) are merely intuitively 'true' arguments. It just seems logical to assume that the most likely explanation is the god(s) my mummy and daddy told me about.

This argument is behind the Kalâm Cosmological Argument where the assumed absence of a scientific explanation is considered conclusive evidence of the presence of whatever god the KCA is currently being use to support.

Intuition is also behind the 'default' belief in some sort of guiding or directing force normally found in most religious societies where it just seems logical to think 'there must be be something behind it all...', and the argument from numbers, where 'there must be something in it if so many people believe it' seems like a sensible argument, especially to people who aren't sensible.

It's not until we start to think analytically that we discover the vacuousity in these arguments and how they can apply to any daft notion we could dream up to explain anything.

The curious thing is how people who have no difficulty at all in thinking critically in normal life seem to abandon it when it comes to the question of the existence of their favourite god. It's not as though there is anything special about evidence for or against gods per se because religious people have no difficulty at all with thinking logically about the existence of other gods, which they are intuitively quite sure don't exist. You would need to be a little odd to believe in Zeus or Apollo or Ra or Quetzalcoatl nowadays because we just know they don't exist - but not so Yahweh, obviously! Obviously there must be a god and obviously it must be the one my parents believe in - or so the 'reasoning' seems to go.

People don't believe by 'faith' that there isn't a car coming down the road they are about to cross. They look for evidence and, if they find none, they conclude that there isn't a car there. Absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence and they bet their life on it. Doing anything else would be regarded as more than a little odd. The person who stands on the roadside, afraid to cross just incase there is a car coming, even though the road is clear, would be regarded as needing psychiatric help. Probably deluded or hallucinating and definitely in need of a responsible adult to hold his or her hand.

Yet not so with gods, it seems. Absence of evidence is disregarded in favour of 'faith' and people live their lives as though the evidence is misleading and there really is a god. They even bet their life on it.

So how did we as a species, get ourselves into this situation?

My guess is that, when were were still evolving our brain out there on the plains of East Africa, it worked better to fit problems into our pre-existing experience-based model of the world in order to solve them. It didn't matter too much that we hadn't got the perfect answer; the important thing was to have a workable one.

It mattered more what we were running away from than what we were running to, and it didn't even matter that much what exactly we were running away from. The important thing was that it might be trying to eat us.

When it came to danger, it was safer to assume there might be a leopard. The children who played safe and just assumed there was a leopard lived to pass on their genes to act intuitively. Those who went to check for evidence tended to be filtered out and so failed to pass on their genes for analytical thinking when it came to danger. We evolved in the presence of predators who kept themselves hidden and leaped out on us, so we aren't at all surprised that assumed gods keep themselves hidden. When we check for cars before we cross the road we aren't bothered about hidden danger.

We could have evolved this simplistic intuitive reasoning very early in our evolution before we had evolved a brain capable of thinking analytically. Like a spinal reflex, it takes less brainpower and generally works as a quick and easy method, if we are not too concerned about the validity or precision of a rough-and-ready utilitarian method.

If this model is correct, it's amusing to think the approach of superstitious people to the question of the existence of gods is the same method we evolved to deal with questions about the existence of hidden danger. It is, of course, the same morbidly phobic thinking people with acute anxiety disorders use when questioning the existence of the object of their fear and what it could do to them.

BTW, if you haven't worked out how much a baseball costs if a bat and ball together costs $110 and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, the answer is $5.

Ball = $5
Bat = $105
Bat + ball = $110

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Rapid Human Evolution

Fore People of Papua New Guinea.
Humans have been observed to evolve very rapidly in just 200 years, in one of the most clear-cut examples of human evolution. (A Novel Protective Prion Protein Variant that Colocalizes with Kuru Exposure, Mead et al, New England Journal of Medicine, Nov 2009)

Until the late 1950s the Fore people of Papua New Guinea had an unusual way of honouring their dead - they ate them, or more particularly, they ate their brains in a funeral ritual. This ritual meant that they caught kuru, a disease of the brain which killed some 2500 Fore before its cause was identified and the practice was stopped.

Kuru is caused by a prion and is invariably fatal. It is closely related to the prion which causes 'mad cow' disease in cows, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. These are also caused by eating brains and central nervous system tissues and was caused in humans in the UK when the government deregulated the animal feed industry, making it permissible for ground-up dead animals, including sheep which had died of scrapie, and even dead cows, to be fed to cattle and other farm animals. Scrapie crossed the species barrier to produce 'mad cow' disease, which then crossed the species barrier again to produce variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans, of which 166 people have so far died.

Kuru.
Researchers from the British prion research centre at University College, London examined the stored DNA from 152 Fore who died of kuru and compared it with the DNA of 3000 living Fore, 560 of whom had participated in the brain-eating funeral rituals before it was banned.

They found a mutation in 51 of the survivors and their descendants which was not found in a single victim of kuru. This mutation is in the gene which codes for the prion protein PRNP which, when it becomes deformed, causes other proteins to also become deformed, destroying the brain in a chain reaction which proceeds exponentially. The mutation appears to prevent the formation of disease-causing prions.

This mutation arose about 200 years ago by accident in a single individual and was inherited by his or her descendants so that, about 100 years ago when the kuru epidemic was at its height, there were just a couple of families who were carriers of the mutant gene. They and their descendants survived whilst many of the non-carriers died, so, under intense selection pressure, the frequency of the mutant allele increased hugely in the gene pool in just a few generations.

