Archives For evolution

t. rex fossil

Last time we tackled the question of whether the mighty T-Rex was a predator or a scavenger, the math seemed to point to a mix at the very least. There was no way a creature that large had enough to eat just by moving from carcass to carcass and picking off the scraps left by the apex predators of its day if we take into account the average distances between the kills, decay, and the need to compete with smaller, faster scavengers. But on the other hand, there was the issue of not finding any clear signs of T-Rex predation. Sure there have been some teeth marks on a couple of fossilized bones but all of them could be equally explained by both scavenging and by hunting, with a few specimens having teeth marks in such awkward places that they were hard to explain in the first place. Now, however, there’s proof that the Tyrant Lizard King was indeed the fierce predator we always imagined. One of its fangs was found buried in the hip bone of a duck bill dinosaur, exactly where one would expect a predator to bit to take out the hind legs of a prey animal, and it shows signs of infection and two months of healing after the attack.

Well that’s pretty definitive then. The fossil record has given us a little forensic puzzle that points to a moment in time when a T-Rex tried to chase down a duck bill and the herbivore escaped to live for another two months or so with a terrifying souvenir in its body. Alternatively, we can try and imagine other scenarios during which the T-Rex didn’t have to chase it down. Maybe it was sleeping and attacked by surprise. Maybe it fell and managed to defend itself from a huge beast that came to gnaw on it. But either way, we have pretty clear signs of predation that can put the debate to rest. Now, of course T-Rex would’ve also scavenged because all predators do it as an occasional supplement to their diet. If someone else already took the risk and did the work that goes into a big kill and can be scared off, why not simply take the carcass like lions and hyenas often do from each other? But with predation now verified, little kids can keep on safely thinking of these enormous creatures as intimidating hunters stalking the plains, looking for a chance to strike quickly and violently with enough force to chew through a car…

And of course there’s another interesting fact that this debate about the nature of T-Rex’s diet and predatory habits reveals about science. Because there are always questions to answer in the process of learning more about our past, scientists really are comfortable going after even the most sacred cows. Since the first fossil of this creature was discovered and erected into the towering, fierce stance that was its trademark for almost a century afterwards, paleontologists have been figuring out how it really looked, how it really stood, and how it really moved, which raised questions about what and how it really ate. In the process they lowered its body, raised the giant, muscular tail, leveled its enormous head to its now horizontal spine, and found out it moved faster that first thought, as did its prey. Now we know it really was the terrifying beast we always thought it was, but we know this based on concrete, well, fossilized evidence, not just the popular imagination of what it might have done with its banana-sized chompers. And that’s the beauty of science. It gives us the tools not just to imagine, but to really know.

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darwin

Generally, we tend to associate powerful theories with the people who first proposed them and say that without Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, or all the other scientists featured in countless books as visionaries, our world wouldn’t be the same, and the knowledge we take for granted now would’ve never made it to us. Well, this is somewhat true. Change who discovered, say, germ theory and how it was proposed, and you’d have different criticisms and politics, and adoption curve by the scientific establishment of the day so the world would indeed be a different place. But when it comes to the knowledge, it would largely be similar. That’s one of the greatest things about science. Call physics "objectology" and change the variables in the formulas, and the body of work will still describe pretty much the same processes with the same mechanics because that’s just the way nature works. The differences would be in what bleeding edge ideas would dominate the debate among the experts and professionals, not the basics.

And so, a new book by historian Peter J. Bowler, argues that without Darwin, biology as we know it today would be virtually the same. Were the young naturalist thrown overboard during a storm as he traveled the world, compiling evidence for his theory, there were many scientists waiting to fill the role of evolution’s historical focal father. Wallace probably fits the bill best since it was his version of the theory that prompted Darwin to dust off his by then 20 year old manuscript. And if Wallace’s ideas failed to get any attention, the idea of natural selection was still in the air, it just needed a solid footing to really take off and fuse with genetics. If anything, argues Bowler, neo-Darwinian synthesis might have actually been expedited with Wallace because his theories had more developmental underpinnings, and would turn the field’s focus to complex genetics we’re trying to master to the forefront sooner. And of course there would’ve still been vocal creationist opposition to the idea in all forms. It’s basically a given, much like gravity and entropy.

