This Has Got To Be The Stupidist Thing I have Ever Read!

Via Eschaton comes this incredibly lame column in WAPO.
It concerns, of all things, Intelligent Design.

Athletes do things that seem transcendental — and they can also do things that are transcendentally stupid. They choke, trip and dope. Nevertheless, they possess a deep physical knowledge the rest of us can learn from, bound as we are by our ordinary, trudging, cumbersome selves. Ever get the feeling that they are in touch with something that we aren’t? What is that thing? Could it be their random, mutant talent, or could it be evidence of, gulp, intelligent design?

That is how it starts. Then it goes rapidly downhill from there.

First, let’s get rid of the idea that ID (intelligent design) is a form of sly creationism. It isn’t. ID is unfairly confused with the movement to teach creationism in public schools.

Umm, wrong, as the wedge document clearly shows Intelligent Design is most definately a sly form of creationism.

The most serious ID proponents are complexity theorists, legitimate scientists among them, who believe that strict Darwinism and especially neo-Darwinism (the notion that all of our qualities are the product of random mutation) is inadequate to explain the high level of organization at work in the world.

And yet, all these “complexity theorists” and “legitimate scientists” have had something like fifteen years to produce some actual science and failed miserably. By the way, what the heck is a “complexity theorist” anyway? At any rate, the last I heard evolution wasn’t due to random mutation. Rather it was due to a complex interplay of selection, drift and migration (to name a few) acting on genetic variabilty and mutation. I guess I should also mention historical contigency as well.

The idea, so contentious in other contexts, actually rings a loud bell in sports. Athletes often talk of feeling an absolute fulfillment of purpose, of something powerful moving through them or in them that is not just the result of training. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a neuroscientist and research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is a believer in ID, or as he prefers to call it, “intrinsic intelligence.” Schwartz wants to launch a study of NASCAR drivers, to better understand their extraordinary focus. He finds Darwinism, as it applies to a high-performance athlete such as Tony Stewart, to be problematic. To claim that Stewart’s mental state as he handles a high-speed car “is a result of nothing more than random processes coming together in a machine-like way is not a coherent explanation,” Schwartz said.

Darwin, it should be pointed out, wrote a whole book (called Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals) where he did just that. But let it pass. Might not this “extraordinary focus” have something to do with the evolution of the brain? Might it not have something to do with adapting to various environments that hominids found themselves in over the course of the last 5 million years? Might come in handy if you are hunting – or being hunted.

Instead, Schwartz theorizes that when a great athlete focuses, he or she may be “making a connection with something deep within nature itself, which lends itself to deepening our intelligence.” It’s fascinating thought.

Umm, yes, it’s called concentrating perhaps a psychology book would help with the concept. Certainly any competent neuroanatomist can explain it.

Steve Stenstrom, who played quarterback for the Bears and 49ers, works as a religious-life adviser to athletes at Stanford, where he organized a controversial forum on intelligent design last May. “I don’t think it’s a reach at all,” he said. “Talk to any athlete, and if they really are honest, they realize that while they have worked and trained, and put a lot of effort into being great, they started with some raw material that was advantageous to them, and that it was meant to work a certain way. We all recognize that we have a certain design element.”

Great, now we are getting science from football players. I think the raw material would be the genetic makeup they inherited from their parents.

A strict Darwinist would suggest this is an illusion and point out that there are obvious flaws in the body. Peter Weyand, a researcher in kinesiology and biomechanics at Rice University, observes, “Humans in the realm of the animal kingdom aren’t terribly athletic.”

Okay, what’s the deal with Darwinism? The study of evolution has progressed quite a bit since Darwins day. Perhaps a little reading on the subject you are writing about might help.

Then we get a lot of dreck like this:

Our bodies break down a lot. If we were designed more intelligently, presumably we wouldn’t have osteoporosis or broken hips when we get old. Some evolutionists suppose that the process through which people evolved from four-legged creatures to two, has had negative orthopedic consequences.

I would suggest that you consult Wilton M. Krogman’s “Scars of Human Evolution” Published in Scientific American back in 1951 (VOl. 185 No. 6, pp 54-57). The fact of the matter is anyone who studies the human skeleton comes to the conclusion that the shift from quadrupedalism to bipedalism has left telltale traces. This is why Mark Prior and Kerry Woods spend so much time on the DL, this is why football players can barely walk a few years sfter retiring (ever heard of Conrad Dobler – great offensive lineman – can barely walk now).