I hope it will become a textbook example of how evolution happens. It's a striking and timely example, given the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species.

Simon Mead - one of the team of researchers
Interestingly, this example gives the lie to three Creationist assertions:
  1. Evolution doesn't happen.
  2. Mutations are always harmful.
  3. No new information can arise by mutation.

Here we see a beneficial mutation rapidly increasing in a population by a simple process of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. And of course we also see how environmental context gives meaning to a change in information in the genome. In the absence of kuru, the mutation would have been devoid of meaning.

Related articles:
Evolution Via Cannibalism: The Case Of Kuru (Science Life)
Kuru Field Studies in Papua New Guinea (MRC Prion Unit)
Gene Change In Cannibals Reveals Evolution In Action (New Scientist)





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Lactose Tolerance And Creation 'Science'

You've probably heard of 'lactose intolerance'. It is the term use to describe the inability to digest milk in adulthood. In actual fact the problem is with digesting the sugar found in milk - lactose - hence its name. It is cause by a loss of the ability to produce the enzyme lactase in the digestive tract. It illustrates one of the problems with medical advances being made mostly in the developed world and so 'normal' being defined in terms of what is normal in the prevailing culture. Lactose intolerance is fairly uncommon in much of Europe and parts of Asia and populations which are mostly Euro-Asian in origin. In these populations, where milk forms an integral part of an adult diet, the problems associated with not being able to digest milk are a problem needing special diet, etc. For that population, it is seen as a medical condition needing treatment.

However, in many populations, especially African ones, lactose intolerance is the norm, but this is not normally a problem because milk does not feature strongly in the diet of many African peoples. There is a very good reason for this. The source of most of our milk is the domestic animals and most domestic animals do not thrive in Africa because of the presence of the tsetse fly so it has proved difficult to establish herds of dairy cattle for example in most of tropical Africa. This in part explains why there are still vast herds of wildebeest and zebra in Africa - humans have not driven them off the grass land and taken it for grazing.

If we look at most mammals we find the norm is for babies to be able to digest milk but this ability is turned off at about the time they are weaned. The evolutionary advantage of this are obvious from the genes' point of view. Suckling young act as a natural contraceptive, inhibiting ovulation in the mother by stimulating production of an inhibitory hormone by the pituitary gland. Stopping the young from suckling by making milk seem unpalatable allows the mother to produce more babies, so she is more likely to pass on lactose intolerance to other children and produce more children than a female who suckles her babies for longer.

However, mutations have arisen which prevent this ability to digest milk from being turned off. You would expect this to be quickly eliminated from the gene pool if it meant the carriers produced fewer children by suckling them for longer. But, in societies where other milk is readily available, all the mother need do is to use this alternative milk for her older babies and she can ovulate and produce more young just as though they were intolerant of her breast milk.

And, with the milk of domestic cattle being able to sustain a much bigger and healthier population by providing both calcium and vitamin D (to help counter the lack of sunshine in northern climates) so lactose tolerance became a distinct advantage and not the disadvantage it was when we all lived in Africa. In Africa, however, it remained a disadvantage so the mutation never gained any traction in the gene pool. In fact, lactose tolerance there should be regarded as an abnormality as it keeps babies at the breast for longer, resulting in smaller family sizes.

All perfectly straight-forward and fully understandable in terms of Darwinian Evolution where different populations diversified due as always to differences in their allele frequency because of local environmental factors, in this case domesticated cattle, sunshine and tsetse flies, producing variations on a basic mammalian theme. This article about lactase persistence, as lactose tolerance should more properly be called, explains this in far greater detail.

The only slight problem is one of nomenclature: to be biologically precise, now we know the evolutionary origin of 'lactose intolerance', we should really call the ability to digest milk as an adult 'lactose tolerance' (which is implied in the name anyway) or 'lactase persistence' because the 'intolerance' was the norm in the founder population and in other members of our family tree and so it is fair to assume, in our common ancestors, hence lactose tolerance is regarded as the mutated allele.

Now see how Creationists represent these undeniable and fully supportable scientific facts in Can’t drink milk? You’re “normal”!:

Firstly the misleading headline. There is of course no value judgement of normality or abnormality in evolution. Whatever produces the most descendants becomes the predominant allele in that environment. Lactose tolerance is no more normal or abnormal in Euro-Asians than intolerance is in Africans or other lactose-intolerant populations which have not co-evolved with domesticated cattle.

Then there is the attempt to discredit the theory by pointing out that some African populations have also evolved lactose tolerance, but with slightly different mutations. Given that we are talking about something being turned off, it is not at all surprising that this can happen with several different mutations. The deactivation of lactase is likely to be an active process and failure in any part of it would result in lactase persistence. In fact, it is maybe more surprising that there are only three so far discovered but we are talking about a mutation which has only gained traction in some populations during the last 5-10,000 years. The African populations mentioned are in Sudan, Tanzania and Kenya, all of which border the Ethiopian highlands where cattle are farmed because the tsetse fly is absent from there. Milk also forms part of the diet of several Niloto-Saharan people including the Masai from Kenya.

Lastly, there is the quite disgraceful attempt to associate the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection with white supremacist racism with a grotesque claim that the evolutionary explanation of differences in lactose tolerance between peoples implies that black people are less evolved, when it implies quite the opposite. Lactose intolerance in the absence of a substitute milk because of the presence of the tse-tse fly, is no less evolved that is lactose tolerance in the presence of a substitute milk. Both populations are equally evolved in the context of their specific environments.