Even the charges of evolution inspiring eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust would’ve still persisted because the people who were ultimately responsible for them were looking for any kind of excuse to reshape humanity to their liking. Considering that their understanding of selection was pitiful and their knowledge of hereditary mechanisms was non-existent, they weren’t exactly interested in the science. They just wanted a patina of facts to hide their bigotry and racism, and anything that sounded like it could be bastardized into serving their goal was used. Hundreds of years before them, religion was used to justify mistreatment of minority groups throughout much of the Western world, be it selective accusatory clauses from the Old Testament, or invoking the loathsome Deicide Doctrine to defend systematic segregation and prosecution of Jews. In fact, much of the legendary Witch’s Hammer reads like the furious ranting of a misogynist who would easily show up any self-appointed Men’s Rights Activist on the web, the 15 century male version of Andrea Dworkin. Would Kramer have abused evolution to fuel his misogyny? Absolutely.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Darwin’s accomplishments were trivial or that Galileo was simply stealing from Eratosthenes, or that the re-invention of the steam engine was no big deal. There was a good deal of research, work, and insight involved in doing what they did and being the first to have your work recognized and adopted so widely is still a feat. It doesn’t matter that others could’ve done it too because how nature works will always be there for someone to come along and discover. What matters is that they seized the moment and advanced our civilization, giving us new fields to explore. But Bowler’s exercise also proves an important point. Science is ultimately about the facts. The data comes first, the theory to explain why the data is this way is second, and the people who put it all together come third. And while visionaries deserve all their accolades, they are not completely indispensable At worst, their absence from history would’ve delayed a discovery. Nature didn’t uniquely open up to them to grant them insight Anyone can discover something new and fascinating, and sometimes something that can change the way we think about the entire universe. And that’s what makes science such a terrific endeavor.

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dingy lab

Granted, it’s been a few weeks since the Panda’s Thumb caught the Discovery Institute using a stock image for one of their research labs, but this seemingly little thing really matters because it’s another glaring example of how creationists are desperate to present “I don’t know, therefore an unspecified creator or designer which sounds suspiciously like a Biblical deity,” as science. I can imagine Luskin’s train of thought now. Scientists like to show people labs, right? So if we get an image of a “scientist” in what looks like a lab, they’re bound to think that we’re also scientists doing serious research, right? Not really, it’s just taking cargo cult science a notch down and no green screen added lab makes a supposed biologist’s ridiculous musings any more legitimate.

Come on, we have Biologist Ann Gauger, PhD telling us that it’s premature to assume that two similar species must have some common descent without telling us how else these species can get their genetic and anatomical similarities without invoking magic or the supernatural. I’d really like to know the kind of research she produced to show a causal agent for genetic similarity with no evolution involved in that gloomy lab of hers. I’m sure we’ll find it in all the top journals which are always on the lookout for some paradigm-shifting discovery. Though the fact that no one at the Discovery Institute and its offshoots can even define evolution as we know it might be a big impediment to producing work of any scientific value, with or without a real lab…

[ illustration from Far Cry 3 ]

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brainpower

According to a widely reported paper by accomplished molecular geneticist Jerry Crabtree, the human species is getting ever less intelligent because our society removed the selective drives to nurture intelligence and get rid of mutations that can make us dumber. This is not a new idea by any means, in fact it’s been a science fiction trope for many years and had it’s own movie to remind us of the gloom and doom that awaits us if we don’t hit the books: Idiocracy. Crabtree’s addition to it revolves around some 5,000 genes he identified as playing a role in intelligence by analyzing the genetic roots of certain types of mental retardation. Then, he posits that because we tend to live in large, generally supportive communities, we don’t have to be very smart to get to a reproductive age and have plenty of offspring. Should mutations that make us duller rear their ugly heads in the next few thousand years, there’s no selective pressure to weed them out because the now dumber future humans will still be able to survive and reproduce.

