Every picture tells a story – sometimes they’re whoppers

Pictures don’t lie, right? Of course they do. And they were deceiving us long before Photoshop made the manipulation of images almost child’s play.

Today, nobody would bat an eye at a ghostly image of Abraham Lincoln standing behind his grief-stricken widow, apparently comforting her. But back in the 1860s when William Mumler produced the first ‘spirit photographs’ the public was stunned. These photos appeared to show dead relatives hovering around the living subject who had posed for the picture. Photography was magical enough, so it didn’t seem such a stretch that the camera could see things that the human eye could not

Mumler discovered ‘double exposure’ accidentally when he mistakenly used a previously exposed but undeveloped photographic plate. He immediately recognised the financial potential of this discovery and reinvented himself as a psychic medium who specialised in communicating with the other side through photographs. By today’s standards his efforts were amateurish but in the heyday of spiritualism they were readily accepted as authentic. Only when Mumler made the mistake of using images of people who were still alive as his ‘ghosts’, did his little scam crumble. But by this time many other ‘spirit photographers’ had recognised the lucrative nature of the business and had gotten into the game. And amazingly, the clever ruse even snared luminaries like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir William Crookes. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a physician and Crookes was a pioneer in chemistry and physics. One would think they would have known better.

Conan Doyle was a staunch believer in spiritualism, a position his famous detective would have taken a dim view of. But it was Sir Arthur’s championing of another type of fake photograph that best demonstrates the extent of his credulity. In 1917 two young girls produced a photo that purported to show fairies dancing in the woods. Conan Doyle was convinced the pictures were real and refused to believe that he had been fooled by the simple trick of hanging cardboard cutouts by a thread in front of the camera. It was inconceivable to him that a couple of uneducated girls could put one over on someone of his stature. The pictures therefore had to be evidence of the existence of fairies! In 1983 Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths finally admitted that they had faked the photographs but nevertheless maintained they had actually seen real fairies.

By the time the ladies had unburdened their souls, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin had outdone the ‘Cottingley fairies’. In 1967 these two thrilled the world by capturing the first images of the fabled Bigfoot. Their short film shows a creature lumbering across the woods, looking very much like a man in a gorilla suit. There is good reason for that. It is a man dressed in a gorilla suit. The elaborate hoax was described in detail at a recent conference on magic history by Phillip Morris, a man who should know, since it was his costume company that provided and altered the gorilla suit used to stage the scene. Needless to say there are legions of Bigfoot believers who don’t buy Morris’ claim and remain convinced that some sort of giant ape-like creature prowls the Pacific Northwest.

With such ample historical evidence about photographic manipulation, it’s surprising how few people question the authenticity of a series of photographs being circulated on the internet purporting to show the results of a student’s science fair experiment. The pictures depict plants supposedly watered either with microwaved water, or with water that has been heated on a stove top. And guess what! The microwave-watered plants wither while the others flourish!

One can come up with all sorts of possible explanations for the difference. Was the soil the same in the two plants? Were they given equal amounts of water? Could they have been exposed to different lighting conditions? Was there some difference in the seeds? But how about a simpler possibility? Fraud. It isn?t very hard to set up two plants side by side and ensure that one thrives while the other dies. Just water one and not the other. Of course the possibility that this is the way the pictures were created does not prove the case.

Heating water in a microwave oven does nothing other than raise its temperature. Any talk about “the structure or energy of the water being compromised” is plain bunk. But absurdly implausible arguments don’t prove that the pictures are fraudulent either. What proves it is the good old standard of science: reproducibility. Or lack of.

I did the experiment. I watered plants with microwaved water, kettle-boiled water, and stove-top boiled water, feeling pretty silly about it, but I did it. The results? As expected, no difference. I didn’t take any pictures because, after all, how would you know that they are not faked? So here is the choice. You can take my word that the experiment cannot be reproduced, accept that science tells us that microwaves do nothing to water other than heat it, or take at face value some pictures in a circulating email that purport to show an effect that has eluded scientists around the world but was discovered by a student pursuing a science fair project. Better yet, do the experiment yourself!

As you might guess, I don’t believe in spirit photographs, fairies, Bigfoot or plants succumbing to the evils of microwaved water. And I would have put goats that climb trees into the same ‘unbelievable’ category. But I would have been wrong. It seems that some Moroccan goats have learned to climb the argan tree in search of its olive-like fruit. Legend has it that the undigested seeds that pass through the goats used to be collected and pressed into “argan oil,” a traditional food flavouring. Highly questionable. The oil, also used in the cosmetic industry, is actually pressed from fruit that has been picked by human hands, making the tree-climbing goats a nuisance. Still, one can appreciate their remarkable athleticism. Easy to find pictures of their exploits on line. And pictures don’t lie? Right?