The hypocrisy here, in a political movement which invented 'social Darwinism' to justify its white supremacism, is quite breath-taking. It was only when the Civil Rights Campaign, which the conservative Christian right had opposed with violence, got American black people something approaching full emancipation that the white right realised they could no longer rely on violence and discrimination alone to keep black people at the bottom of the peck-order as a supply of cheap labour and domestic servants.

So we see a right-wing conservative, 'Christian' political movement overtly misrepresenting evolution and simultaneously playing on the understandable fear of racism in the black population; the same black population that this political movement seeks to keep poor, excluded and disenfranchised, and only just tolerated so long as they turn out to 'vote for Jesus' - and the white supremacist pseudo-Christian neo-Fascists who use their religion to keep them in their 'place'.



Monday, 23 April 2012

God The Protection Racketeer


Have you found time in your life for Big Ron?

Big Ron saves!

The fool hath said there is no Big Ron... but we still look after his widow.

We've seen how the Christian god resembles an abusive spouse in God The Abusive Spouse. In many ways the tactic of the abusive spouse resemble those of a protection racketeer - the use of violence, or the threat of it, blackmail, intimidation and control - so it's hardly surprising to find that the Christian god closely resembles a protection racketeer too.

The difference is that, unlike a real protection racketeer, the Christian god is just used by the priesthood and the preaching/evangelical industry as though he we real. It's a bit like the small-time hoods who work for the local Godfather have invented a Mr Big. You never see him, nor any sign of him, but they keep telling you what great protection he provides if only you pay your respects, and how he protects you from the misfortune which will befall you as sure as fate, if you don't show him enough respect.

And, of course, exactly what is enough respect is for the hoods... er... priests to decide on the basis of what 'Mr Big' revealed unto them.

So, if you let 'Big Ron' into your lives, and make sure you let Him know how much you appreciate Him by giving His men a reasonable donation - say ten percent of your income - Big Ron will make sure nothing unpleasant happens. Can't say fairer than that gov can I now? It's only money and what use is money if you haven't got yer health and strength? You know how it is around these parts - a decent person can't earn an honest living without someone causing a hurricane to destroy his house or inflicting a fatal illness on his wife and children or causing their car to crash, or shooting him in a drive-by shooting one night on his way home.

And if you just do 'Big Ron' a little service now and again, when He asks, He will try to make sure you get that job you want - or that new car, or house, or a long life - can't guarantee anything mind and 'Big Ron' might just take it into His head that you haven't done enough service yet, or you don't deserve a break. He's like that you know, 'Big Ron'. Heart of gold but He does get some funny ideas at times so you can never tell what he's thinking. Kinda ineffable if you get my drift. He's nice to old ladies and the widows of people who've let Him down in the past, though. Always a bag o'coal or a ham at Christmas!

Anyway, enough about 'Big Ron'. Show Him your appreciation when we pass the plate along the pews and you'll probably be safe for another week. How's that knee doing? Still not able to bend it? Nasty business that. Rough neighbourhood but Big Ron's working on it. Trouble is you see, the local police used to do what Big Ron told 'em, but those pinko commy liberals on County Hall stopped all that so Big Ron has to show 'em who's in charge around here sometimes, or there'd be anarchy and rampant crime. The neighbourhood wouldn't be fit for decent folk any more.

Will you be voting for those decent folk who want to put Big Ron back in charge? He won't like it at all if you don't you know, but it's your choice. Big Ron's a firm believer in letting people make mistakes if they don't know what's good for them. "You tell 'em", He says, "they can do what they like so long as they accepts the consequences..."

Wouldn't hurt a fly, Big Ron... but he knows some people who would...

Come along Knuckles. Time we were going. What have I told you about dropping things? Shake hands with the nice gentleman now - gently. Gently! Oops!

See you in church on Sunday! That hand'll get better in time.


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Seeing Eye To Eye With A Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly
Eyes to die for!

Well, eyes to live for actually.

So, what on Earth is an insect doing with such obviously mammalian 'eyes' on it wings, albeit eyes that can't see? You would think a tasty morsel like that would want to keep hidden and not have bright colours advertising it, wouldn't you? They surely can't be there for us to admire, can they?

But of course, it has nothing to do with us. It has to do with birds!

You see, to find a mate, the butterfly needs to advertise itself, and reproducing is what it is for. But it needs to avoid getting eaten too, so we have a classic tension leading to an equilibrium where finding a mate needs to be balanced against the need to avoid being eaten - at least until after it's found a mate and produced eggs for the next generation.

Enter our predatory bird.

This bird needs to find food for itself and it's chicks and it also needs to avoid being eaten. So again we have another equilibrium resulting from the tension between finding food and being exposed to predators.

Let's see things from a bird's eye view.

An upside down butterfly.

But cover the fore wings and what do you see?

Fox
Or maybe:

Stoat

You see, the birds who survived were those who didn't stop to think, "Oh! What lovely eyes!", because those would be eyes to die for, but those who were up and away before they even knew what their wings were doing. Those who did it best left more descendants, so a rapid flight response to a mammalian eye evolved in the presence of mammalian predators.