Evolution does have its downsides, true, but Crabtree ignores two major issues with his idea of humanity’s evolutionary trajectory. The first is that he ignores beneficial mutations and that just two or three negative mutations won’t necessarily stunt our brains. Geneticists who reviewed his paper and decided to comment say that Crabtree’s gloom and doom just isn’t warranted by the evidence he presents, and that his statistical analysis leaves a lot to be desired. The second big issue, one that I haven’t yet seen addressed, is that Crabtree doesn’t seem to have any working definition of intelligence. These are not the days of eugenicists deluding themselves about their genetic superiority to all life on Earth and most scientifically literate people know that survival of the fittest wasn’t Darwin’s description of natural selection, but a catchphrase created by Herbert Spencer. Natural selection is the survival of the good enough in a particular environment, so we could well argue that as long as we’re smart enough to survive and reproduce, we’re fine.

This means that Crabtree’s description of us being intellectual inferiors of our ancient ancestors is at best, irrelevant and at worst pointless. However, it’s also very telling because it fits so well with the typical assessment of modern societies by eugenicists. They look at the great names in history, both scientific and creative, and wonder where our geniuses are. But they forget that we do have plenty of modern polymaths and brilliant scientists and that in Newton’s day, the typical person was illiterate and had no idea that there was such a thing as gravity or optics and really couldn’t be bothered to give less of a damn. Also, how do we define genius anyway? With an IQ test? We know those only measure certain pattern recognition and logic skills and anyone could learn how to score highly on them with enough practice. You can practice test your way to be the next Mensa member so you can talk about being in Mensa and how high your IQ scores were, which in my experience tend to be the predominant activities of Mensa members. But they are members of an organization created to guide us dullards to a better tomorrow after all…

But if IQ scores are a woefully incomplete measure of intelligence, what isn’t? Depends on who’s doing the measuring and by what metric. One of the most commonly cited factoids from those in agreement with Crabtree is how much time is being spent on Facebook an watching reality TV instead of reading the classics and inventing warp drives or whatnot. But is what we usually tend to call book smarts necessary for survival? What we consider to be trivial knowledge for children today was once considered the realm of brilliant, highly educated nobles. Wouldn’t that make us smarter than our ancestors because we’ve been able to parse the knowledge they accumulated to find the most useful and important theories and ideas, disseminate them to billions, and make things they couldn’t have even imagined in their day? How would Aristotle react to a computer? What would Hannibal think of a GPS? Would the deleterious genetic changes Crabtree sees as an unwelcome probability hamper our ability to run a society, and if so, how?

Without knowing how he views intelligence and how he measures it, all we have is an ominous warning and one that single-mindedly focuses only on potential negatives rather than entertain potential positives alongside them, and making conclusions about their impact on a somewhat nebulous concept which isn’t defined enough to support such conclusions. In fact, the jury is still out on how much intelligence is nature and how much is nurture, especially when we consider a number of failed experiments with designer babies who were supposed to be born geniuses. We can look at families of people considered to be very intelligent and note that they tend to have smart kids. But are the kids smart because their parents are smart or because they’re driven to learn by parents who greatly value academics? We don’t know, but to evolution, all that matters is that these kids secure a mate and reproduce. To look for selection’s role beyond that seems more like an exercise in confirmation bias than a scientific investigation into the origins of human intelligence. That research is much more complex and elaborate than gene counting…

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sad trex

Just in case you haven’t heard, dinosaurs were not all giant, scaly, greenish beasts. In fact, an astounding number of them had multicolored plumage like birds and share multiple specialized anatomical features with them, clearly showing that birds are descendants of these immensely popular extinct creatures. But to Ken Ham, the Australian preacher with a six figure salary drawn from his followers’ donations and millions of dollars tied up in an empire of mis-education which promotes his belief that the Flintstones wasn’t an animated Honeymooner’s rip-off but a serious documentary, these new discoveries are an affront to the Almighty. You see, since the dinosaurs were created on the fifth day about 6,000 years ago they were huge, reptilian creatures as the Bible says, so for scientists to say that it’s not actually what happened must be another atheist plot to test the faithful, or worse yet, doubt their decision to see his temple of ignorance.