Then we get a bunch of unitelligible stuff like this:

Schwarz finds little or nothing in natural selection to explain the ability of athletes to reinterpret physical events from moment to moment, the super-awareness that they seem to possess. He has a term for it, the ability to be an “impartial spectator” to your own actions. “The capacity to stand outside yourself and be aware of where you are,” he said. “Deep within the complexities of molecular organization lies an intrinsic intelligence that accounts for that deep organization, and is something that we can connect with through the willful focus of our minds,” he theorizes.

I’m not sure what any of this has to do with athletic ability?? Truth be told I’m not really sure what it has to do with, well, anything.

Crackpot speculation?

That would be my guess.

Maybe — maybe not. ID certainly lacks a body of scientific data, and opponents are right to argue that the idea isn’t developed enough to be taught as equivalent to evolution.

Ummm, actually it lacks data period. It’s been something like 15 years since Intelligent Design was first proposed, so the question naturally arises. If the theory isn’t developed enough now, when will it be? Surely if it’s that self eveident developing Intelligent Design theory ought to be easy as crap going through a goose. Right?

But Darwin himself admitted he didn’t know everything about everything. “When I see a tail feather on a peacock, it makes me sick,” he once said, before he understood it was for mating.

Speaking of Darwin… in the 15 years after he published The Origin of Species he published four (I think) more works and conducted hundreds of experiments. Made it a pretty well developed theory. Why couldn’t Intelligent Design do the same?

And try telling a baseball fan that pure Darwinism explains Joe DiMaggio. As Tommy Lasorda once said, “If you said to God, ‘Create someone who was what a baseball player should be,’ God would have created Joe DiMaggio — and he did.”

Gee, let’s see… those who can hit the ball better, run faster, throw harder, catch a ball better survive and make it to the major league. Those who can’t fall by the wayside. Sounds like natural selection in action to me.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be wary of the uses for which ID might be hijacked.

One can only chuckle

In the last year, numerous states have experienced some sort of anti-evolution movement. That makes it all the more important for the layman to distinguish the various gradations between evolutionists, serious scientists who are interested in ID, “neo-Creos,” and Biblical literalists.

As the Kansas school board hearing showed the difference between serious scientists who are interested in ID and “neo-Creos,” and Biblical literalists is miniscule at best.

One of the things we learn in a grade school science class is a concrete way of thinking, a sound, systematic way of exploring the natural world.

Yup, that is why serious scientist don’t waste their time with Intelligent Design.

Historically, scientific theorists are sandlot athletes, drawing up plays in the dirt.

I’m speechless…

Pharyngula has an excellent, and much less snarkier, take down as well.

Word Verification

Hi All,
I just got hit with about 11 pieces of spam in my comments, so I have turned on word verification. I do apologize for any inconvenience this causes.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Parkway, Gays and Jesus

Parkway is a school district in St. Louis County. Recently, they ammended their disciplinary policy to include language prohibiting harrassment based on personal appearance, socio-economic status and sexual orientation. This language was included based on a survey of students:

“We have the data to support that’s been a concern in our school district,” said board member Karen O’Brien, who voted in favor of the changes. “We want children to feel safe and secure in our buildings, and that doesn’t mean just earthquakes; it means safe from fellow human beings. (With this change) we have broadened the coverage to protect all children.”

O’Brien said student surveys showed students reported being harassed or bullied primarily because of personal appearance, socioeconomic status and perceived or actual sexual orientation.

There has, of course, been protest:

Audience members said “Amen” in unison, agreeing with speakers as the discussion shifted to the use of the term “sexual orientation” in the policy. Some residents said that having special provisions protecting the sexual orientation of a person teaches children that it is acceptable to publicize sexuality.

Cunningham cited a page in a Parkway yearbook that displayed a gay and lesbian club asking students to participate in “National Come Out Day.”

“They were encouraging kids to make it public about their sexual orientation, their homosexuality, their lesbian lifestyle. That’s in your yearbook,” she said. Cunningham said that a person’s sexual orientation should be kept out of the schools.

State Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said the policy could punish students who participate in after-school clubs, such as the Good News Group, a Christian-based group, for talking about certain kinds of sexual orientation that they feel to be morally wrong, a violation of free speech.

In other words, the fundies are pissed because they think this will prevent them from using the language of religion to express their bigotry and are pretending to be victemized. “…Let he who is without sin cast the first stone….” So, of course the fundies are casting that mutha bigtime.