Now what has this got to do with the Peacock Butterfly? We'll, birds with these super-fast reflexes were in their environment and were trying to eat them, so, whilst the butterfly was needing to evolve ways of attracting a mate without being eaten, it happened upon a pattern which looked a bit like the eyes of a fox or a stoat, or some other predatory mammal, which is what the bird's genes needed not to be eaten by.

To begin with, the marks might not have looked very much like mammal eyes just so long as in poor lighting or for birds with poor eyesight, they triggered the flight reflex. As the survivors with these slightly eye-like markings became more numerous it was those on whom natural selection worked, so the eye marks became more eye-like and better at attracting butterfly mates.

Also, the butterflies who carried genes which meant they found the eye-like markings attractive would have left more descendants because those genes would have benefited from the presence of genes for making the eye-like markings, so sex-selection would have reinforced this evolutionary process.

From the bird's genes point of view, it was a better trade off to miss a snack than to be eaten. From the butterfly's genes 'point of view' (it's a metaphor, don't get over-excited) it was better to avoid being eaten and to find a mate. Win:win for the butterfly genes and a powerful driver in favour of greater and greater perfection. But perfection not in looking exactly like mammalian eyes but in triggering the flight reflex in the bird. So, maybe two sets of eyes worked better than one, and additional marks which make it look like the eyes are coming closer were even better.

All it has to do is open it's wings and flash those eyes, and the same mechanism works with a prospective mate too!

So, we have insects with mammalian eye-markings because their predators were preyed on by mammals.

And all the butterfly was trying to do was find a mate and avoid getting eaten. Now, what intelligent designer would have have designed that, unless it was one who loved watching birds get the surprise of their lives and denied a meal with a trick?

Snake
Atlas moth

Atlas moth and 'snake'. Not too hard to work out what eats the atlas moth's predators. Go on! You know you can.




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Sunday, 22 April 2012

God The Abusive Spouse

Have you ever noticed how closely the god of the Bible resembles an abusive spouse and how often it's believers seem to be in an abusive relationship with it?
Abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation to wear you down and keep you under his or her thumb. Your abuser may also threaten you, hurt you, or hurt those around you.

This site gives a list of 23 questions to help you decide if you are in an abusive relationship. The more "yes" answers, the more abusive the relationship is. Here are some of them. How many apply to a Christian's relationship with their god?

Do you:
  • feel afraid of your god much of the time? (Psalms 19:9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever)
  • avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your god? (Psalms 19:14 Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD)
  • believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated? (Ezra 9:13 And after all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great trespass, seeing that thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and hast given us such deliverance as this;)
Does your god:
  • blame you for their own abusive behavior? (Leviticus 26:14-46)
  • have a bad and unpredictable temper? (2 Chronicles 30:8 ...and serve the LORD your God, that the fierceness of his wrath may turn away from you.)
  • hurt you or threaten to hurt you or kill you? (Deuteronomy 30:19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live)
  • threaten to take your children away or harm them? (Exodus 20:5 ..for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me)
  • act excessively jealous and possessive? (Exodus 34:14 For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God)
  • control where you go or what you do? (Deuteronomy 6:2 That thou mightest fear the LORD thy God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son's son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days may be prolonged.)
  • constantly check up on you? (Psalms 94:11 The LORD knoweth the thoughts of man,)

So, with "yes" to 10 out of 23, I reckon that makes it a fairly abusive relationship.






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Saturday, 21 April 2012

How Creationists Lie To Us - 14

Here we are at Chapter 13 of the Creationist 'science' book, It's A Young World After All, by assistant professor of psychology, Dr Paul D. Ackerman, PhD.

In case you are new to this series:

To judge by his writing, Dr Ackerman seems to have no formal qualifications in science subjects nor much in the way of understanding of scientific methodology. There is no record of him publishing any research papers in a peer-reviewed science journal nor of presenting any to an audience of professional scientists. Never-the-less he feels qualified to write about science for a Creationist readership. His academic qualifications appear to be confined to his speciality - psychology.

Chapter 13 - Time: Evolution's Friend or Foe?

This is the last chapter in which Dr Ackerman purports to deal with specific scientific claims. I get the impression that he had a few fallacies left over which he hadn't been able to fit into the preceding chapters, so he created this rag-bag of leftover scraps as somewhere to put them. The simplest approach is probably to deal with them as they come.

The argument of this book is that the universe is quite young. If the universe can be shown to be young, then evolution is ruled out, since all agree that the evolutionary process requires vast numbers of years. Time is often viewed as the great friend of evolution, supposedly performing all the miracles of creation that in the Bible are attributed to God. The famous Harvard professor George Wald has explained the evolutionists' view of the importance of time as follows:

The important point is that since the origin of life belongs in the category of at-least-once phenomena, time is on its side. However improbable we regard this event. . . given enough time it will almost certainly happen at least once. . . . Time is in fact the hero of the plot. . . . Given so much time, the "impossible" becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait; time itself performs miracles.

Of course this is true and it shows us what Dr Ackerman is concerned about. "If the universe can be shown to be young, then evolution is ruled out..." So, if Dr Ackerman can persuade you to believe the universe is young, he can persuade you that evolution can be ruled out. Something of a give-away that, and it helps explain his extensive use of bad science and fallacies, aimed, as they are, at a largely scientifically unsophisticated and uncritical audience.