So, as detailed by Brian Switek, fresh off his attempt to publicly debate with Bill Nye The Science Guy, Ham is campaigning to restore the image of the giant hulking dinosaur brute to keep the steady flow of tourists coming to Kentucky. To me, the most depressing part of this issue is that his religion marketing instinct is probably right. Bring in the kids with dinosaurs and set them up so you can hit them right between the eyes with fundamentalist propaganda and wishful thinking that eliminates all doubt and curiosity. And whenever someone points out that this is what he’s doing, he can cry about religious persecution. Why oh why won’t those evil meanies in lab coats respect his beliefs no matter how misguided, self-serving, or backward, he’ll cry with a stream of crocodile tears and pleas for donations. Switek seems to agree that this is Ham’s strategy here as well, summing up his objections in this quote…

We have an undeserved deference to faith in this country. Someone need only [to] start a sentence with “I believe…” and whatever miasma spills out of their mouths becomes beyond reproach. But our essential and cherished freedom to express our religious beliefs doesn’t mean that those same ideas should be free from criticism and even ridicule. We have let our brains slide out our skulls and through the door if we don’t question someone who claims that carnivorous dinosaurs like Allosaurus lived in the Garden of Eden and honed their teeth and talons on coconuts before the Fall of Adam brought sin, and hence death by carnivory, into the world.

Sadly his statement about beliefs is all too true. We’ve all met someone who uses the seemingly simple and innocuous phrase "well, as a person of faith" to really mean "because I’m better than you" and a license to lecture you about life, and we’re all told to respect others’ beliefs. But if we don’t draw a line and stand our ground against beliefs obviously proven false, and dismantle the faithful’s transparent attempt to ignore, dismiss, and marginalize even the most concrete of facts that proves their ideas wrong, as we saw when the windbags who run Conservapedia had the bad sense to pick a fight with a scientist who lead one of the most superb studies on evolution published in recent memory, we end up with problems like Science and Technology Committees in Congress filled with ignorant blowhards who proudly show off their aversion to facts to media outlets when discussing important policy debates and school boards which use political ideology and religion to justify throwing science books out of science class. Religious fundamentalists see this as a plus, but in reality, the country and its education and workforce suffer for it.

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When it comes to amazingly lazy rebuttals to scientific findings, casual creationists should win some sort of a dubious award for their complete lack of effort. After all, when a talking point has been debunked so often, an accurate tally of how many times it’s been refuted would require scientific notation to express, only those with absolutely no incentive to step out of their tiny little world would barrel ahead and repeat it yet again. Many woo faithful also follow a regurgitate talking point-ignore contrary evidence-rinse-repeat debate format but they will at least put in slightly more effort than citing turn of the previous century arguments, taking some care to dress up their fallacies or misinformation as being somehow scientific. Professional creationists will even go on an extended quote mining trip through scientific journals, hacking up quotes in peer-reviewed works to conjure a pro-creationist position out of the most typical paper on evolutionary mechanisms. Casual creationists simply regurgitate uninspired talking points they must treat with great care since they’re basically antique…

There are about 6 billion human beings on the earth and evolutionists have observed mankind for several hundred years. In all those human beings that are alive or have lived, can you show me one beneficial mutation that has ‘improved’ the human race? I think evolution was a way to get rid of our accountability to God… We didn’t want there to be a God… the unproven over-generalization of evolution allowed us to dismiss him from our world-view.

Nowadays, there are about 7 billion human beings on Earth and they were only really being observed with the purpose of determining their evolutionary history and direction for under a century. Nevertheless, we do see a number of beneficial mutations in our history with the most recent example being more efficient blood cells of Tibetan natives who live at elevations of over 13,000 feet and who coped with the thin mountain air with a favorably selected mutation. Likewise, as the same discovery pointed out, their counterparts in the Andes just create more red blood cells to carry more oxygen. This is exactly the kind of finding you would expect to see in the evolutionary framework. Two widely separated populations faced with the same problem evolve two ways to cope with the same challenge. They could have developed the same mutations, but since the process is a pseudo-random one, we had much higher odds to find two separate adaptations than a similar one. And the funny part here is that this finding was trumpeted all over the web as an example of natural selection playing out in humans. So not only does one have to be utterly ignorant not to know that humans can and do undergo beneficial mutations at an accelerating pace, but he also has to actively ignore the news to stay that way.

