Darwin Day 2017

Sunday, February 12th is the official Darwin Day in celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin, one of the most important figures ever in science. We are planning an event in commemoration of this day, but we’ve set it for Tuesday, February 14th at 7:00 PM because we will be using facilities at ICC and they aren’t open on Sundays.

We will be showing a video that explores a small piece of the mountain of evidence that is explained by the theory. The video is titled “Great Transformations” and covers the notion of transitional species in the process of life evolving on our planet. A prime example will be the wolf-like creature that evolved over time into giant creatures that exist only in our oceans, the whales. It also looks at the common ancestry that all life on the planet shares, no matter how different it seems. For example, a fruit fly and a mouse sharing a gene which is responsible for the development of eyes in both organisms. This single gene can be switched from the mouse to the fly during embryological development and still produce a normal eye. Evolution doesn’t start from scratch when a new species begins to appear. It works on what exists and kind of “improvises” from there. In the far distant past, the gene for eyes appeared and it has been used over and over again in countless species. The embryological environment with multiple genes in action determines how the gene for eyes is expressed in each case. Shared ancestry indeed.

The video runs a bit over 50 minutes and we will try to generate some discussion afterwards and maybe even some debate over the contents of the film and the theory of evolution in general.

Join us on Tuesday, February 14th on the campus of ICC in Wilson 120 at 7:00 PM. This event is being sponsored by the Philosophy Club at ICC.

Facts vs. Faith — Which Will Win?

I came across this quote in a column written by Charles Blow for the New York Times, but he was quoting Joe Keohane of the Boston Globe, so that is the original provenance:

“Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”

Blow was writing about Donald Trump supporters.  But if this is true with respect to “ploitical partisans,” why would it be any different when it comes to dogmatic religious believers?

This is disappointing, because it suggests that our favored tools, logic and reason, will not avail against belief.  In other words — excuse the awful pun — faith trumps facts.

Of course, we can hope that even if this is true in the short term, in the long run, ideas based on reason will permeate the public consciousness, and for pragamatic reasons (such as the efficacy of medical science — all but the most deluded believers go to doctors rather than faith healers because they are more likely to find effecive treatment with the latter than with the impotent and ineffective layer on of hands), change will come in the future as it has in the past.

Still, it is depressing to think that our best arguments and the most effective presentation of evidence may be likely to fall on deaf ears.

Presumptions

I was watching a show the other night called “Monster Quest,” wherein an impersonal team conducts searches for various cryptozoological creatures such as Champ, the yeti, or the Mongolian death worm.  This particular episode focused on the Ropen.

The Ropen is supposedly a large, leathery flying predator native to Papua New Guinea which sets itself apart from other creatures through a twenty-foot wingspan and bioluminescence.  Supposedly it greatly resembles a glow-in-the-dark pterosaur.

Part of the expedition was a representative of “Genesis Park,” a creationist organization that seeks to prove dragon-like creatures of mythology as proof that humans and dinosaurs lived alongside one another, a la The Flintstones.  In order to help push the asinine notion theory that pterosaurs still live in Papua New Guinea, something that was mentioned when someone pointed out that there’s no evidence that pterosaurs were bioluminescent, this particular man claimed that fossils don’t tell us the whole story and so we can’t possibly know that.

That claim is highly presumptuous.  It’s true, fossils simply can’t tell us everything, however, given what they can tell us–how the skeletons were put together, diet (teeth), muscle size and arrangement (imprints on the bones)–we simply can’t make wild guesses just because the fossils don’t specifically say “no.”  As I pointed out at Florio’s, I can claim that the fossil T.rex “Sue” was a devout Shinto, there’s nothing specific in her fossils that says otherwise, but I don’t get to complain when people point and laugh at me.

In case you’re curious, the Ropen is most likely a combination of folklore, hysteria, and misidentified hornbills, which are massive birds that have been compared to pterosaurs before.

Dino-Doodle-Doo

Jurassic Park is the story of humans playing god and bringing extinct creatures back from Death’s chilly embrace.  As with all of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi novels, it doesn’t go well for us.  But it’s just that, right?  Science fiction, not a kernel of truth anywhere to be found.

Well, maybe not.  Jack Horner (the paleontological advisor to the Jurassic Park movies) has had a little pet project going on for a while now: reverse genetically engineering a chicken into a dinosaur.

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Not as cool as we’d hoped.

Ok so it’s not a lawyer-munching Tyrannosaurus rex, but this chickenosaurus (as Horner is calling it) does have some exciting implications for the field of genetics.  Creating a dinosaur out of a chicken is, at least cosmetically, a surprisingly easy feat: teeth, arms and hands, a long tail, and a modified snout.  That last entry was actually achieved through experimentation of chicken embryos by Horner’s team.

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A standard chicken, a genetically modified chicken, and an alligator.