No, this is not a Creationist writing another 'science' book.
A better-known form of the evolution-through-limitless-time argument is the monkey-and-typewriter illustration. Physicist William R. Bennett, Jr., has stated it this way: "Nearly everyone knows that if enough monkeys [my emphasis] were allowed to pound away at typewriters for enough time, all the great works of literature would result."

Something about this argument is intuitively persuasive.

Obviously, if the monkeys were to type long enough, one of them would inevitably type the word to, and with just a little more time surely no one would be surprised to find the word two. And if such circumstances produced to and two, then why not eventually four, eight, and finally a complete sentence, paragraph, and so on?

The question of whether or not time is actually on the side of evolution, as Wald and Bennett maintain, is an important one even if, as this book argues, there is very little of it to work with. The fact of the matter is that time is not a friend of evolution. It is evolution's enemy.

To put it simply, if a monkey [my emphasis] is going to type a literary work, it will need to get the job done in a hurry. Time will work against the monkey's literary efforts as well as against any similar uphill evolutionary process in the real world. This fact is reflected in what scientists call the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all real processes in the physical universe—when isolated and left to themselves—go irreversibly downhill toward increasing disorder and chaos.

The first thing to notice here is the subtle change from 'enough monkeys' to 'a monkey'. The actual monkey-and-typewriter illustration said that if an infinite number of monkeys could type on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, at least one of them would type the complete works of Shakespeare. It was meant to help understand the nature of infinity and how, when we include it in a calculation, anything is possible, no matter how unlikely it is. It can easily be mathematically proven, but it was never an argument for evolution and, so far as I am aware, it has never been used as an argument for it.

Using a single monkey doesn't change the logic because we are talking about infinite time, but what Dr Ackerman seems to be trying here is the fallacy that evolution depends on a single accumulation of probabilities to result in something pre-defined and specific, hence his subtle change to 'a monkey'. Evolution is, of course, not an explanation for convergence on a single pre-defined outcome; it is an explanation for divergence into many outcomes - as many as there are species, sub-species, varieties and variations in nature. Dr Ackerman's 'argument' is nothing more than a straw man; a ridiculous caricature intended to be easily ridiculed and dismissed. Straw man arguments are usually a sign either of ignorance or deliberate dishonesty.

Evolution by natural selection is emphatically not the kind of process that Dr Ackerman is presenting it as. It is not a process which is trying to produce a specific outcome and it is not a single accumulation event. I went into this in some detain in Why You? Briefly, it's the difference between dealing a specific hand of 13 cards from a pack of 52, and dealing any hand from the same pack.

Dr Ackerman either believes himself, or assumes his readers will believe, that the TOE is trying to explain how evolution dealt a specific hand at every deal. It is not. It explains how, at each generation, some individuals with a particular 'hand' of cards were more successful at dealing copies of their 'hand' and some were less so, and how this filtering process resulted in the next generation having a 'hand' they were more likely to be able to deal in that environment whilst other lines of evolving 'hands' were more successful in other environments, so they tended to deal different 'hands'. And, of course, the 'hands' they were dealing tended to change slightly because the mechanism for producing new cards is not always perfect.

There was never a specific 'hand' which evolution was trying to deal, hence we have diversification and not convergence on a specific type, as in the infinite monkey example. If we are looking for a specific outcome from the process of evolution by natural selection the only possible one is that it produces a next generation which is slightly better at producing the next generation, in that gene line, in that environment.

Another subtle 'error' in Dr Ackerman's argument here is the assumption that an evolving line only has a single ancestor at each preceding generation. This is, after all, the only rationale behind his error in accumulating probabilities to produce a single hugely unlikely improbability. Yet we know that we each have an exponentially expanding number of ancestors, hence the accumulated probabilities tend to be focussed on each generation from many gene lines, after having been filtered for ability to replicate successfully by natural selection.

With a trillion ancestors a thousand years ago, the probability of one of them having a beneficial mutation is extremely high, even if the likelihood of that mutation is one in ten million. If that stands a better chance of being replicated (which it would do it it is beneficial) then that probability of it being inherited is increased in the next generation, until, by the time it reached your generation some thousands of years later, if has become highly probable that you will inherit it.

Meanwhile, other highly improbably beneficial mutations will have occurred in other remote ancestors, and the probability of you inheriting that one is also high. The probability of you inheriting one does not effect the probability of you inheriting the others. So the chances of you inheriting a whole bunch of beneficial mutations together is extremely high, not highly unlikely as Dr Ackerman wants you to believe.

Note that, in all this, the mutation only had to happen once. It does not have to happen in every generation. Once it has happened, if it conveys an advantage, then its occurrence will tend to increase in subsequent generations. If it conveys a disadvantage then it's occurrence will diminish in subsequent generation, if it is not immediately removed.

Yes, okay you couldn't have had a trillion ancestors a thousand years ago because there weren't that many people then. That means you are related to a very large proportion of those who were around then, so you are benefiting from almost all their advantageous mutations and, because natural selection will remove any disadvantageous mutations very quickly, the probability of you inheriting one of those quickly becomes almost zero.

In terms of the typewriting-monkey example, it means that along with the accumulating chance of producing something meaningful as time increases, there must also be a consideration of the more rapidly accumulating chance that the monkey, typewriter, or both will break down. Thus, the longer the monkey types, the greater the chance that its typewriter will break. If it would take a million years for the monkey to accidentally hammer out something as meaningful as a good poem or short story, there is no chance whatsoever that the typewriter would last that long—to mention nothing of the monkey or its paper supply!