When Did Humans Start Wearing Shoes: Part Two

Abnormal Interests has linked (Thanks!)to my post on when humans started wearing shoes. He also links to a BBC News story that provides more info than the Science Daily article. As I suggested in the comments to my original article two things needed to be done to make a convincing case. First, a comparison needed to be made between shoe wearing and non-shoe wearing modern humans. From the BBC article:

To test the theory that the more delicate toes resulted from shoe use, the Washington University researcher compared the foot bones of early Native Americans, who regularly went barefoot, and contemporary Alaskan Inuits, who sported heavy sealskin boots.

Again, he identified chunkier toes in the population that routinely went without shoes. The research suggests shoe-wearers developed weaker toes simply because of the reduced stresses on them during their lifetime; it was not an evolutionary change.

Second, I was concerned about how this could be passed on to future populations. As the above quote also shows, Trinkaus is not advocating this as an evolutionary change. Adaptation can occur in many different ways. The more permanent types represent changes in the genetics of the population. Another type (from Stini in his book “Ecology and Human Adaptation”) occurs in response to stress and may persist for a long period of time and occur in individuals rather than populations. Examples would be moving to a higher altitude or muscular hypertrophy (as a response to high activity levels). It is this second sense that Trinkaus is talking about. Bone has two responses to stress. More bone can be laid down or bone can be absorbed. In the case of muscular hypertrophy, mentioned above, the muscle origins and insertions would become larger in order to accomodate the increased muscle size. Another effect would be that increased muscle size means that increased force can be exerted and bone will be laid down to handle that increased force. In the case of human feet, since humans started wearing shoes, according to Trinkaus, there was a decreased stress on the toes so bone was absorbed leading to more gracile toes. As I mentioned in my first post, there was a trend towards more gracile skeletons from Neanderthals to archaic humans to anatomically modern humans (irregardless of whether you go for Out-of-Africa or Multiregional Continuity – or for that matter one’s views of the taxonomy of the above species) so untangling the two is difficult. Having said that, this study certainly turned out to be more interesting than I originally thought.

Added later: Corrected a few typos and changed one sentence for clarity.

Friday Sea Anemone Blogging

The above is a picture of a Sea Anemone. Sea Anemone are found all over the world – mainly in warm coastal waters. They range in size from five inches to six feet in diameter. They have a crown of tentacles arranged around their mouth – which are poisonous:

On the tentacles are stinging cells or nematocysts. A nematocyst is a small capsule with a thread-like tube coiled inside. When a trigger bristle is disturbed, the coiled tube shoots out and imbeds in whatever triggered it. There is a minute amount of poison injected. The nematocysts are used both for defense and capturing food.

The sexes are separate. The eggs or sperm are ejected through the mouth. The fertilized egg develops into a planula, which finally settles down somewhere and grows into a single anemone. Asexually they reproduce by pulling apart into 2 halves, or, in some species, small pieces of the pedal disc break off and regenerate into a small anemone.

Which brings us to one of the more interesting things about sea anemones. Researchers at UC Davis have studied a species of sea anemonee known as Anthopleura elegantissima. Anthopleura elegantissima are organized into large colonies of genetically identical clones. Social structure is similar to insects in that their are scouts, warriors and reproductive individuals. Differentiation depends on a combination of enemy stings and the genetics of the colony. You may have noted I said “enemy stings”. From the press release:

Where two colonies meet they form a distinct boundary zone. Anemones that contact an animal from another colony will fight, hitting each other with special tentacles that leave patches of stinging cells stuck to their opponent.

This is how it works:

When the tide is out, the polyps are contracted and quiet. As the tide covers the colonies, “scouts” move out into the border to look for empty space to occupy. Larger, well-armed “warriors” inflate their stinging arms and swing them around. Towards the center of the colony, poorly armed “reproductive” anemones stay out of the fray and conduct the clone’s business of breeding.

When anemones from opposing colonies come in contact, they usually fight. But after about 20 or 30 minutes of battle the clones settle down to a truce until the next high tide.

It’s not just polyps along the border between two clones that clash. Polyps three or four rows away from the front will reach over their comrades to engage in fights…

The lesson to take away from the study, according to the researchers, is that:

“…very complex, sophisticated, and coordinated behaviors can emerge at the level of the group, even when the group members are very simple organisms with nothing resembling a brain…”

Must Read Digby

Via Eschaton comes a profound, must read Digby piece.

