Archives For evolution

flu virus

Scientists are now raising the dead and enslaving them to serve the needs of the living. This is not really much of an exaggeration because that’s exactly what happened when researchers in need of a suitable virus for gene therapy applications decided to create an extinct version of a modern virus by reverse-engineering its evolution and printing the now lost DNA into an empty capsid waiting to be activated. Let’s pause for a second and consider that this is the world that we now occupy. We can traverse the evolutionary tree of an organism and order up the DNA of its ancestors to be 3D printed on command. Beyond being basically horror movie fodder in real life though, this experiment isn’t just an exploration into seeing what’s possible. No, this turning back of the clock might become wildly effective cures for diseases and conditions for which the current treatment just isn’t enough or doesn’t really exist by producing a virus that our immune systems haven’t seen yet, and which repairs our genomes to fix what may one day kill us.

Now, I’ve talked about gene therapy and its promise before. It could combat complex disorders like cystic fibrosis, shrink, or at least arrest the growth of cancers, and eliminate problems that can be traced to single genes by altering them once and for all. While the very first human tests did get off to a rocky start, the technology is now much safer and much better understood, and has been showing some promise. In one inspiring trial, the engineered HIV virus sent an acute strain of pediatric leukemia into remission and showed evidence that precise targeting for gene therapy was definitely possible. However, current approaches have a major limitation before we can get really consistent results and that limitation is us. To be more specific, our immune cells pick up on the viruses’ signatures and attack them before they can do any good. This means a lot of good engineering that would have worked never makes it to its target and the patient just doesn’t react to the therapy. Considering that out immune systems have faced at least some of the strains we can use as therapeutic vectors, there’s not much else we can throw at them.

Or at least not much else that exists, thought the researchers in question here. Our bodies had not seen the viruses they brought back through their modern evolutionary history, so bringing a long lost ancestor back from the dead by identifying which mutations happened over the many generations and reversing them, would find our bodies defenseless. Which is exactly what we’d want for gene therapy. Before our bodies can mount a defense, the infection has spread so far and wide that the therapeutic edits should have had their intended macro effect. Just think of it as sending high altitude stealth bombers and special operations teams instead of flying enough conventional fighter planes and tanks against formidable defenses to get at least some through enemy lines. Just far cooler because it involves resurrecting extinct genomes. But rest easy for now if you’re worried about scientists trying to create a real Jurassic Park with this method. The technology we have now can’t just create mammoth and dinosaur DNA we can use to grow full creatures. Well, at least not yet, though we may have to revisit that question soon enough…

woman on bench

Once in a while, the internet remembers random things, such as a woman who wanted to trim the male population by at least 90% and use the survivors as breeding stock to reduce gender inequality across the world. While MRAs believe that this is what all feminists secretly want and most people understand that this is little more than a joke that went too far and has absolutely zero chance of happening, ever, all of the online discussions on the subject have focused on a trip down the histrionics-laden minefield of gender politics instead of a relevant scientific issue that should be front and center. Sure, being one of the few males left on Earth and given a life filled with relative luxury and constant sex sounds like the plot of a particularly wishful porn film which I’m sure has been made a few hundred times by now. But would it actually work? What’s the consequence of eliminating up to 99% of men from the gene pool? Well, it could very likely doom our species in the long run, even with heavy reliance on artificial insemination and gene therapy. We thrive thanks to variety, and reducing our genetic diversity will only harm us.

Let’s say that 90% of men are somehow culled. With about 10 women for every remaining man we’d quickly end up with the same problem as Iceland worldwide. In just a few generations, the attractive stranger with whom you’re flirting is likely your half-sibling. Sure, you can curate who gets to reproduce and how, but the sheer lack of new male genes will quickly have you trying to fight math. Artificial insemination using same sex donors is possible and has been done, but it’s still a very touchy, expensive process that doesn’t always work. Women in poverty or in remote, undeveloped parts of the world are going to have extremely limited access to this resource and women in wealthy nations will be looking at high costs and failure rates. Nature got really, really good at this whole reproduction thing over 3.5 billion years and re-inventing the wheel is not an easy feat. Today, the best we can do with tried and true technology is successful about 15% of the time per implanted zygote on average. After just ten generations, there’s going to be a very serious threat of a genetic bottleneck which spells evolutionary doom for any organism.

An even more base, but still relevant question in the face of us no longer being able to just out-breed our way through genetic defects and weaknesses as we do today, is what about women who want monogamous, long-term heterosexual relationships? That’s close to 90% of those on the planet in this post-male apocalypse world. Instead of having a boyfriend or a husband they just plain want, they’re now on waiting lists among rationed men who also can’t have any sort of meaningful relationship. While more women than men admit to same-sex fantasies, and acting on them, you might end up with artificially high same-sex pairings among women simply out of emotional and physical necessity. It’s one thing if you’re homosexual and have your choice of a partner everywhere you look. But if you’re not, your choices are to get on a waiting list for some person to whose gender you have a strong innate attraction, pair up with a same sex partner to release some stress until you can’t do it anymore, or be lonely. Again, there are good reasons why nature prefers a 50/50 ratio between the sexes, one of which is more choices in mating.

