All in the family

Credit: M.F. Bonnan via "I f***ing love science (on Facebook).

Credit: M.F. Bonnan via “I f***ing love science (on Facebook).

Yes, exactly! A significant percentage of the population (cough, creationists, cough) doesn’t understand that the evolutionary relationships between species is a lot like that between extended family members; just over a much longer time scale. Phylogeny is primarily a branching (family) tree-like pattern, not a single file, ladder-like, progression (cladogenesis vs. anagenesis).


Addendum: It has been pointed out to me that the cartoons depiction of a family “tree” superimposed on a cladogram is somewhat inapt and I absolutely agree that the cartoon is by no means a perfect analogy (comparing speciation, species giving rise to new species, with two parents coming together and bearing children). However, I think it gets the idea across much better than the linear iconography that has become so entrenched in peoples minds. Especially, I think, concerning the relationships between fairly closely related species like between chimps and humans. People incorrectly tend to think of humans as somehow being directly descended from chimps rather than our being “cousins” descended from a common “grandparent” (that was probably somewhat chimp-like in appearance).


Once you grok this fact you will understand what is fundamentally wrongheaded about questions like: “If humans evolved from [share a common ancestor with] apes why are there still apes?”

This sort of question is, except for the timescale involved, just like asking: “If you and your cousin share a common ancestor (grandmother), how can you both exist at the same time?”

Understanding this also answers the common creationist objection against many transitional fossil series based on species overlapping in time. For example:

“Early” horses have been preserved in strata from the same evolutionary age as several ‘”later” horses

Hyracotherium/Eohippus and Orohippus do for instance appear in the fossil record at the same time as Epihippus. Mesohippus and Miohippus appear together with Merychippus and Parahippus. Almost all other horses (with a possible exception of one or two)—Parahippus, Merychippus, Pliohippus, Equus and possibly also Miohippus—are represented at the same time during much of the period when they have been found as fossils.16 (But especially in the newer evolutionary schemes, different names have been given to very similar animals, giving the appearence of evolution as well as providing fame to their discoverers; see examples in Froehlich 20029 and MacFadden 20054). Fossils of Hyracotherium (sic) have also been found very high up in the strata (Pliocene), but these findings have been rejected as reworked (i.e. eroded and deposited at a later strata) in spite of the fact that the geological observations do not show any signs of disturbance.17 Thus, the fact that most of the horses lived almost at the same time undermines their proposed evolution. (Molén, 2009, emphasis mine)

Buzzzt, sorry but that is incorrect, thank you for playing, here is a home version of our game as a consolation prize.*

The coexistence of two genera of horses does nothing to undermine their evolutionary relationship any more than your grandparent or cousin coexisting with you undermines your familial relationship.

Evolution does not require that a parent species become extinct after a speciation event (after it gives “birth” to a new daughter species) nor does it require that once two lineages split apart that both will change at the same rate or in the same direction.

Fossil species A could be directly ancestral to species B, persisting relatively unchanged after the two lineages have split. Or species A could be a cousin to species B that only strongly resembles an as yet undiscovered common grandparent species. Such distinction are very difficult to make in fossil organisms.

[* Note: This is not even close to a comprehensive dissection of the problems with quoted article or even this paragraph.]

Reference

Molén, Mats (2009) “The evolution of the horse“, Journal of Creation 23(2):59–63 (downloaded on 9-14-2013)

The evolution of feathers in about 3 and a half minutes

By Carl Zimmer:

[Hat tip to Brian Switek.]

Fossil Rock Anthem

A little bit of musical paleo fun (hat tip to Mr. Weitzenhoffer):

For those unfamiliar the video for the original “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO can be found here.

 

Fuzzy thinking about fuzzy dinosaurs

A visual approximation.

Casey Luskin, the Discoveryless Institute’s resident attack chihuahua, is on a roll. This time he’s gone off on a tangent about a recent find of yet another dinosaur fossil with evidence of protofeathers, Sciurumimus albersdoerferi and dinosaur evolution in general.

Luskin: The media that loyally serve Big Science are at it again, overstating the finds of a scientific paper to promote an evolutionary icon. This time, the icon is feathered dinosaurs, representing the purported ancestral relationship between dinos and birds. (Luskin 2012)

Ah, if only. If only Mr. Luskin’s conspiratorial fantasy were true and the media was that on the ball. The fact of the matter is that defenders of science education like me often cringe at the mischaracterizations and overstatements that come out of the popular media regarding evolution. I am constantly shaking my head and yelling at the TV or radio “no, that’s not what that means at all”, or words to that effect.

I wish I had a nickel (because being underemployed I could really use the money) for every time a silly reporter, while talking about some fossil discovery, described it as “overthrowing everything we thought we knew about the evolution of X”.

That is absolute bollocks, 99% of the time.

