Playing Chess with Pigeons turns six years old today!

6th birthday pigeonWow, they grow up so fast! I can hardly believe it has been six whole years since I started this blog.

Thanks for reading everyone!

Of course it is probably about time it started pulling its own weight around here. Maybe it could get work as a carrier pigeon or something…

Every little bit helps (especially right now). Many Thanks!

A plea for (non-financial) help

journalsOK, here is the situation; I do not work for a university, a museum, or any other educational and/or research organization. I am not paid to do the research on and write substantive refutations of creationist propaganda. I do it because I am passionate about science (especially biology and paleontology) and extremely annoyed by people who peddle lies, half-truths and misinformation about it.

It would be nice if more working scientists could take the time to familiarize themselves with the machinations of creationists so as to be better prepared to counter them but I understand that they have more important tasks to do, like actually doing science. And I —as an interested and more knowledgeable than most layperson— am more than happy to stand in for them in the trenches, without remuneration or recognition. All I ask is that I be given the tools, the ammunition if you will, to fight the fight.

In this case, it is free and unencumbered access to the scientific literature!

If I am doing research, working on a rebuttal to some creationist claim, buying copies of the articles myself is simply not an option as I live paycheck to paycheck and the miscellaneous science journals charge outrageous prices for individuals to download their articles, often as much a $25 or $35 dollars each (if they charged $1 a pop, like an mp3 download, I might sometimes spend the money)!

Instead, to get what I need, I have to pester and cajole, via e-mail, working scientists and/or university professors I am acquainted with to send me PDF copies of scientific papers.  Alternatively, I have to get in my car (which is currently broken down and I cannot afford to fix it), drive to a local university, plug a flash-drive into one of the computers in their science library, and download them, which is a big hassle and still costs money for gas and parking.  

What I would like is to be given some sort of unpaid (though I wouldn’t say no to stipend!), ceremonial position at a university, museum, or other institution that would grant me access to the primary scientific literature to which they are already subscribed (the more the better).

A couple of my university professor friends have tried without success to get me something like this, only to have the “higher up” say no.

So, I am putting out this plea to any scientist, university professor or Dean, or anyone who is sympathetic to my cause and who has influence at their institution, please, please, please, help me to get access to the science I need to do what I can to combat the forces of ignorance that threaten to overwhelm us all.

Thank you for your consideration!

The Carnival of Evolution #66 is up!

Or rather it has been up since the 1st of December… [sigh] Yes, I am that pathetic. However, I couldn’t let another month go by with my failing to fulfill my CoE obligation especially given that this edition of the Carnival is being hosted by my friend and colleague the inestimable John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts (which you should be reading regularly anyway).

Another selling point for this CoE is, as the presence of the TARDIS (over there on the left of this post) indicates, the Carnival of Evolution is yet again going under a Doctor Who theme. This time it is The Day of the Doctor..of Evolution! Lots of evolutionary goodness, so go and check it out!

Besides, if you don’t the Cybermen will win!

Though I have been neglectful of my participation in the Carnival of Evolution you can still find all the previous installments at this link.  Go and read!

The Carnival of Evolution #59 is up!

Yes, the Carnival of Evolution LIX is up and waiting for your visit from wherever in the nigh on infinite reaches of time/space you might happen to be reading this from. This month it is being hosted at DNA Barcoding, and is titled “A letter from the Doctor”.

Now go check it out or the Daleks will win!I have been shamefully neglectful of my participation of the Carnival of Evolution but all the previous installments can be found here. If you missed any of these you’ll definitely want to go check them out as well!

Of Pandas and Pigeons

I have had the honor of being invited to join the crew over at Panda’s Thumb, the premier counter creationism blog on the interwebs and have gladly accepted.

Your truly with a Prof. Steve Steve impersonator.

Fear not my minions (all 5 or 6 of you), Playing Chess with Pigeons is not going anywhere! This is will remain the focus of my blogging. Little things here; big things here but cross posted to Panda’s Thumb as well (more traffic, more better!).

Thanks to the Panda’s people for having me, I hope to live up to the honor.

The Carnival of Evolution #50 is up!

That’s right the Carnival of Evolution has reached the big 5-0 and it’s rarin’ to go with The Teaching Edition!

So go with the flow and go, go, go on over to Marc Srour’s blog Teaching Biology!

The Carnival of Evolution, like a fine wine, gets better with age…

Previous Carnivals of Evolution:

If you missed any of these you’ll definitely want to go check them out!

Answering feedback on Haeckel’s embryo drawings

A commenter named Brad, who is apparently a creationist, left a comment to one of my recent posts.  In that post, “Creationist foists “fraudulent” embryo picture on his readers“, I talked about how creationist Brian Thomas ironically used a biologically inaccurate picture of a human embryo to illustrate his article in which he denies the evidence for evolution from developmental biology and implies that all such evidence is based on the supposedly fraudulent embryo drawings 19th century biologist Ernst Haeckel.