Of course the second part of this tired, worn, scarred old chestnut is the accountability to a deity with which an inordinate number of creationists seem obsessed. Why are they in such a rush to bow down and why does a simple thing like mutations that affect a creature’s survivability in a certain environment have to interfere with a nebulous notion like moral accountability? After all, basic ethics exist in the wild and humans seem to have the urge to cooperate and try to get along from birth, which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint if you consider that the roots of ethics are pre-wired in social creatures which would survive in greater numbers were they to have some sort of mechanism to evaluate fairness, cooperate, and punish rule-breakers. If your drive for accountability is so strong, why not try to be accountable to your fellow human beings? Unless you’re not really worried about accountability as much as you’re concerned with imposing your will by using a god to justify your edicts, and the desire to feel like the special mollycoddled creation of a deity who placed you here as a learning experience to train you for another life, and an eternal one at that. After all, having to listen to the rest of humanity and accepting the uncertainty of a pseudo-random, complicated world with few rules can be pretty scary. Too scary for someone who wants both power and gentle guidance he can follow.

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South Korea is one of the most advanced countries in the world. Its blazing-fast internet helps fuel its citizens’ insatiable additions to MMORPGs and StarCraft, its economy is powerful and well-diversified, and education and good grades are prized, sometimes to a fault. However, this well educated nation is taking a bizarre step backwards by allowing its version of the Discovery Institute to revise its biology books to omit evidence of evolution, which sounds much like a judge allowing a prosecutor to throw away a defense attorney’s proof of his client’s innocence to skew the case in the prosecution’s favor. What’s even worse is that nearly half of the nation rejects biology in favor of creationism, putting it more or less on par with the U.S., which was second from the bottom in evolution acceptance polls conducted in Western nations; Turkey was the only country that scored lower. Why does half of South Korea reject evolution? Call it a success of proselytizing and apathy on the part of its biologists, academics, and the public at large about the integrity of their science education. Not enough people stepped up to defend their school system from the encroachment of religious zealotry.

Creationists’ predictable response to criticism of South Korea’s educational surrender has been to declare all those who strongly disagree with censoring science textbooks a pack of vicious atheists persecuting anyone with faith in a bid to promote their own beliefs. Or in other words, with huge, steaming piles of organic fertilizer that fail to address the problem at every level. If evolution is on such shaky ground, why go out of your way and censor books about it? And if skeptics are supposed to stay out of the believers’ realm (even though evolution has many proponents who still want to or like to believe in a deity or an unspecified higher power), then why a religious intrusion into the scientific realm permissible? Glaring double standards anyone? Or would they like to tell us that they’d welcome scientists lobbying to censor or edit their holy books to better fit with evidence of how the universe really works and petitioning school boards to teach Sunday School classes? Really, should we need to explain how this whole secularism thing works for the hundredth time for those who don’t get it? If you have a dear, long-held belief, you’re welcome to have it. Just don’t force it down people’s throats. If you call scientific evidence "just another kind of belief," then you simply don’t understand how science works.

What especially gets me is that the modern strain of "educated creationism" accepts that adaptations happen constantly, and mutations can cause beneficial changes over time and with selection at work. But then they’ll proceed to call the adaptations "microevolution" and demand proof of "macroevolution" while declaring that it would be impossible for the latter to happen and scientists who claim it does are just making it up as they go along. They think it makes them look refined and well informed. In reality, it makes them look desperate while they cling to their beliefs. If you accept that mutations can be beneficial in a certain environment, with enough time and the right selective pressures, you have accepted the entire scientific basis for evolution. The only big difference between bacteria evolving in a lab and animals evolving in the wild is the number of mutations. The supposedly refined creationist position is like declaring that the principle of internal combustion is sound and works in lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and go-karts, but there’s no way that it could work in a car, much less an aircraft, or a ship, or a rocket. Why the hell not? It’s the same exact thing adjusted for scale! But creationists in a desperate bid to hold on to their beliefs will find their way to move the goalposts and butcher the concept so they can keep their eyes and ears closed to the fact that they’ve already accepted scientific proof.