As someone currently enduring a bout of shingles I have a few comments to make on the excellent article on the bad science behind the vaccine scare (NZ Skeptic 100). Further to benefits of vaccination mentioned in the article I think the point should be made that viruses can actually be eradicated from humanity which is ironic since they cannot, unlike bacteria, be killed as they are not living entities. Bacteriological diseases on the other hand are treatable and curable but the infectious agents cannot be eradicated.

Of course we are beginning to reach a point where some bacteria are resistant to most, if not all, current antibiotics thanks to misapplication, abuse and ill-informed prescription by doctors who should know better.

The damage done by the originator of the vaccination scare is incalculable. I don’t think being struck off the medical register is enough – I have long held the opinion that anyone earning a degree on the back of research which is later invalidated should be stripped of their degree and in the case of this man I think an apt reward would be the loss of his doctorate and professorship. He has demonstrated an inability to do good research and should not be overseeing students doing theirs.

I further think that vaccination should be done by law and the decision taken out of the hands of well-meaning but deluded parents who don’t realize that they don’t know what they are doing. Vaccination is a public health issue and there is no reason it shouldn’t be mandated in order to prevent children from contracting diseases they need not suffer and as a useful step to eradicating infectious agents. The payback in terms of saving tax expenditure and avoiding misery for children is huge.

I was lucky that my parents saw we were vaccinated against everything for which vaccines had been developed at the time and I am delighted that the common ‘wisdom’ of ‘once you’ve had it you are immune for life’ has been effectively thrown out forever. I well remember my best friend’s mother being crippled as a result of having contracted poliomyelitis in her childhood. It was a tragedy which need never be repeated in this day and age.

And anyone who thinks that talk of eradication is mere cant should think again – look what has happened to smallpox with a bit of directed will and determination. And in case anyone reading this doesn’t know it, the condition I am currently suffering from is caused by the chickenpox virus I contracted over 50 years ago. It has been lying dormant in my nervous system where the body’s immune system cannot get at it. I have so far suffered relatively lightly but a bout of severe nerve pain could ensue. I am not looking forward to the possibility and am hoping for the best but am prepared for the worst.

Malcolm Watts

Placebo effect quantified

It’s not often that we obtain numerical information about the strength of a placebo effect. Thus we should applaud the manufacturers of Voltaren for their webpage www.voltarengel.com/ hcp/ efficacy.aspx (“Direct route to relief”).

Under a caption “Patients experienced a 51% improvement in [osteoarthritis] knee pain …” is a bar graph that shows both a 51 percent improvement with Voltaren gel and a 39 percent improvement with placebo gel. (Treatment period was 12 weeks.)

Similarly, “a 46% improvement in … hand pain …” turns out to be 47 percent improvement after six weeks of using Voltaren gel versus 40 percent improvement with placebo.

To simple-minded people like me, this sounds like a Voltaren effect of 12 percent for knee pain and 7 percent improvement for hand pain. I’m not knocking Voltaren, which I use myself, but clearly external use of the gel is not necessarily superior to taking this medication by mouth.

To the practitioners of alternative medicine, these results are wonderful. Regardless of treatment, after four to six weeks hand pain will be significantly reduced. Similarly a few months of quack therapy will reduce knee pain by almost half.

Jay D Mann

‘’Darwin’’s Dilemma’’: ID in NZ

Alison Campbell looks at a new ‘resource’ for New Zealand schools, helpfully provided by the creationist movement.

A little while ago Ken Perrott, who writes the Open Parachute blog, alerted me to an Intelligent Design website that appeared to be set up to provide ID ‘resources’ to teachers and others who might be interested. Today I found time to wander over and have a look at what was on offer (not much, at the moment(. The site’s owner is [idfilms[, who tells us that:
idfilms was established with the express purpose of reinvigorating and expanding the ID discussion in New Zealand and Australia. The people behind idfilms are committed to the search for truth about the origin of life and the universe, just like you.

The only resource currently on offer on the Products Page is a DVD entitled Darwin’s Dilemma, for which the blurb reads:
Darwin’s Dilemma explores one of the great mysteries in the history of life: The geologically-sudden appearance of dozens of major complex animal types in the fossil record without any trace of the gradual transitional steps Charles Darwin had predicted. Frequently described as [the Cambrian Explosion,[ the development of these new animal types required a massive increase in genetic information. [The big question that the Cambrian Explosion poses is where does all that new information come from?[ says Dr. Stephen Meyer, a featured expert in the documentary.