Read on»

How could evolutionary theory be falsified?

cambrianrabbit

A rabbit fossil in Cambrian rock would be difficult to understand under current evolutionary theory.

Creationists often charge that evolutionary theory is unfalsifiable; that there is no way to potentially disprove it, if it were in fact incorrect. This is in essence an “I know you are but what am I” response to their critics who have rightfully pointed out that “God did it” as an explanation is not testable against the evidence from the natural world and therefore not a valid scientific explanation for anything.

This is because hypotheses, in order to qualify as scientific, must be testable against observable evidence in the natural world. In other words, in addition to there being potential observations that might support a given hypothesis, there should likewise be some potential observations that would tend to disprove a hypothesis.

Since God can do anything in any way, for any reason, here are no potential observations of the natural world that could disprove God’s involvement, which means the “God did it” hypothesis is unscientific in character.

In any event, is it true, as creationists charge, that there are no potential observations that would tend to disprove evolutionary theory?

The short answer is no, it is not true. However, for something more in depth you should head over to Why Evolution Is True where biologist Jerry Coyne provides several scenarios that would be highly problematic for current evolutionary theory.

In my general talk on the evidence for evolution, I give a list of seven observations that, if repeated and confirmed, would disprove parts of the theory of evolution described above. This shows that it is a scientific theory in the Popperian sense of being falsifiable.  Here are some of those conceivable observations:

  • Fossils in the wrong place (e.g., mammals in the Devonian). If the fossil record were all out of order like this (a single anomalous fossil might not overturn everything, of course, since it could be in the wrong place for other reasons), we’d have to seriously question the occurrence of evolution.

I recommend you hop over and check out the rest.

The last thing I want to say about this particular creationist claim, is that in addition to it being false, it is also stands in rather blatant contradiction to what creationists do on a regular basis, which is to argue that this or that bit of evidence somehow counts against evolutionary theory.

I mean what sense can we make of Duane Gish’s book Evolution, the Fossils Say No! (1978) if he was not arguing that the fossil evidence was disconfirming of the evolution hypothesis?

The mind boggles.

[And now John Wilkins, or some other philosopher of science, will yell at me about Popperian Falsificationism being passé with regards to the demarcation problem. Just to head that off somewhat I am not advocating naive falsificationism.]

Uh oh, I may not be legal

To be filed under “Better Know Your Blogger”:

The archaeological dig being conducted by my mother at my parents house continues. Unfortunately this time she has unearthed evidence that I may not be a properly licensed Dinosaur Hunter (at least in the state of Utah)!

It seems that while I got the license itself (when I was 10 years old), it was never properly filled out:

The address has been redacted, but missing from the original is the signature of the Deputy Lizard Warden of the time, Al E. Oup. This could be a problem next time I’m in Utah!

Deputy Warden Oup (or Oop as it is more properly spelled) with one of his charges.

I had totally forgotten about this fun bit of tourist ephemera, which as it turns out, they still give out at Dinosaurland in Vernal, UT. In fact you can download a copy of the much fancier current Dinosaur Hunting Lic. from their website. Though I notice that the current Deputy Lizard Warden is now given as being “Al O’saurus” (obviously the Al E. Oup joke is for a past generation). But at least it comes pre-signed to spare future dinosaur hunters the legal difficulties that I am apparently going to have to endure.

Here’s a fun game kids, how many typographical and/or scientific errors can you find in the license?

“Reason and creationism”

My friend and colleague (frienlleague?) Dr. Eugenie Scott gave, yet another, excellent talk titled “Reason and creationism” at the Global Atheist Convention, Melbourne, Australia (4/15/2012). Have a watch:

NCSE Home Page

“What Can YOU Do to Support Intelligent Design?”

A visual approximation.

Over at the Discovery(less) Institute’s Complaint Dept., resident attack chihuahua, Casey Luskin answered some fan mail that supposedly asked how people, sans financial resources, could support intelligent design (creationism). He suggests a variety of things that boil down to: submerge yourself into the intelligent design creationism bubble and pester your kid’s teachers and school administrators into foisting creationist misinformation onto their students:

There are lots of ways you can support Discovery Institute and ID in ways that don’t involve money. One of them — liking Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture on Facebook of course — you already did. You could also become a follower of our Twitter account, follow our podcast on Twitter, or listen to ID the Future online. Reading Evolution News & Views will help keep you up-to-date on the debate. You can also subscribe to our Nota Bene newsletter, which is free.