Even worse is that I’m sure that the creationist group that pushed so hard for the changes in South Korea has no clue what it’s doing wrong, assuming that it has the absolute divine truth on its side so all its machinations aren’t a breach of a social contract but merely correcting a world gone astray. They read about creation in very respected holy books, how could it not be true? Instead of realizing that evolution is a result of hundreds and hundreds of years of scholars asking questions and making new discoveries that challenged their views and represents the best explanation for the development and diversification of life we have today when we take all the evidence into account, they fervently latch on to the idea that evolution is a product of hundreds of years of intellectual debauchery and crazy people seeking to distance themselves from their deity. This is why they go out of their way to demonize Darwin as a precursor to the Nazis and immediately declare evolution to be an atheist religion. But considering that as we saw, they can’t argue with the evidence behind evolution without a logical fallacy involved or outright denialism, they decided to simply excise the evidence to help make a false argument. And hey, is a step back for a nation’s school system really too steep of a price to help a little group of creationist zealots quiet their cognitive dissonance and sleep soundly at night? They don’t think so.

[ photo illustration by D'Arcy Norman ]

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Why did the state of Tennessee just let a bill allowing teachers to preach creationism in the classroom if they really felt like it without any repercussions? Well, according to writer Tom Bartlett, it’s because evolution isn’t an exciting enough story for the public while creationism has the right mix of sex, violence, and drama to vie for people’s attention. In fact, evolution isn’t even a story at all, he continues, citing a professor of psychology’s conclusion that evolution’s lack of a protagonist, motivation, or determined outcome disqualifies it as what we would call a narrative. And yes, technically there is a point there. When we’re talking about evolution, we’re not selling a story about the triumph of intelligent life slowly but surely culminating in us and continuing until we’re immortal transcendent beings of pure thought, as New Age inspired sci-fi would have us believe. Instead, we look at a nearly 4 billion year process of trial, error, random events, and odd twists and turns that managed to create the world we see today. True, to many people that’s not a satisfactory explanation for how we got where we are today and it deprives them of a sense of purpose and being divinely spawned for a noble cause.

But here’s the big question we should all ponder for a minute. Since when is it our job to make sure that facts fit in with the narratives people want to hear? Wouldn’t we just be lying to them if we misrepresent the data we collect and the research we conduct? And for what purpose? To make them believe us not because we have the data but because we cherry picked and massaged it for popular appeal? If the goal is to simply tell people what they want to hear, why even bother doing any science in the first place? Might as well just concoct a good story and run with that. This is why, as Bartlett notes, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne cites religious beliefs, not the quality of evolution as a popular narrative as the main culprit in evolution denial and he has the data on his side to prove his point. When he cites polls in which some 60% of Americans say they’ll just continue with their belief system no matter what they science says, that’s not even a red flag anymore, it’s a wailing alarm. If you really think that you’re going to get people who reject science to suddenly accept it when you just let them substitute their personal ideology for facts they don’t like, you are headed down the path to this…

At the very least, though, evolution’s weakness as a story creates a PR opportunity for creationists. For example, one Christian Web site tries to fit evolution into a standard fairy-tale narrative, telling the intentionally absurd tale of an amoeba’s transformation from salamander to monkey to man, all thanks to a character called Mutation who just waves a magic wand. It doesn’t read like it was written by someone with a background in biology, but it’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that evolution is a “strange story.”