Interesting, given the subject matter, that one of the DVD’s [featured experts[ is neither a geneticist nor an evolutionary biologist…

[Darwin’s Dilemma[ isn’t a particularly accurate characterisation, given that discovery of the extensive Cambrian biota happened well after Darwin’s death. Nor is the idea of an [explosion[ all that accurate, as the evidence from palaeontology and molecular biology points to a rather more ancient origin for the various phyla found in Cambrian rocks.

The statement that [the development of these new animal types required a massive increase in genetic information[ suggests a lack of understanding of a particular suite of genes, the Hox genes. Major changes in morphology can come about as a result of small changes in the Hox genes, because they influence the arrangement and timing of development of various body parts. No need for [massive increases in genetic information[ here. However, that phrase is simply setting the stage for the claim that this increase in [information[ can only have come about through the agency of a designer, again ignoring the observed ability of mutations – such as the duplication of genes due to transposon activity – to do this all by themselves.

However, if we must look at [complex specified information[ (the catchphrase of Meyer’s colleague William Dembski for the way to recognise the work of the designer(, let’s ask a few questions about it. What exactly is complex specified information? How is it produced? How do we tell it apart from the bits of the genome that aren’t due to an external agency?

Well, the short answer would appear to be that even the ‘experts’ don’t know. How else are we to interpret the discussion associated with On the calculation of CSI, a post at Uncommon Descent? A concept that cannot be adequately explained can hardly form the basis of a sound teaching resource, let alone provide the impetus to change our view of how evolution works.

So who are these ‘‘scientists anonymous’’?

Alison Campbell finds the creationists are still trying to get into our schools.

A friend of mine, who happens to be a biology teacher, recently forwarded me an email. Quite apart from the fact that the sender had sent it to what looks like every secondary school in the country and didn’t have the courtesy to bcc the mailing list, there are a number of issues around it that give me some concern.

But first, the email:

TO: Faculty Head of Science / Head of Biology Department

Please find attached a new resource (pp. 12-14) by Dr Jerry Bergman on the left recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) for the teaching and learning of Senior Science/Biology (human evolution). [Edit: The original email had a link to the article on RLN, which was on the Institute for Creation Research website.]

• Much evidence exists that the present design results from developmental constraints.

• There are indications that this design serves to fine-tune laryngeal functions.

• The nerve serves to innervate other organs after it branches from the vagus on its way to the larynx.

• The design provides backup innervation to the larynx in case another nerve is damaged.

• No evidence exists that the design causes any disadvantage.

Freely share this resource with the teaching staff in your faculty/department.

Yours sincerely,

Scientists Anonymous (NZ)

PRIVACY ACT/DISCLAIMER Dissemination of extraordinary science resources will be made once or twice a year at the most (opt out).

All replies will be read but not necessarily acknowledged (no-reply policy applies).

The distribution of resources through this mailing system is not by the Publishers.

It’s immediately obvious that this is a thinly disguised attempt by cdesign proponentsists to get ‘intelligent design’ materials into the classroom [Those unfamiliar with the term ‘cdesign proponentsists’ please use Google – ed.]. The use of the word ‘design’ is a dead giveaway there. The arrangement of the laryngeal nerves has been noted by biologists as an example of poor ‘design’ as it doesn’t follow a straightforward path to the organs it innervates (and in fact follows an extremely lengthy detour in giraffes!), leading to the question, why would a ‘designer’ use such poor planning? (There’s a good YouTube clip on the subject.) That the ID proponents now seem to be arguing that poor design is actually purposeful and thus still evidence of a designer smacks of grasping at straws. Furthermore, the article that the email originally linked to is mounted on the Institute for Creation Research website – it’s not published in a peer-reviewed journal. So there’s nothing “extraordinary” about this particular “resource”.

Of more significance, I think, is the identity of the originators of this message (and I note they promise others in future; at least one can opt out!). “Scientists Anonymous”. This is an attempt at an appeal to authority – a bunch of scientists say so, so we should give it some weight.

But we shouldn’t – because we don’t know who they are. No-one’s publicly signed their name to this stuff, so why should we accept their authority in this matter? Are there really any practising scientists there? Are any of them biologists? Who knows… but it adds no weight to their proclaimed position on this issue. The only person mentioned by name, Jerry Bergman, is indeed a biologist by training, for whom the first Google entries are citations by Answer in Genesis and CreationWiki. Google Scholar indicates that his recent publications are not in the area of biological sciences but promote anti-evolution ideas including the one that Darwin’s writings influenced Hitler’s attitudes to various racial groups (an idea that’s been throroughly debunked elsewhere).