Not wanting it to be neglected in the comments section, I have moved my response to Brad up to a full post.

Brad: Wow, evolution is like magic. It turns gills into ears, tonsils, and glands (and part of the larynx).

There is no magic involved in evolution, you’re thinking of creationism, the very heart of which is the claim that living things are the miraculous creations of a supernatural being.

Brad: Calculate the odds…

Since by all available evidence it did in fact happen, the odds are 100%.

Brad: Granted, it was a bad choice with the stock photo; however, that’s possibly an oversight vs. the intentional use of known fraudulent drawings for decades in school textbooks.

I would suggest that it was an “oversight” brought on by ignorance of the subject and a lack of curiosity to even check. As for the recycling of Haeckel’s embryo illustrations in textbooks (as illustrations of evidence rather than as a historical reference) this due to the regrettable and all too common laziness on the part of textbook publishers who often recycle not just images but even language as well. See: Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone” (Gould 1991).

I agree that some* of Haeckel’s drawings exaggerated overall similarity of the embryos they depict and that more accurate illustrations should be used. However, I am unaware of any fundamental anatomical inventions in the illustrations that if corrected would affect the evidence from comparative embryology for evolution.

So, please explain in your own words exactly what anatomical details were altered in Haeckel’s drawings that created evidence for evolution where none exists in actual vertebrate embryos.

Remember, specific anatomical details and in your own words. I don’t want quotes of vague generalities from other people. You’ll note that in my post on pharyngeal clefts at no point did simply I quote some scientists opinion that the pharyngeal apparatus of amniote embryos are homologous to the pharyngeal apparatus of “fish”. Instead I pointed to the anatomical and genetic evidence for this.

If you are going to argue against this, then you are going to have to do likewise.  And if you want to present an alternative scientific explanation you are going to have to present something that is logical, coherent, makes reference to the empirical evidence at hand and does not rely on untestable miracles or divine fiat.

Brad: O’Rahilly and Müller stated that ‘the pharyngeal clefts of vertebrate embryos … are neither gills nor slits’.1

I don’t have this reference handy and I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to get to my local university’s science library (whose website says they have it) I was able to find a later edition on Amazon with a free preview which allowed me to get what seems like the relevant section.  If the older edition has any important differences please let me know (assuming you have the book and didn’t just cut and past the quote from a creationist and/or anti-abortion website).

Here is the the section which seem to contain Brad’s quote with the part Brad quoted in red:

Recapitulation, the So-Called Biogenetic Law.

The theory that successive stages of individual development (ontogeny) correspond with (“recapitulate”) successive adult ancestors in the line of evolutionary descent (phylogeny) became popular in the nineteenth century as the so-called biogenetic law. This theory of recapitulation, however, has had a “regrettable influence on the progress of embryology” (G. de Beer). The work of Carl Ernst von Baer in 1828 was much closer to the mark. According to the “laws” of von Baer, general characters (e.g., brain, notochord) appear in development earlier than special characters (e.g., limbs, hair). Furthermore, during its development an animal departs more and more from the form of other animals. Indeed, the early stages in the development of an animal are not like the adult stages of other forms but resemble only the early stages of those animals. The pharyngeal clefts of vertebrate embryos, for example, are neither gills nor slits. Although a fish elaborates this region into gill slits, in reptiles, birds, and mammals it is converted into such structures as the tonsils and the thymus. According to the hourglass model of evolutionary development, a conserved pattern of developmental gene expression is linked with considerable resemblance among embryos of different species at a constricted phase, whereas divergence is found earlier and later. Morphological evidence for such a phase, however, is unconvincing (Richardson et al., 1997). (O’Rahilly & Müller 2001, p. 16)

Although there are issues I could take with their description of recapitulation as necessarily being about a strict correspondence between embryos and the adult forms of ancestors or with the short shrift they give the concept of the phylotypic stage (at least in this paragraph), however those are really nuanced points that are not necessary to get into here.

One point I will quibble with regards the presence of slits in certain amniote embryos.

Everything I have seen on the subject indicates that the pharyngeal clefts of some “reptiles” and birds do normally perforate during development and are therefore technically “slits” for a short time before they re-close. This also sometimes occurs in mammals, including humans, though it is not a normal condition. (see my earlier article for links). Also they’ve left out any reference to the larvae of amphibians some of which do develop functional gill slits.

Beyond that, they are absolutely correct, the pharyngeal apparatus of amniotes never function as gills and as I said in one of my earlier posts, I don’t know of any biologist who has ever claimed that they do, save one, the creationist Louis Agassiz.

The Great Satan, Ernst Haeckel, stated in no uncertain terms in his writings that these structures never function as respiratory organs in amniote embryos.

It is not required that the pharyngeal apparatus of amniote embryo function as gills for them to be evidence—not absolute, stand alone proof, but evidence—of their ancestors aquatic nature any more than it is necessary for the hind limb buds of whale embryos to function as working legs for them to be evidence that their ancestors once walked on land.