I'm beginning to wonder if Karl Pilkington is Dr Ackerman in disguise. I'm certainly beginning to feel like Ricky Gervais in this video.

Evolution does not depend on mechanical typewriters, a supply of paper or longevity of monkeys. This point is so infantile it is scarcely worth commenting upon. All it tells us is either that Dr Ackerman has misunderstood his own straw man or that he is hoping his readers will have. Quite frankly, this passage insults the intelligence even of his target audience of Creationists. To me, it suggests he holds his readers in a contempt far in excess of anything they deserve. If there were such a thing as a Code of Conduct or ethical standards for professional Creationists, this would surely risk him being struck off.

In the real world, any system posited to produce ordered and meaningful outcomes will inevitably be subject to the processes of decay and disordering known to scientists as the law of entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics). Time is no friend of evolution.

At last our old friend the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes its appearance!

Here is as good a statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics as you are likely to get:

The entropy of any closed system not in thermal equilibrium almost always increases. Closed systems spontaneously evolve towards thermal equilibrium -- the state of maximum entropy of the system -- in a process known as "thermalization". Equivalently, perpetual motion machines of the second kind are impossible.

Note the words 'closed system'. They are not there just to make the Second Law a bit longer; they are an essential part of it. The only truly closed system is the Universe itself. No localised part of the Universe is closed, and especially not Earth or living systems. The only thing essentially required to overcome the tendency towards increased entropy (in other words, Dr Ackerman's 'processes of decay and disordering') is energy. Given that he spent so long in Chapter 6 talking about the sun, it's difficult to believe he is unaware of it as the major source of energy on Earth. It's also difficult to believe that, as a grown adult, he is unaware that living things take in food as a source of energy and use that energy to drive their metabolism. Maybe, as a non-biologist, he is simply unaware that 'life' is, at it's lowest level, nothing more than anti-entropy machines.

Until recently, life on Earth was thought to be entirely dependent on solar energy, however, with the discovery of the deep ocean volcanic vents, particularly in the Pacific, we now know that geothermal energy can also be used by some specialised organisms. In both those systems, an increase in entropy in the energy source results ultimately in a decrease in entropy in the living organisms, but the total result is increased entropy so the system as a whole obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

And that is just about that so far as Dr Paul D. Ackerman, PhD.'s substantive claims go. Not a single one of them has proved to be based on real science, or supported by science, or to disprove science in ways in which he either thinks it does or wants his readers to think it does. Most of his 'evidence' is equally fanciful nonsense from other Creationists, some of which is frankly, made up.

If anything, this singularly inept attempt to falsify Darwinian Evolution with bad science serves only to emphasis just how well supported the TOE is by the other sciences. Just as with the Laws of Thermodynamics, where we can say with as close to certainty as science ever gets, that if a theory seems to falsify the Laws of Thermodynamics then the theory is wrong, so we are close to being able to say that if science seems to falsify the TOE, then the science is wrong.

Dr Ackerman fails to falsify the TOE because his science is quite laughably wrong.

Had this book been subjected to peer review by proper scientists every chapter would have been struck out. The final chapter is simply a statement of 'faith', that is, unsubstantiated assertions, and little bits of motivational gibberish designed to make his readers feel smugly superior to those crazy know-nothing scientists and that gang of evolutionists who are trying to trick them into losing their faith and think they are descended from monkeys.

To show the world you know you need to lie for your 'faith' is to show the world you know your faith is a lie.


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How Creationists Lie To Us - 13

We have now arrived at Chapter 12 of the Creationist book, It's A Young World After All by assistant professor of psychology, Dr Paul D. Ackerman, PhD. Only two more of these frankly dreadful chapters to go and this one is again a mercifully short one. It concentrates entirely on the claims of another Creationists which are, of course, presented as established fact.

Chapter 12 - Creation Stopwatches.

Dr Ackerman seems unable to resist a rather silly swipe at 'evolutionists' (i.e. people who accept that the Darwinian Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection explains the observable fact of evolution of life on Earth) with this:


If the Genesis account is regarded as historical narrative, then Adam and Eve are seen as sudden and "mature" creations. They are also seen as inhabiting a mature world that is finished and waiting for them. From a creationist viewpoint, it would be very misleading to try to estimate the age of the world by examining the developmental level of Adam and such other primary features of the creation as size of trees, amount of foliage, and so on.

On the other hand, with the passage of time, certain secondary features would come into existence as a result of interactions taking place between primary aspects of creation. For instance, Adam might carve "Adam loves Eve" inside a heart on a tree. This carving would be a secondary feature, and if it could be dated by some scientific process, a creationist would have a relatively high degree of confidence in the outcome. Such dating would not, of course, tell us how old the world is, but it would tell us that it must be at least as old as the tree carving. In contrast, the evolutionist would maintain that everything existing in the universe had to come about through a regular developmental process. Since no distinction between primary and secondary features is recognized, the developmental age of Adam would be given equal weight with the tree carving.

Um... well, I can't see any sane person not accepting that Adam would need to exist before he could carve his name on a tree actually, so I'm not sure what Dr Ackerman's point is here. Maybe it speaks to his target customers who probably like to comfort themselves with the thought that they are a lot cleverer than those stupid scientists but need to be given simplistic ideas to toy with.

