Thursday, May 10, 2007

In The Light of Evolution

Today in the PNAS Early Edition the collected papers from the Colloquium entitled, In the Light of Evolution I: Adaptation and Complex Design, which was held on December 1st and 2nd of 2006, were released. These papers I think will be of special interest to those who follow the current Evolution and Anti-Evolution debate, ID "movement", etc. I have only started going through these papers, starting with the summary paper by Avise and Ayala which breaks down the papers into three topics: Epistemological Approaches To Biological Complexity, From Ontogeny to Symbiosis (A Hierarchy of Complexity), and Dissecting Complex Phenotypes (Case Studies).

It looks to be a good read as well as a good scientific summary of what Evolutionary Theory really has to say about areas that the ID enthusiasts and Creationists frequently like to misrepresent in their arguments. Papers will cover how natural processes give rise to complex systems, what is biological complexity and how can it be quantified?, ontogenic shifts and the emergence of new morphologies, etc. As I read papers in the series I will update with a sort of running commentary.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


I haven't posted here in awhile, since I'm not exactly a blogger by nature and am thinking about turning this blog in to a sort of virtual journal club where a paper of interest is proposed weekly or bi-weekly and then people post comments discussing that paper. I don't think I have many regular readers but feedback would be appreciated.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Can we remove the heirarchy of hypothesis from science education?

Repeatedly in my forays on the web, and in explaining science to non-scientists, in particular in the context of the ongoing evolution-creationism debates, I am constantly faced with explaining what a theory is in the context of science, and that the "hypothesis -> theory -> law" that many people no doubt learned in elementary and high school is simply wrong, and has been for a long, long time. Getting this erroneous thinking removed from the education process would go a long way towards improving the scientific literacy of people in general.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Benny Hinn eXtreme!!

Ok so this really has nothing to do with science, although I could write a length diatribe on the mental state of the fervently religious, the power of persuasion, and of course the con that goes into all of this evangelical faith healing but mostly I just wanted to link to this video because it is hilarious. Benny Hinn faith healing + appropriate rock music = priceless.

Another article from an ID supporter that raises my hackles

Recently (thanks to I came across this article in the Guardian from across the pond. Some of the article makes a degree of sense (as many of these ID articles do) but for someone who has supposedly worked in the field Mr. Buggs seems to make an awfuly lot of mistakes concerning evolution. Of course when I do a pubmed search for Buggs, R the results are a little slim. Three articles in pubmed and only one is truly in an evolution journal.

I think my "favourite" paragraph from the article was the following:

Science has turned lots of corners since Darwin, and many of them have thrown up data quite unpredicted by his theory. Who, on Darwinian premises, would have expected that the patterns of distribution and abundance of species in tropical rainforests could be modelled without taking local adaptation into account? Or that whenever we sequence a new genome we find unique genes, unlike any found in other species? Or that bacteria gain pathogenicity (the ability to cause disease) by losing genes?

Ok so for the first point on modeling species distributions and species abundance I'm not sure what models he is referring to, nor what they use as input parameters. And of course I am not an ecologist but I do know that those sorts of things follow probabilistic distributions of one sort or another, and I am willing to bet that input parameters for those models DO take adaptation/evolution into account somehow, even if it is via proxy. (For example if you are modeling the distribution of a predator one typically includes prey distributions in the model. That actually does take evolution/adaptation into account by proxy).

As for the second, bacteria losing genes to gain pathogenicity I have to wonder if Mr. Buggs has ever heard of Pathogenicity Islands. Those wonderful little groups of genes that get swapped via Lateral Gene Transfer like crazy among bacteria.

I am forced to conclude that Mr. Buggs credentials are either over sold in relation to the topic at hand, or like so many others in the ID posse, he deliberately bends the truth in order to sway public opinion.

Pattern Matching

I've been thinking about pattern matching a lot lately in the context of the human brain and evolution after originally being sparked to the idea over at the The Evolution List some time ago. When you start thinking about it you realize just how much pattern matching can explain some elements of religious belief and the supernatural. Back when our ancestors where barely upright and living on the fringe of the forest and Savannah in Africa pattern matching was a key component of survival. Signs that would indicate a predator was nearby, signs of the weather, etc. But like many things in nature pattern matching is balanced on a very delicate knife's edge. Too strong and you start having a heart attack every time you see your own shadow, too lenient and that lion has you for dinner. But overall it pays too be a little too jumpy than to be too lenient, and so humans have a tendency to see things that aren't there. Couple that with consciousness and high intelligence and one can imagine all sorts of funny things happening.

It is also amazing how well written science fiction can sometimes be. As a student of the sciences I have a guilty love for sci-fi, but it can often be a love hate relationship. After all frequently so many sci-fi books are just plain wrong on many levels, especially when it comes to topics related to molecular biology. I can't fault the authors too much after all, they write for their audience and their audience is generally not very well versed in that subject matter anyway. Recently I came across this book by a Canadian author called Blindsight. Mr. Watts has a background in marine biology and so he can tackle this hard sci-fi novel from a well researched scientific perspective, in fact he even includes a well written appendix at the end discussing some of the scientific issues in his book such as consciousness in the light of evolution and just what the advantages and disadvantages of a conscious mind really are. He is also rather generous in providing citations to his reference material, most of which are peer-reviewed articles from Science and Nature.

I highly recommend the book, I found it quite enjoyable although it is one of those books that is hard to get lost in. The pacing tends to be a little slow but it is highly interesting and gets you hooked. Definitely an interesting look at the differences between intelligence and consciousness as well as a fascinating exploration of the idea of human-alien contact. Technology implies belligerence.