For better or worse, the survival of humanity depends on having plenty of men available, and a significant amount of genetic diversity. Look at every successful species in history. They thrived in enormous numbers because they reproduced efficiently and had many mates available on a moment’s notice. Small, inbred populations nearly always die out because they lack the genetic diversity and numbers to absorb a change in diet, or the environment, or new diseases to come out on the other end as strong as ever. Humans survived a supervolcanic eruption which left an uncomfortably small population that might have dropped to as few as 10,000 individuals, awful plagues, and an ice age. Had we become too dependent on over-structured breeding systems, or had our species grown far too sex-lopsided, we would’ve went extinct. So an idea involving a reduction of up to 99% of one sex shouldn’t just be met with political and social objections, but it should be first dismissed from the most important point of all: that of evolutionary biology.

hallucigenia

The bizarre creature pictured above is an arthropod, a distant relative of crabs and lobsters, an amazing evolutionary blip during the Cambrian Radiation. We know three things about it. It was predatory, it was one of many such weird animals trying to eek out a living in the shallow water off uninhabitable coasts, and considering its lineage, it was likely delicious steamed and with a measured touch of melted butter. We also know that despite being an evolutionary dead end, it’s an important species because it shows us the sheer variety of life able to emerge when animals were a blank slate, starting with little more than disc-shaped bacterial colonies that evolved very primitive organs for filter-feeding. Who knows what they could’ve become had they managed to survive and their ancestors branched out, undergoing billions of years of change. What would a planet dominated by the direct descendants of such predators look like? Certainly very alien.

Just think about that for a minute. Consider that this spiny, eldritch thing really existed and what you would think were you to come across it today, and compare it to UFOlogists’ declarations of alien life that looks like really skinny gray humans with bug eyes and big heads. Of all the forms life has taken even here, on our home world, an alien planet around a distant star, with its own environment and evolutionary history managed to produce another intelligent life form which by sheer coincidence just so happens to look like us? It’s absurd! Who says there is a limit to how many appendages an intelligent life form could have? As long as it’s clever enough to build the shelter it needs and harvest the resources it requires, it has the potential to mull other life on all the worlds across its night sky, and maybe even build a ship to explore beyond its own world. If anyone tells me that he has seen aliens and they look like us post-nuclear apocalypse, and with a penchant for nudism, excuse me if I point at Cambrian fossils and scoff at such a notion.

alien bacteria

We’re using far too many antibiotics. That has been the cry from the FDA and the WHO for the last several years as more and more antibiotic-resistant strains have been found after they had colonized or killed patients. Of course these bacteria aren’t completely immune to our arsenals of drugs, they’re just harder to kill with certain antibiotics or require different ones, but a rather small, yet unsettling number, have required doctors to use every last antibacterial weapon they had available to even make a dent in their populations. There’s not much we can do because in effect, we’re fighting evolution. The more antibiotics we throw at the bacteria, the more chances we give for resistant strains to survive and thrive. Doctors are starting to prescribe less and the pressure on farmers to stop prophylactic use of antibiotics is mounting, but we’re still overdoing it and the problem is growing and in need of some very creative new solutions.

Enter a genetic engineering technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 which replaces DNA sequences that short snippets of RNA are encoded to identity with ones provided by scientists. It’s not new by any means, but this is the first time it has been used in an evolutionary experiment intended to stem the rise of antibiotic resistance. Israeli researchers essentially gave bacterial colony an immunity to a virus, but at the cost of deleting genes which gave it antibacterial resistance. The bacteria happily propagated the immunity as they grew while maintaining the new weaknesses to antibiotics which were only marginally effective on them before. There’s a real advantage for the bacteria to propagate this new mutation because the virus to which it was now immune was lethal, acting as the greater selective pressure, and the susceptibility to antibiotics just wasn’t an important factor, so the bacteria acted like it got a fair deal.

Even better, edits were made by a specially engineered virus, meaning you can, in theory, just infect bacteria-prone surfaces with it and demolish their antibiotic resistance, right? Well, yes, it would be possible. However, the researchers worry that new antibiotic resistant mutations can still evolve and that there’s no way to prevent the bacteria’s genetic drifts from accepting genes for viral immunity while holding on to its existing antibacterial mechanisms. But this technique is still useful for reducing the number of resistant bacteria or targeting strains with very well known resistance mechanisms to allow doctors to use existing antibiotics. Ultimately, what will help the most would be more research into new antibiotics, curtailing their use in doctors’ offices for any viral infection regardless of the patients’ complaints, and eliminating preventative use of animal antibiotics on farms. Still, research like this can still help us identify new resistant strains and give us a fighting chance to slow them down while we find new ways to fight them.

See: Yosef, I., et. al. (2015). Temperate and lytic bacteriophages programmed to sensitize and kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1500107112

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.

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.

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 ]

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…

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.

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.