A search for ‘scientists anonymous’ brings up a students’ Facebook site and a book of the same name about women scientists. So who, exactly, are these ‘Scientists Anonymous’ who are behind the email to schools, and why aren’t they prepared to put their names to the document?


Why do men have nipples?

Nikos Petousis, in his article Skepticism Greek-style answers many questions which have previously puzzled me, for which I thank him sincerely.

In return, may I answer one of his own unanswered questions? He had asked why God gave us such useless things as nipples on men. Many people, doubtless not attendees at the 2008 Skeptics conference, would claim Intelligent Design or Divine Guidance.

I know better. Those apparently useless appendages evolved for two excellent reasons, both for the benefit of the medical profession. The first reason is so that the doctor knows where to apply a cold stethoscope for maximum effect. The second is so that if the patient is unclothed, the doctor knows if s/he is looking at the front or the back. Q.E.D. (Sorry to revert to Latin, but I don’t know the Greek for this. Perhaps Nikos could help).

PS If you are in doubt about my theory, please check with John Welch for a second opinion.

PPS I’ve just realised that in sending this by email I cannot sign this in my usual manner (copyrighted) which you seem to have appropriated! However, I hasten to assure you that I am not planning legal action in the matter. When I did attempt to sign in my usual manner, the pen skidded on the monitor screen, which now has some nasty inky scratches.

(That’s OK – we Davids have to stick together! – ed.)

A good excuse for a party

FEBRUARY 12 is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the old guy, or at least his ideas, are still in pretty good shape. While evolutionary theory has been broadened and elaborated extensively in the 150 years since The Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin’s fundamental concept of natural selection remains central to our understanding of life’s diversity. New Scientist noted that 2009 is also the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope, and used this as an excuse to ask a panel of eight whether Galileo or Darwin had done more to knock man off his pedestal. Opinion was divided, but Darwin was favoured by a small majority. One comment in the introduction by Michael Brooks was that Galileo has had more impact in the long term. His rationale for saying this was that far more people believe the Earth goes round the sun than believe people are descended from animals via natural selection, with the figures in the US being 80 percent and 50 percent respectively. Perhaps this is just a

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Science as a human endeavour

If students are to pursue careers in science, they need to be able to see themselves in that role. One way to encourage this may be through the telling of stories. This article is based on a presentation to the 2008 NZ Skeptics Conference in Hamilton.

New Zealand’s new science curriculum asks us to develop students’ ability to think critically. As a science educator I think that’s about the most important skill we can give them: the ability to assess the huge amount of information that’s put in front of them from all sorts of sources. We also need to recognise that the ideas and processes students are hearing about have come to us through the activities of people – it’s people who develop science understanding. Science changes over time, as people’s ideas change. It’s fluid, it’s done by people, and it’s a human endeavour.

This puts science in an interesting position. It has its own norms, and its own culture, but it’s embedded in the wider culture as well. Those norms of science include its history. I find it sad that many of my students have no idea of where the big ideas in science came from. They don’t know what the people who were developing those ideas were like.

The new curriculum document recognises that the nature of science is an important strand in the curriculum, because it is what gives science its context, and lets students see science as a human endeavour. They’re going to learn what science is, and how scientists do science. They will become acquainted with the idea that scientists’ ideas change as they’re given new information; that science is valuable for society. And students are going to learn how it’s communicated.

Our future prosperity depends on students continuing to enter careers in the sciences. Richard Meylan, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, said to me recently that somewhere between the end of year 13 and that two-month break before they go to university, we seem to be losing them. The universities are tending to see a drop in the number of students who have picked science as something that they want to continue in. Students don’t seem to see it as a viable career option, and there are many reasons for that.

We need more scientists, we need scientifically-literate politicians, and we need a community that understands science: how science is done, how science is relevant; one that sees science and scientists as being an integral part of the community. But how are we going to get there? What sorts of things can we do that are going to make young people want to carry on in science? Students often don’t choose science – how are we going to change that?

One of the reasons, perhaps, is that they often don’t see themselves as scientists. We did a bit of research on this at Waikato University last year, asking what would encourage our first-year students to continue as scientists. And what they were saying was, “Well, a lot of the time I don’t see myself as a scientist.” We asked, what would make a difference? The response: “Seeing that my lecturers are people.” People first, scientists second.

When I googled ‘scientist’ I had to go through eight or nine pages of results before finding something that looks like my own idea of a scientist. (‘Woman scientist’ is a bit better!) Almost all the guys have moustaches, they’ve all got glasses, all the women are square-shaped. Students don’t see themselves in this. We need them (and the rest of the community!) to see science as something that ordinary people do.