Radiohaloes
Anyway, having got that off his chest he spends the rest of the chapter explaining the claims of fellow Creationist Robert V. Gentry and, in a style we've become used to now, he presents this as accepted, mainstream scientific fact.

Briefly, Gentry claimed to have found examples of coal from the Colorado Plateau which had, in the course of their submersion as water-logged trees, become impregnated with tiny particles of radioactive uranium which then became locked when the wood became fossilised as coal. As these tiny radioactive particles decay they leave a distinct coloured 'halo' around themselves as the radiation they emit affects the adjacent material. As the uranium undergoes radioactive decay it becomes an isotope of lead, so, if we know the rate of radioactive decay of uranium, by measuring the ratio of lead to uranium we can get a fairly good estimate of how long ago the uranium became locked in the coal.

Gentry claimed this showed the coal was only a few thousand years old.

In addition, Gentry also claimed to have found similar radiohaloes caused by radioactive polonium, also from the Colorado Plateau which gave similar results. Quite a problem for mainstream science, you might think. How can we account for coal measures being only a few thousand years old?

Well, that's what you're supposed to be asking yourself, of course and Dr Ackerman certainly does nothing to correct that error. In fact, it's an essential part of his argument.

Bur actually, the presence of radiohaloes merely tells us how long the isotopes causing them have been in the coal, not how old the coal is.

What any real scientist would have done would have been to look at other samples gathered from other sites around the world, or compared his findings with those of other researchers in other locations using different samples. He would also have taken pains to ensure his samples had not been contaminated in recent geological times with younger material.

But of course, as a Creationist, Gentry had the required result - the one he had started with - and would not have been allowed to publish these results in the normal Creationist journals had they not supported a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible, so what would have been the point of risking a lucrative book and all those guest speaker invitations on the Creationist lecture circuit by actually making sure your findings were valid?

This article by J. Richard Wakefield, entitled The Geology Of Gentry's "Tiny Mystery", originally published in 1988, comprehensively refutes Gentry's claims. Gentry has been invited to respond to these criticisms but has not yet done so.

Thomas A. Baillieul of Talkorigins.org has also published a detailed refutation of Gentry's claims in Polonium Haloes Refuted (2001, updated April 2005)

So here again we find Dr Ackerman citing a Creationist source which is not only not accepted as valid by real scientists but has been comprehensively refuted by them, yet Ackerman sees no reason to mention these serious shortcomings in his one and only source but instead presents them as established scientific facts. It's becoming quite noticeable how much Dr Ackerman relied on other Creationists for his material and how he has not seen fit to check with real science. His obvious disdain for real science and real scientists is puzzling considering his claim to be writing about science. Of course, one of the great things about being a creation 'science' writer when you have no professional scientific reputation to protect is that you don't need to worry about things like accuracy, professional integrity and objectivity. You're free to chase the money.

As I said about the previous chapter, Creationists quoting Creationists and so constructing a world with only an incidental connection with the real one.

But this is good enough for the largely ignorant and credulous market they are catering for and for whom the least of their requirements is good science, critically and objectively presented.


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Friday, 20 April 2012

How Creationists Lie To Us - 12

The continuing story of the Creationist bad science book, It's A Young World After All, by assistant professor of psychology, Dr Paul D. Ackerman, PhD., who is not a scientists although he writes with the confidence of someone who thinks he is, only to prove beyond any doubt that he quite definitely isn't.

Chapter 11 - The Top That Reeled.

This is a strange chapter in which Dr Ackerman seems to have abandoned his plan to convince us that Earth is only 6000 years old and is now trying to convince us that Noah's Ark was real. He starts of with:

Biblical creationists consider the Genesis account of the flood in the time of Noah to be genuine history. According to the Genesis record, the flood was worldwide in its impact and occurred around 2200 to 2300 B.C.

Christians have traditionally pointed to the extensive sedimentary-rock layers with their numerous fossil remains as being the principal evidence for the flood. Another line of verification that has been put forward is the reports over the centuries by explorers and adventurers who claim to have sighted the remains of the great ark still at rest on Mount Ararat. The present chapter reports on some exciting discoveries by an Australian astronomer that provide new evidence for the Genesis flood.

And then he launches into a convoluted account of different pieces of creation 'science' which looks as though he's trying to convince us that Earth's axis has a wobble - something which is known about and explained by conventional science and which has nothing whatever to do with the age of Earth or the observable fact of evolution. You can read all about it here and here. It is called 'Precession'.

Ackerman seems to be trying to convince us that Earth suddenly tilted on it's axis and expects us to conclude that that must have been the biblical flood, then. However, to arrive at that conclusion he cites an Australian creationist called George Dodwell who claimed to have plotted various shadow measurements from ancient times and shown that 'the curve had a point of origin dating at about 2345 B.C.'.

Er... well yes of course it did. It also had a 'point of origin' in about 50,000 BCE, 10,000,000 BCE, 13.7 billion BCE and 1950 CE. If you plot any system known to fluctuate back to an arbitrary origin it will have that arbitrary origin.

All Dodwell showed is that he knew the traditional date given to the biblical creation by Bible literalists. Interestingly, one of the Australian creationists pushing George Dodwell's 'findings' is one Barry Setterfield whom we met in Chapter 8. He was the one who carefully selected measurements of the speed of light from history and plotted them on a curve which appeared to curve up to infinity in about 4300 BCE. Had he included the excluded measurements he would have shown that the most plausible explanation is that, whilst the speed of light has been constant, our ability to measure it accurately improved hugely between 1675 and 1960 - something we knew already, thank you very much!

