Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Devil's Own Intelligent Design?

Tasmania devil Sarcophilus harrisii
A second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils.

A little over 30 years ago, Tasmanian devils, marsupials that lives only on the Australian island of Tasmania, began to develop fatal tumours on their face. It was subsequently found that this devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) was a transmissible cancer which is passed on when one animal bites another on the face and transfers live tumour cells to the new host.

It is thought that these transmitted cells are not recognised by the devils' immune system as foreign and so destroyed because they are genetically so close to the devil's own cells having developed in a highly in-bred population as the population declined and genetic diversity declined with it. Ironically, a parasite has arisen in a host, derived from the host itself.

Monday, 28 December 2015

2015 - Another Miserable Year for Creationism

This is the third year I've written up a brief summary of some of the most interesting papers on evolution and related science for the past year, and, like the previous two, it's been another miserable year for creationism.

To look at their sites like Ken Ham's AiG, though, it's almost as though they haven't noticed any science this year. There is still no dent in their dogmatic insistence that science has never provided any evidence for evolution.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

New Book: An Unprejudiced Mind

An Unprejudiced Mind: Atheism, Science and Reason is my latest book - a sequel to The Light Of Reason: And Other Atheist Writing series - again consisting of carefully selected essays and articles from this blog, this time concentrating primarily of the science behind biological evolution and how it has led to biodiversity, and contrasting it with the pseudo-philosophy of theology. It is available in both paperback and Kindle editions. Buyers of the paperback can also obtain the Kindle version at a greatly reduced rate.

The title is a partial quote by one Patrick Matthews (20 October 1790 – 8 June 1874) who has a plausible claim to have been the first to published the idea of evolution by natural selection, in 1831, almost 30 years befor Darwin and Wallace published their idea to the Linnean Society. Charles Darwin himself acknowledged his prior claim but pointed to the obscurity of his chosen publication medium - in a book on arboriculture with a very small circulation. Matthews had even published his claim to be the first to describe natural selection in a letter to an obscure gardening magazine.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Has the 'Intelligent Designer' Got OCD?

African straw-coloured bat
Filovirus receptor NPC1 contributes to species-specific patterns of ebolavirus susceptibility in bats | eLife

OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterised by repeatedly and obsessively doing something which appears to have no aim, or at least an aim which isn't furthered by constant repetition.

Yet, when we look at biology, we see examples in great abundance of what would appear to be obsessive, constant repetition which actually achieves nothing, as though the designer is on some sort of mental treadmill and incapable of getting off it - assuming, that is, that you believe in a designer. This is not the act of a mentally healthy or intelligent being.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Why Science Works - Looking at New Evidence

Homo erectus
Source: Wikipedia
PLOS ONE: A Hominin Femur with Archaic Affinities from the Late Pleistocene of Southwest China

A point that's been made many times before here and elsewhere, but which creationists don't seem to be able to understand, is that science progresses essentially because nothing is ever completely ruled out and new evidence is always carefully examined before being accepted or rejected. If acceptance means we need to revise our previous understanding, then we revise our understanding. It would be a complete absurdity for science to know that there was evidence showing that our understanding was wrong yet to ignore it and pretend it just wasn't there.

This of course is in stark contrast to creationism where loons like Ken Ham are actually admired for dogmatically stating that no evidence can ever contradict what creationists 'know' because creationists 'know' the truth, and they didn't get it from the evidence. This dogma, which of course is essential for people trying to maintain a sacred conclusion with the evidence so strongly against them and being added to all the time, enabled creationists to simply wave aside

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Happy Christmas - And No Religion Too

Millennials: Christmas more cultural than religious | Pew Research Center

The 'Millennials' in America have been increasingly rejecting mainstream religion and becoming more atheistic for some time now as shown in a Pew Center survey just a few weeks ago.

Now the Pew Research Centre has published a 2013 survey that shows how, rather than rejecting that quintessentially Christian festival, Christmas, Millennials are secularising it and turning it into a cultural celebration rather than a religious one. As a cultural event, Christmas is becoming an inclusive festival rather than an exclusive one that cynically increases in-group cohesion by automatically excludes religious minorities.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Mite Is Right For Evolution

Demodex folliculorum
Global divergence of the human follicle mite Demodex folliculorum: Persistent associations between host ancestry and mite lineages

Evolution is as plain as the mites on your face.