Go check it out! You will be glad you did.

Primate Communication

An interesting study on Science News indicates a correlation between number (which I interpret to mean types) of calls, group size and length of time spent grooming. The researchers analyzed 42 different types of primates. They also used phylogenetic analysis to take evolutionary relationships between species into account – necessary to rule out spurious correlations – in the study.

The data analysis showed strong relationships between vocal repertoire size and group size, as well as between repertoire size and the amount of time spent grooming…

What the study did not indicate was causality, in other words they could not say whether one of the three variables caused the other two to develop. Look at it this way. Larger group sizes need more mechanisms to maintain social solidarity (such as grooming or increased vocal repertoire – which could serve to increase group identification). On the other hand, increased vocal repertoire could allow larger groups to exist. Chicken or egg?

One note of caution though:

It is also important to remember that there are radical differences between non-human primate vocal repertoires and human languages, says McComb (one of the researchers – afarensis). So it does not follow that languages as complex as ours will necessarily follow from increases in group sizes and social interactions. “There are other big hurdles that have to be overcome to get to human language,” she says.

Cool Science: Part Two

Research Identifies ‘Hot Spots’ Of Ocean Productivity which is really interesting. Apparently, barnacles off the coast of Cape Perpetua -off the coast of Oregon – produce five times as offspring as barnacles off the coast of Cape Foulweather:

The study highlights the importance of including information on ecological processes when designing reserves and other types of marine protected areas, the scientists said. It is one of the first studies to link reproductive variation with key ecological processes on a scale that’s relevant to management and conservation. The findings were published today in a professional journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This study demonstrates that not all ocean places are equivalent, and that some populations are more likely than others to contribute to future generations,” said Heather Leslie, a marine ecologist at OSU. “This could serve as a model for how to link information on biodiversity patterns with underlying ecological processes.”

One wonders about the efects these kinds of hotspots could have on speciation and evolution – the study was more about the implications for conservation:

Variability in ocean currents and bottom topography, as well as biological interactions, all can contribute to differences in the productivity of marine ecosystems. Biodiversity protection and enhancement of nearby fisheries are among the goals of marine reserves, the researchers said, and an important aspect of siting effective reserves would be understanding how the productivity of key populations vary.

“Not all ocean areas are the same, and the likelihood of fulfilling the objectives of reserves and other area-based management efforts would increase if we understand the ecological processes responsible for biodiversity patterns,” Leslie said.

Integrating this information is particularly important, Leslie said, given the forecasts of changes in ocean currents and other biological and physical processes due to climate change.

Cool Science: Part One

Saturn’s Rings Have Own Atmosphere which came as a surprise to me – but I’m not an astronomer or astrophysicist or anything. Apparently, due to some interesting properties concerning the way water (i.e. H20) behaves in the region of Saturn an atmosphere is generated:

Water molecules are first driven off the ring particles by solar ultraviolet light. They are then split into hydrogen and atomic oxygen, by photodissocation. The hydrogen gas is lost to space, the atomic oxygen and any remaining water are frozen back into the ring material due to the low temperatures, and this leaves behind a concentration of oxygen molecules on the ring surfaces and, maybe through ion-neutral chemistry, molecular oxygen is formed, but this is not yet well understood.


I Read it in the New York Times

A lot of folks have commented on the recent series of articles on Intelligent Design in the New York Times. A wrap up can be found at Pharyngula. The articles can be found here, here and here.

The author of the second paper showed up and replied here.

Pharyngula has linked to a much better article than the three New York Times articles. It can be found here. It also discusss Intelligent Design. To me this:

But legislation to require that creationism be taught as a counterpoint to evolution is being discussed in Colorado and across the country. And if history is any guide, we all should be very afraid of politicians legislating science education.

Mitton recalled an Indiana legislator’s attempt in 1897 to require that schools simplify pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) from the clumsy but accurate 3.141592… to 3.2.

If this had been enforced and the products of Indiana schools tried to apply it, he said, “bridges would fall down, structures couldn’t be built,” engineering would be impossible.

It’s simple: Without pi, there is no mathematics.

And without the teaching of evolution, biology doesn’t have a prayer.

Was the best quote in the article. The best thing about it was that there is none of the he said/she said style of journalism. The article educated and informed people about an important issue making news – and did not pull any punches.