Well of course it’s a strange story when it’s written by someone who has no idea what evolution is and tries to desperately wrangle it into a narrative of personal glorification, i.e. that humans are somehow the pinnacle of the evolutionary process or at least on their way towards it and our appearance was predetermined, or to turn it into a laughable parody of the facts. And of course it doesn’t fit into our tidy self-centered vision of nature, but then again neither do electrons, or black holes, or stars, or quantum mechanics which can technically violate causality according to a recent experiment. That’s the whole point of doing science, to find out what can and what does happen rather than weave a tale everyone involved finds palatable. Those so wrapped up in all the dogmas they hold so near and dear they will rabidly refuse to let them go no matter what, and treat something that challenges their views with contempt without even bothering to try and understand it, are just not going to care what the facts have to say and it’s their attitude that’s the problem here, not the data. As long as they don’t hear the story they want to hear, they’ll move goalposts, argue, and dismiss anything that we have to say out of hand no matter how much evidence we present. Further insulating them from facts by demanding that we give room for their favorite just so stories in science classrooms only makes things worse for everyone.

Just like giving a petulant child who throws an embarrassing temper tantrum in the middle of a store what he wants is a bad parenting strategy, placating anti-scientific crusaders by letting them do whatever they please, dismissing all the damage they do to public education and discourse as their inalienable right, is pretty much the absolute worst way to teach science. Next time the hypothetical spoiled brat wants something, he will just throw another tantrum in a public place to force you to submit. And next time anti-science crusaders want their preferential treatment from school boards and lawmakers, they’ll just engage in the same hysterics and paint any effort to teach actual science to potential future Babbages, Einsteins, and Darwins, as nothing less than a war on their very right to exist. Appeasement is not a valid strategy against those who believe that their word is to be treated as law and once in a while, they need to be politely but firmly told that while they have a right to go to whatever house of worship they want and pray to whatever deity their desire in any way they see fit, schools will teach objective, documented, verifiable facts to students, not serve as their indoctrination centers.

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When it comes to biology, everyone can name the key molecule for life as we know it. Scientists mine it for all sorts of tantalizing clues about our past and possible future while creationists effectively worship it as proof of a deity as some sort of programmer of all living things. But what if I and Ed Yong were to tell you that DNA isn’t the only molecule capable of passing down hereditary information and serving as a key mechanism for basic evolutionary changes? In fact, there’s a whole class of so-called XNA molecules in which deoxyribose can be easily replaced with a whole host of other sugars like cyclohexane, therose, hexose, and glycol to create new kinds of hereditary molecules called CaNA, TNA, HNA, and GNA, respectively. The X in XNA is basically just a placeholder for any sugar that will form a stable helix to contain the nucleic acids to be read. Considering that so many sugars can step up to bat and create a double helix enabling living things to develop and evolve, it’s actually kind of a mystery as to why deoxyribose won out at the dawn of time and prompts one to wonder if we would still be around with say, an ANA which used arabinose instead of the DNA we know and love today?

Now, oddly, the answer seems to be yes because they function the same way and there’s no reason why we couldn’t exist with such a substitution to our cellular chemistry. It’s too late now of course because a life form using an XNA wouldn’t be able to replicate with a DNA utilizing organism. In fact, the researcher who identified these possible permutations of hereditary molecules wants to use them to safeguard us from synthetic life, making sure that it could still be hearty enough to survive competition from bacteria that have been around for billions of years while being unable to actually interfere with our current ecosystem. And as Ed points out, the divergence doesn’t stop there as some scientists are adding even more bases to hereditary molecules to try and coax synthetic life forms into producing very unusual amino acids that would be of use to us. Now, this is all obviously pretty cool because this is quite literally tinkering with the foundations of life, both as we know it, and as we think we might know it, but what can it say about the future and the implications of this work? A very straightforward application could be in astrobiology and the probes sent to other worlds could be instructed to detect a wide array of sugars used in XNAs in soil samples, hopefully indicating some alien biota.