You see, as dinosaurs evolved into birds, certain genes were modified.  By analyzing two genes involved in facial development, Horner’s team found that they behaved differently in birds than in reptiles.  By altering this behavior, their chicken embryo developed a reptilian snout as opposed to a beak.  Not done there, they found to their complete surprise that the embryo had also developed a reptilian palate (the roof of the mouth), a surprise find as they were only expecting to alter the outer structure of the beak.

This development is promising, but there are still unanswered questions.  Even if we were able to genetically construct a dinosaur from a chicken, would it work right?  There’s no guarantee that by simply reactivating the genes for reptilian features like snouts, arms and tails that the nervous system will wire itself accordingly.  The brain may not be able to communicate with these limbs.  What if the resulting creature possesses the body of a dinosaur but the absurdly misplaced instincts of a chicken?

There are many questions to be answered, but the first signs seem promising.  Through the power of genetics, even a “glow-in-the-dark unicorn” [Horner] is not impossible, but now ethics get involved.  To quote the Jurassic Park movie: “Your scientists were so concerned with whether they could, they didn’t stop to consider whether they should.”

Jerry Coyne – You Don’t Have Free Will – Our monthly meeting for August 25, 2015

I’m finally catching up on posting items about our monthly meeting programs. This brings us up to date.

This program involved a recent presentation on the concept/topic of free will given by Jerry Coyne at the Imagine No Religion 5 conference held in Vancouver, Canada. Jerry has had a long time interest in the idea of free will and has staked out his own position by arguing that free will is merely an illusion and doesn’t really exist. The title of this talk is, appropriately enough given his view, “You Don’t Have Free Will”. The argument for his position is based on his perception that everything we know about the brain and its relationship to our behavior supports the view that it and the associated concept of mind ultimately reduce to material events and there is no real gap into which one can insert an immaterial, supernatural or spiritual essence. If the brain has only a material existence, all our actions can be explained by material events which could, in principle, be reduced to physical events which would lead to predictable outcomes. We have no choice in our actions separate from these material events even if we feel we do. This is not a position likely to produce a lot of jolly agreement from most of us.

So, watch the video, load up your arguments, take aim and give old Jerry hell for trying to wreck one of our favorite ideas even if it doesn’t feel religious.

Faith vs. Fact – Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

Jerry Coyne’s new book referenced in the title above has now been published. I have a copy and I’m reading through it in my usual style of two or three pages at a time which guarantees that I won’t remember most of it and, therefore, can be excused for reading it over and over. He is starting to go through various book tour events and one of the first was held at Politics & Prose, a famous book store in Washington, D.C. A recording of his presentation is available here and is worth a listen.

The talk runs about 35 minutes and then is followed by another 30 minutes of Q & A. His publisher/agent advised him not to talk about what was in the book, but about why he wrote it, thereby being more likely to entice audience members to buy the book since they’d be more curious about what was in it. So Jerry tried to do this although he does give away some of the contents.

If you’ve followed Jerry on his “Why Evolution Is True” website for any length of time, you are probably familiar with his arguments about the incompatibility of science and religion. The book goes into more detail on some of his points and is an easy read so far. The position he takes is that science and religion make competing claims about the nature of reality even if religion also delves into issues of meaning and purpose. It’s the religious claims about reality that are most invidious because they are never supported by any evidence at all; they are simply assertions. There is no way to detect or correct errors within religion itself. It has no tools, no tested process by which to ascertain which of those claims, if any, is true. Hence, we have thousands of religions each making claims denied by some other religion. Science on the other hand, has a highly refined and thoroughly vetted system for searching out and identifying what is likely to be true. Hence, there is only one science, not American science or Chinese science or German science, etc. There is just the one system and it has succeeded in spectacular ways.

Jerry knows his book will be controversial and draw all sorts of challenges and complaints. His first presentation at the University Club of Chicago a couple of weeks ago gave him a taste when the wealthy old white men who make up the club invited him in to talk about his book. They were not amused. I wonder how they managed to invite him in the first place?

Back to Politics and Prose. The Q & A is also worth listening to primarily because of two people who wanted to make speeches instead of ask a question. The first is a nurse who claims that her work with patients relied heavily upon her faith and without said faith she fears she wouldn’t be successful in caring for others. Jerry points out that the word she should be using is ‘confidence’ rather than faith. She has confidence in her skills and those of her co-workers based on training, experience and knowledge. She misattributes this sense of confidence to a religious faith that really seems to play no real part. She is unconvinced.

The second is a fellow who describes himself as a rabbi and wants to lecture Jerry on how he needs to study religion even more since he doesn’t really understand his Jewish heritage. Too bad that Jerry didn’t talk at length about what was actually in his book. The rabbi falls into the trap of claiming that you have to read every single book on religion before you can criticize it. The correct reply of course, is for the rabbi to read every science book and then come back to talk.