Those are all ways for you to stay informed. But there are also ways that you can reach out to others. These include:

  • Start your own ID blog, or participate in other ID blogs like Uncommon Descent. It’s always good to have pro-ID voices on the Internet, although I’ll warn you that lots of Internet ID-critics just want to shout you down and call you nasty names, so it’s not uncommonly the case that you’d be wasting your time by engaging them.
  • Become a voice for academic freedom in your local community. One easy thing you can do is sign the Academic Freedom Petition. You can write letters to the editor to local newspapers, calling on them to stand up for good science education and provide corrections to misinformation or biased reporting on this issue.
  • Another constant need is to ensure that your local public libraries, secondary school libraries, and university libraries have up-to-date copies of intelligent design books. Even if you don’t have the money to donate the books, recommend books to the library and ask if they would consider adding them to their collections.
  • You might consider starting a local organization to increase awareness about intelligent design. A great way to do this is to start an Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club. These extracurricular clubs are affiliated with the IDEA Center (which is a distinct organization from Discovery Institute), but they can organize events on local college campuses or in communities to show videos or bring speakers to educate the public about the issue. IDEA Clubs are a great way to raise awareness and understanding of the scientific case for intelligent design in your local community — you could start one yourself, or help a student do so. See www.ideacenter.org for details.
  • Besides IDEA Clubs, if you know university students who are interested in ID, you can encourage them to get involved with Discovery Institute’s Summer Seminars on Intelligent Design. And if you know pre-college students who are college-shopping, encourage them to consider how the school they’re going to attend deals with topics like the origins of life and of human beings. (Note: I went to a science-focused public university that was largely anti-ID and had a great experience, so I’m not saying students must go to a pro-ID college. But they might want to consider this issue, one way or another, when they apply.)

Finally, another way you can make a difference is to advocate for positive changes in education in your local school or community. If you have kids, find out how their schools cover evolution. For public schools, we recommend that they teach the scientific evidence for and against Darwinian evolution without getting into alternative theories like intelligent design. A lot of this is explained in our Briefing Packet for Educators — but if you want to get involved more directly, contact us here at Discovery Institute and we can help you. For private schools, we have another list of recommended resources, which I recently discussed here.

What is significant by its absence from this list is any suggestion that his readers should directly familiarize themselves with what the overwhelming majority scientists are actually saying or with the actual evidence, unfiltered by the ID creationist spin zones that he lists.

Now I understand that Mr. Luskin probably believes that all of mainstream science is engaged in a global satanic conspiracy to hide the Truth ™ from the masses, but for the sake of intellectual rigor he should want people to be familiar with the thing that they are fighting so fiercely against; and not just the version presented in the IDC echo chamber.

If someone asked me how they could prepare themselves to deal with creationists I would tell them that they need:

  • A good grasp of modern evolutionary theory and the broad evidence behind it both paleontological and neontological (preferably including some reading of the primary scientific literature), as well as a smattering of other sciences that touch on historical issues (cosmology etc.).
  • At least a basic knowledge of the history and philosophy of science (especially the histories of biology and geology).
  • And, most especially, a thorough knowledge of creationist arguments through direct reading of creationist literature (and other media) and the history of the creationist movement (I highly recommend Ronald Numbers book The Creationists (2006) for that last part).

Of course, no one can be an expert in all the relevant fields of science. Even most scientists, while they might be experts in their particular area of study, may have only a basic grasp of the several other fields outside of their own that is required in order to effectively counter creations claims. You can start off talking with a creationist about cosmology—because many of them do not understand that the Big Bang theory is not part of evolution—and in quick succession be grilled about various aspects of geology, biology and physics.

Worse yet, most scientists have only superficial level of knowledge regarding creationist arguments and tactics, which makes sense given that they trained in doing science and not counter apologetics. Moreover, many feel, with some justification, that to get such training is a waste of their valuable time. Unfortunately, this can lead to public relations setbacks for science education if they then allow themselves to be snookered into formal debates with professional creationists.

Again, from my experience you need not only a basic knowledge of a variety of scientific subjects—especially geology, paleontology and biology—but a good knowledge of creationist arguments in order to keep from getting steamrolled by the creationist shotgun approach to debate (a.k.a. the “Gish Gallop“).*

For that reason, unlike Mr. Luskin, I strongly encourage people, both scientists and interested laypersons, to study the work of the opposition, not just what people like me say about it.

[*I would generally advise against live public debates in the first place. Instead, stick to written ones that do not allow creationists effective use of the Gallop in the first place.]

I started early with this paleo stuff

I finally had a chance this weekend to pick through some of my mother’s family photo collection and found a few pictures of myself that are prophetic about what my lifelong interests would be. They are from one of the family camping trips we took, traveling all over the American Southwest. During this trip, circa 1975, we went to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah/Colorado.

First is a picture of me (10 years old) with the famous Stegosaurus statue that greets visitors outside the Quarry Exhibit Hall. You can tell by the look on my face that I was having a terrible time.

Now admittedly the color they had originally painted this statue (a brownish green scheme) was a little dull, though we have no way of knowing what color Stegosaurus actually was. But the current paint job on the statue seems a little bizarre to me.

And here we have a shot of me inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall, being much more serious in the presence of the astonishing number of dinosaur fossils exposed in the Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry.

Ah, memories…