So, we are dealing with a team who know well how to produce graphs and charts which meet the requirements of the creation industry and in particular the requirements of the ICR which requires its employees and those whose work it publishes, to take an annual oath to, in effect, never reach a conclusion which isn't in full accord with a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible.

The basic claim is that Dodwell obtained a list of measurements of shadow length on the winter and summer solstice carried out by astronomers as long ago as 3000 years. Quite how he obtained this list, and how he translated the different measuring systems used and assessed their accuracy, remains a mystery.

It must have presented particular difficulties because, for example, we know the Egyptians used cubits and spans based on the distance between an elbow and the finger-tips or between the fingertips of out-stretched arms, we do not know whose elbow and finger-tips and known attempts to standardise them gave different lengths at different times. Moreover, other peoples also used similar anthropometric measures, all of which were different. In England, the length of the inch, upon which all other units of length are based was defined after 1066 as "Equal to 3 barleycorn". In 1324 the legal definition of the inch was set out in a statute of Edward II of England, defining it as "three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end, lengthwise".

In Scotland King David I is said to have defined an inch in his Assize of Weights and Measures (c. 1150) as "the width of an average man's thumb at the base of the nail". It is not recorded how they estimated this average nor the basis used to measure the sample. Goodness only knows what we were using before then.

But I expect George Dodwell overcame all these problems. At least, Dr Ackerman doesn't seem to think it worth considering so it must have been something simple. Or maybe he didn't want us to be too concerned with mere details.

Anyway, all of that is irrelevant to the age of Earth, but Creationists seem to think it's somehow relevant to the occurrence of Noah's flood, apparently for no other reason than that you can plot a cyclical curve back to 4300 BCE.

For reasons which remain unclear, Dr Ackerman then sets out to persuade us that George Dodwell was right to ascribe this wobble in Earth's axis to an asteroid hitting the Pacific Ocean. He tries this:
A preserved mammoth from Siberia. Note the appetizing appearance of all that fresh meat. Yummy!
Among the most curious of archaeological mysteries are the vast beds of perfectly preserved fossils frozen in the northern tundras. Buried beneath the northern tundras of Siberia and Alaska lie the remains of thousands of frozen animals, including the now-extinct mammoth. In some cases the carcasses are preserved to such a degree that their flesh is still edible, usually only by bears and wolves but in a few reported instances by men. Today these northern tundras are cold and barren wastelands, but we know that in the past the climate was much warmer. Fossil evidence has been found of plants that grow today as far south as Mexico. At one time these tundras were covered with lush vegetation.

It is a mystery how so many mammoths and other animals could have been rapidly buried and preserved in cold storage, for the climate was warm at the time they were living. One such perfectly preserved carcass was found near the Beresovka River in Siberia in 1901. Well-preserved plant fragments were found in the mouth and between the teeth of the mammal, indicating the suddenness with which it met its death. Inside the mammoth's stomach, twenty-four pounds of excellently preserved vegetation was recovered. The mammoth's remarkably preserved state indicates that at the time of death there was a cataclysmic occurrence that produced both a rapid burial of the creature and a sudden and permanent drop in the temperature. Recent studies of the temperature parameters required to account for the state of preservation of the Beresovka mammoth reveal that 'the animal must have frozen to death in mid-summer by being suddenly overcome by an outside temperature below —150° F.'

His 'authority' for the Beresova River mammoth claim is... you've guessed it... a fellow Creationist, Jody Dillow, who published her 'findings' in [drum-roll, please...] The Creation Research Society Quarterly (June 1977). You may recall at this point the oath that people who publish through the Institute for Creation Research are required to take.

Not surprisingly, Dr Ackerman did not cite any genuine scientific sources and seems to imagine frozen meat is a fossil - a measure of his palaeontological knowledge and understanding.

The truth, as we've come to expect, is something completely different. In fact, frozen mammoths with soft body-parts preserved to any degree are not common; they are rare. There are no authentic records of any of them being edible. Sudden death with food in the mouth and stomach is easy to explain for a large mammal which lived in tundra where lakes and ponds froze over in winter and thawed out in summer. Mammoths falling through ice as it thinned would have been a fairly frequent occurrence. It would be surprising if we did not find these remains.

The claim that they must have gone from summer temperatures to —150° F. in half an hour to retain their fresh and edible condition is nonsense, of course. It 'solves' a non-existent problem. Ackerman's 'authority' is the same 1977 Creation Research Society Quarterly article by Jody Dillow. Again, no genuine science source is cited.

Dr Ackerman then goes on to explain how George Dodwell's hypothetical asteroid accounts for plate tectonic. No! Honestly!

When we get to the end of the chapter we discover that Dr Ackerman seems to have realised that trying to explain the well-know precessionary wobble in Earth's tilt in novel and entertaining ways and relating fanciful stories of fresh mammoth steaks in Siberia does not really prove there was once a world-wide flood. In a 2002 update he has added an equally fanciful section called 'Putting It All Together: The Great Flood' which can best be describes as speculative, though unkind people might use a different adjective. This, and the rest of the chapter, shows very nicely how Creationists use articles by other Creationists as though they are evidence, and so have built up a picture of the world in which any contact with reality is merely incidental.


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