You see, we all have mites living in our hair follicles, especially the hair follicles of our face, such as our eyebrows and eyelashes. We're not unique in this; all mammals have these normally harmless little fellow travellers.

Britain Is No Longer A Christian Country

Baroness Butler-Sloss
LIVING WITH DIFFERENCE - community, diversity and the common good

In a report out a few days ago, a commision of enquiry into the role of religion in public life in Britain led by a former senior judge, The Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss GBE, has acknowledged that Britain is no longer a Christian country and recommends a systematic de-Christianisation of public life.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream Christian churches, who were heavily represented on the enquiry board, are crying foul, squealing like stuck pigs and demanding to be allowed to keep their special privileges and power, despite the fact that they are accountable to no-one and represent only a small and decreasing minority of the population.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Daft Designer Does It Again

Cellular defense against latent colonization foiled by human cytomegalovirus UL138 protein | Science Advances

Here's a little challenge to Michael Behe and his chums from the Discovery Institute.

No, it's not to explain how it came about because that's too easy. It's to explain why it came about. The problem is not that it is irreducibly complex but that it is irredeemably stupid.

Here's the situation:

A family of viruses, the herpesviruses, has a mechanism for overcoming the human immune system when it infects cells. It basically hides inside the cell nucleus looking for all the world like part of the normal genome and only in certain situations does it come out of hiding, start replicating and

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Why Science Works - Doing It Like Adults

The basic difference between science and religion is that science is grown up while religion is essentially childish. This is illustrated by a controversy which has suddenly blown up in a fairly obscure but none-the-less interesting aspect of evolutionary biology in the last week.

An interesting paper was published a few days ago which seemed to show that horizontal gene transfer (HGT) may account for up to 18% of the tardigrade ('water bear') genome, suggesting that HGT could have played a bigger role in the evolution of multicelular organisms than is generally recognised.

HGT is widely suspected to have played a part in the evolution of prokaryote cells so that acquiring genes

Thursday, 3 December 2015

How Evolution Gave Us Grannies

Human-specific derived alleles of CD33 and other genes protect against postreproductive cognitive decline

There's something special about a granny. Granddads are special too of course, but not quite like a granny. Ask my grandchildren.

Grandparents are biologically, on the face of it, a little bit of a mystery especially in a social species and especially in one like humans where for most people for most of the time until the discovery of agriculture, life consisted mostly of hunting and gathering food. Anyone not capable of joining in would have been a drain on the resources of those who could so it seems logical to suppose that any process which removed surplus people from the group after their fertile and productive years were over would be advantageous to the group and so would be expected to evolve. In fact, when you look at our closest relatives, chimpanzees, you find that the females tend to die soon after their fertility ceases.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Creationism's Big Problem

Otago researchers describe new North Pacific fossil whale, News at Otago, University of Otago, New Zealand.

This week's 'missing' transitional fossil is a new species of baleen whale which lived in what is now the North Pacific, 30 - 33 million years ago. It shows distinct evidence of transition between the toothed and the baleen whales.

Fucaia buelli is described in a paper published today in Royal Society Open Science by Ewan Fordyce and Cheng-Hsiu Tsa of the University of Otago, New Zealand and Dr Felix Marx of Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Blue Tarantulas and the Stupid Designer

Singapore Blue Tarantula (Lampropelma violaceopes)

Source: Wikipedia
Blue reflectance in tarantulas is evolutionarily conserved despite nanostructural diversity | Science Advances

Imagine you're, say, a manufacturer of refrigerators and you've employed a designer to modernise your range. The basic technology is fine - things like the heat-exchange unit, door switch that turns the light on and off - and all you need is some styling to give your range more appeal in the prevailing market.

Now, what would you think if you found this designer was redesigning the heat exchanger or the coolant pump, not to make it any better - in fact some of his designs are worse than the ones you normally use - but because it hadn't occurred to him to use the ones you have in stock. In fact, he didn't know they had ever been designed before.

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