But there’s a potential for a different application. Today, we can engineer fairly harmless viruses which deliver small bits of interfering RNA to shut down gene expression in certain disorders, halting their progression to make them easier to treat. One of the ultimate possibilities of this siRNA technology is to keep cancer tumors in stasis, though considering the recent findings that each tumor may house more than ten different strains of harmful genetic anomalies, we need to figure out how to effectively customize them to attack all those different harmful genes first. It’s a tall order to be sure, but the important thing is that we have a plan and there’s a lot of research into this type of genetic engineering underway. Ultimately, this could even open to door to modifying our own gene signaling to drastically improve our quality of life with age, and perhaps even increase life span by manipulating the biology complicit in making us weaker and more prone to death. Nature doesn’t have the expiration date for an organism stamped into its genome which makes it much harder to delay death, but we know that after a while, the repair of wear and tear slows and damage continues to build up until we get weak enough to be taken out by something that might not have killed us if we were younger or a vital organ starts to fail after accumulating too much damage to continue working as it is. A thorough understanding of how genes and gene expression work can help us find ways to repair or even reverse all that damage…

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Accommodationist philosopher extraordinaire, Michael Ruse, who recently decided to compare the scientific method to religious revelation, has managed to produce yet another emanation of cluelessness that’s spot on in explaining how those crusading against scientific education think and proceeds to entirely miss why the line of thought being explained is wrong. This time, the subject is a much discussed new Tennessee law that grants teachers immunity from teaching their students pseudoscience by calling this a debate. Why students who are still just learning about the topics involved need to have some sort of debate about something they’ve not been taught yet seems rather odd but with the governor too scared of the backlash if he signed the bill into law and too cowardly to face and creationists if he vetoed the bill, this bizarre legal construction was elevated into law by default. Now, scientific organizations obviously want it repealed because pseudoscience, religion, and political indoctrination don’t belong in the classroom, but Ruse warns that the law might be against them. Not because they’re wrong about the science mind you, but because of all those darn atheists…

[The New Atheist movement's] supporters openly and explicitly link evolutionary thinking with non- belief, sneering at those (like myself) who think that science and religion can exist harmoniously together. I don’t care what the law says, politically this is moronic. The citizens of Tennessee, the judges of the Supreme Court, are going to believe that if evolution alone is taught in schools the kids of the country would be getting atheist propaganda – no matter what actually happens – and they are going to want to counter it. I imagine every time that Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, the Discovery Institute lights a candle of thanks, or whatever it is that evangelicals do these days.

Well, yes, of course there are people in Tennessee as well as many other states who believe that evolution is just atheist propaganda responsible for all the evil in the world, but they believed that many decades before a popular atheist movement was ever even mentioned in the press. Dawkins and New Atheism are just big red herrings here and regardless of which movement links evolution and their cause, this doesn’t make the peer reviewed science behind it change its validity. Backers of the Tennessee law don’t care about the science and the quality of education for students, they see every worldview unlike theirs as heresy, and because they won’t be allowed to simply ban it as they have before, they’ll try to outshout it. Americans’ relationship with evolution has been very complicated and needlessly stays so, just because we can’t seem to put our foot down to say that facts are facts and we have to teach facts if we want educated and capable students. Those in danger of fainting in shock when the facts disagree with their opinions should examine their own worldviews first rather then rush to censor and outshout any fact they find offensive by virtue of it not fitting into their ideology. Ruse, in his ongoing effort to appease creationists of all types, either doesn’t understand this or refuses to.

When the typical supporters of bills that allow creationism in science class try to support their assertions that evolution is not scientific, they almost invariably proceed to describe the way evolution works in Pokemon and declare that no one has ever seen anything like this happen. Well yes, they haven’t. If they did, we’d have to be triaging our current body of knowledge about evolution for any useful scrap. Creationists fight the science with their ignorance and according to Ruse that’s certainly dreadful and all, but at least they’re not listening to what they consider atheist propaganda so that’s a positive start, right? No, not at all. Ruse is implicitly giving those who value dogma over facts the implicit license to ignore science at whim and then proceeds to blame a very popular but rather small group of atheists for these people’s inability to consider the possibility that no, a deity who created a sprawling universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies and countless trillions of stars did not come down to this planet to coddle them throughout their lives, and have a deep and very personal telepathic relationship with them. As much as accommodationism is claimed to be a framework for reconciling science and religion in cases like these, to me it seems like nothing more than atheist bashing and appeasement.

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