These two speech makers take up a chunk of the Q & A time and Jerry has to be a little testy with them given the total number of people wanting to actually ask a question during the time available. It always amazes me when people try to use a Q & A to launch their own presentation instead as though their perspective is so important that they can impose it on the entire audience without permission or invitation. Jerry will likely need to practice his skills at telling people to shut up and sit down. I don’t think he enjoys doing that, but he doesn’t want to listen to the rants either.

 

King of the (Prehistoric) Seas–Mosasaur

I’ve been dragging my heels with these prehistoric creature posts, but with “Jurassic World” just around the corner, I decided to get off my buns and post about one of my all time favorites: mosasaurs.

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Shamu’s got NOTHING on this sh*t!

Mosasaurs ruled the oceans of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era of Earth’s history, biting sharks in half while T-Rex was doing the same with anatosaurs.  A close relative of modern-day monitor lizards and snakes (more on this in a minute) mosasaurs were the dominant marine predators for the last 20 million years of the Dinosaur Age, an age where the seas included plesiosaurs and Ginsu sharks–25 foot long ancestors of the great white and named for the Ginsu knife.  Evolving from small lizards that lived in swamps and lakes to avoid dinosaurs, and later made the transition to oceans, mosasaurs ruled their environment with a number of different weapons, not least of which was their size, which ranged from roughly the size of a Labrador, to the 60 foot long Mosasaurus.

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You can always count on Suicidal Size-Comparison Alan to make things real

But what did such titanic beasts even feed on?  Luckily for mosasaurs, everything during this time was just too big.  Sea birds as tall as a man, carnivorous fish the size of motor boats, sea turtle that dwarfed life-rafts, and of course the sharks and plesiosaurs I mentioned earlier, mosasaurs had their pick of what to eat.  Mosasaurs tracked their prey with two keen weapons, the first of which were pressure sensors in their snouts.  Like modern day crocodiles and Cretaceous Era Spinosaurus (the star of Jurassic Park III) mosasaurs had pockets of nervous tissue in their snouts that allowed them to detect the pressure waves made by all swimming creatures.  Their second weapon was a forked tongue that, like those of their modern snake and monitor lizard cousins, could be used to track scents, even underwater.

We can make the assumption that mosasaurs had these forked tongues by looking at their modern relatives, and we certainly know who those are.  By looking at the skeletons of mosasaurs, as well as soft tissue imprints–which show small, triangular scales like those of snakes–we can see the similarities they possess to snakes and monitors.  Not just that, but the lower jaw of a mosasaur was double-hinged, just like those of modern snakes, which mean that they could move their bottom jaws forward-and-back as well as up-and-down.  You’d think that meat hook teeth and Satan’s own mandibles would be enough, but mosasaurs also possessed a second set of teeth in the upper jaw which would hold prey, as well as shred it to pieces, as it used its double-hinged snappers to drag up to four feet of flesh down its gullet at a time.  Pay attention to the inside of the mosasaur’s jaws in the Jurassic World trailer and you’ll see those devilish teeth yourself.

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“Well, hello there killer-shark-lizard!”

I mentioned soft tissue deposits, which, as you may be aware, rarely fossilize.  Well, remains in Harrana, Jordan (which was underwater at the time) were so well preserved that scientists were able to study the softer, squishier bits that don’t often survive millions of years of being buried in the dirt.  This is how they know what the mosasaurs’ scales were like, how they know that the organs were arranged much like those of modern whales, and how they know that mosasaur had a tail like a shark’s.  This design being in modern sharks and fish is no accident, it optimizes how much water is displaced with each stroke from the tail, allowing more efficiency for a swimming creature.  While things are more ambiguous for the smaller species, larger specimens like the Mosasaurus itself were unlikely to pursue prey long distances.  Like modern great whites, they likely patrolled populous waters until they found a good spot before laying in wait for something to swim too close, tagging their chosen prey with a great burst of power.

With the depletion in fish stalks that occurred after the KT Event–otherwise known as the meteor-based bitch slap that rebooted life on planet Earth–larger predators simply couldn’t continue; they simply couldn’t survive on the smaller fish left behind.  The implications that it took an event of cosmic proportions to send these beasts into extinction speaks volumes of their rule.  Even had dinosaurs died out and left the mosasaurs alive, the world would be much different; there would be no whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals or sea lions or walruses for one thing.  They wouldn’t be able to compete, mammals simply couldn’t take to the seas, which raises more implications about man’s place in a world like this.  Even if we evolved at all, we wouldn’t be able to conquer the globe like we have today.  Fishing would be too dangerous an enterprise with 60-foot sea beasts patrolling the best places, early man would not have been able to travel as far afield across the oceans in rafts and small boats.  Much of our current success is a result of our ability to harness the resources of the oceans, the domain of the mosasaurs.