Brad: Blechschmidt is more forceful, concluding that ‘the so-called basic law of biogenetics is wrong.

The late Erich Blechschmidt (1904-1992) was a scientific outlier (as are some of his followers, i.e. Brian Freeman). That is his views were not representative of developmental biologists as a whole. Creationists love to quote Blechschmidt and other outliers such as Alan Feduccia (who denies that birds are descended from dinosaurs) and Charles Oxnard (who denies that australopithecines are human ancestors) in an attempt to make it seem as if they are tapping into some real controversy amongst scientists. In reality they are just quoting people who are only slightly less on the fringe of science than themselves.

You can find someone with an advanced degree that will say just about anything. For example there is PhD astronomer (and creationist) Gerardus Bouw who argues that the Earth is the center of the solar system.

In this case Blechschmidt (and Freeman) seem to be the source for creationists absurd argument that pharyngeal clefts are merely “flexion folds” caused by the bending of the embryonic neck (Freeman 2001).

As for the biogenetic law, no one is arguing for that. If you read the article you were commenting under you would have seen that I quoted Michael Richardson (a critic of Haeckel) as saying that there are studies which support the recapitulation of individual character transformations, just not whole ancestral stages (Richardson & Keuck 2002, p. 522)

Brad: ” ‘No buts or ifs can mitigate this fact.’ He adds that the gill stage myth is ‘not even a tiny bit correct or correct in a different form…It is totally wrong’. 2 This view is shared by many mainstream embryologists.

No, it is not.

Although among the strongest opponents to Haeckel in recent years, and favourably differing from him by a paramount respect for detail, Blechschmidt resembled Haeckel in several respects: they both were intrepid and very persuasive defenders of their views, they were both artists at heart – witness Haeckel’s illustrations and Blechschmidt’s giantsized models of human embryos – and, most importantly in the present context, they both stuck to some outdated ideas not shared by the majority of contemporaneous biologists: Haeckel remained Lamarckist, defending the inheritance of acquired characters throughout his life, and Blechschmidt strove to maintain the special status of Man by condemning any embryological interpretation or terminology suggesting his descent from other vertebrates. (Sander 2002, p. 531, emphasis mine)

So Blechschmidt apparently had issues with accepting the evolutionary development of humans from other animals. As I said an outlier with an extreme minority view.

Brad: in the end, this is probably an argument evolutionists should give up on.

You’ll understand, I hope, that this evolutionist will not be taking advice on what is or is not valid evidence from a creationist.

Brad: But keep right on with it if you insist, it just makes dogmatic evolutionists sound nuts.

Only to those too ignorant to know better and/or too intellectually lazy to look up the evidence for themselves.

*Note: I am thinking primarily of the first stage shown in the comparative embryo illustration in the 3rd edition of his Anthropogenie (1874)

References

Freeman, Brian (2001) “The Myth of the “Biogenetic Law””, The American Biology Teacher 63(2):84

Gould, Stephen Jay (1991) “The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone”, in: Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History,  W.W. Norton & Co., pp. 155-167

O’Rahilly, Ronan & Müller, Fabiola (2001) Human Embryology & Teratology, 3rd Edition, Wiley-Liss

Richardson, Michael & Keuck, Gerhard (2002) “Haeckel’s ABC of evolution and development“, Biological Reviews, 77: 495-528

Sander, Klaus (2002) “Ernst Haeckel’s ontogenetic recapitulation: irritation and incentive from 1866 to our time”, Annals of Anatomy 184:523-533

Will blog for food

I am currently having some underemployment issues, due to having my hours drastically reduced at my job (as a small printing press operator), this has led, amongst other things, to a dispute with B of A (it seems they frown upon not getting mortgage payments, and foreclose on you when you don’t make them, who knew?). 

So anyway, I want to take the opportunity of my lately increased traffic to bring attention to the side bar where a PayPal donation button can be found or a link  to my online T-shirt store (Evo-T’s).

A mere 10 cents, less that the cost of a cup of coffee (20 years ago), attached to each daily blog view can make a real difference in a bloggers life…

Any help you can give in these difficult times would be much appreciated and go to a great cause, moi and my fight against the forces of endarkment. A direct PayPal donation is much more efficient but if you absolutely must have something more tangible than my continued writing about creationist silliness, then by all means buy a frelling shirt.


Thanks

[On the bright side, not working makes more time for blogging...]

The Carnival of Evolution #49 is up!

Another month has passed and another Carnival of Evolution(#49) has arrived for your edification. This month it is being hosted by Mousetrap: ecology & evolution footnotes and you NEED to go and absorb ALL the evolutionary knowledge it contains! Fly my minions, fly!!!

[OK, I don't know where that came from... Maybe too much time spent around P.Z.. But it's still a good idea!]

Previous Carnivals of Evolution:

If you missed any of these you’ll definitely want to go check them out!