Now, what sorts of things are those ordinary people doing? They’re thinking; they’re speculating, they’re saying ‘what if?’ They’re thinking creatively: science is a creative process and at its best involves imagination and creativity. Scientists make mistakes! Most of the time we’re wrong but that doesn’t make good journal articles; usually no-one publishes negative results. So you just hear about the ‘correct’ stuff. Scientists persist when challenged, when things aren’t always working well.

Science stories

One way of fostering students’ engagement with science, and seeing themselves in it, is to tell them stories, to give them a feeling of how science operates. Brian Greene, a science communicator and physicist in the US, says:

I view science as one of the most dramatic narratives our species can tell. The story of our search to understand the Universe and ourselves. When that search is conveyed using the power of story – the story of discovery – we can all feel part of the journey.

So I’m going to tell you stories. And I’m going to tell stories about old, largely dead, people because one of my passions at the moment is the history of science. A lot of science’s big ideas have a history that stretches back 3-400 years. But they’re just as important today, and I think that an understanding of the scientists who came up with those ideas is also important today.

I think it’s important that kids recognise that a lot of scientists are a bit quirky. But then, everyone’s a bit quirky – we’re all different. One example of someone ‘a bit different’ is Richard Feynman. Famous for his discoveries in the nanotech field, he was a polymath: a brilliant scientist with interests in a whole range of areas – biology, art, anthropology, lock-picking, bongo-drumming. He was into everything. He also had a very quirky sense of humour. He was a brilliant scientist and a gifted teacher, and he showed that from an early age. His sister Joan has a story about when she was three, and Feynman was nine or so. He’d been reading a bit of psychology and knew about conditioning, so he’d say to Joan: “Here’s a sum: 2 plus 1 more makes what?” And she’s bouncing up and down with excitement. If she got the answer right, he’d give her a treat. The Feynman children weren’t allowed lollies for treats, so he let her pull his hair till it hurt (or, at least, he behaved as if it did!), and that was her reward for getting her sums right.

Making mistakes

We get it wrong a lot of the time. Even the people we hold up as these amazing icons – they get it wrong. Galileo thought the tides were caused by the Earth’s movement. At the time, no-one had developed the concept of gravity. How could something as far away as the Moon possibly affect the Earth? We look back at people in the past and we think, how could they be so thick? But,in the context of their time, what they were doing was perfectly reasonable.

Louis Pasteur, the ‘father of microbiology’, held things up for years by insisting that fermentation was due to some ‘vital process’ it wasn’t chemical. He got it wrong.

And one of my personal heroes, Charles Darwin, got it completely wrong about how inheritance worked. He was convinced that inheritance worked by blending. When Darwin published The Origin of Species, in 1859, Mendel’ s work on inheritance hadn’ t been published. It was published in Darwin’s lifetime – Mendel’s ideas would have made a huge difference to Darwin’s understanding of how inheritance worked – part of the mechanism for evolution that he didn’t have. But he never read Mendel’s paper.

Scientists do come into conflict with various aspects of society. Galileo had huge issues with the Church. He laid out his understanding of what Copernicus had already said: the Universe was not geocentric, it didn’t go round the Earth. The Church model was that the Universe was very strongly geocentric: everything went round us. Galileo was accused of heresy, and shown the various instruments of torture; for pulling out his thumbnails and squashing his feet. He did recant, and he was kept under house arrest until his death. And the Church officially apologised to him in 1992. A long-running conflict indeed.

And there’s conflict with prevailing cultural expectations. Beatrice Tinsley was an absolutely amazing woman; a New Zealander who has been called a world leader in modern cosmology, and one of the most creative and significant theoreticians in modern astronomy. She went to the US to do her PhD in 1964, and finished it in 1966. Beatrice published extensively, and received international awards, but she found the deck stacked against her at the University of Texas, where she worked. She was asked if she’d design and set up a new astronomy department, which she did. The university duly opened applications for the new Head of Department. Beatrice applied. They didn’t even respond to her letter. So she left Texas. (Yale did appreciate her, and appointed her Professor of Astronomy.) A couple of years later she found she had a malignant melanoma, and was dead by the age of 42. The issue for Beatrice was a conflict between societal expectations and the area where she was working: women didn’t do physics.

Science versus societal ‘knowledge’

Raymond Dart was an English zoologist who worked at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. He was widely known among the locals for his fondness for fossils; you could trundle down to Prof Dart’s house, bring him a lovely bit of bone, and he’d pay you quite well. One day in 1924 the workers at Taung quarry found a beautiful little skull – a face, a lower jaw, and a cast of the brain – in real life it would sit in the palm of your hand. Dart was getting ready for a wedding when the quarry workers arrived, and he was so excited by this find that when his wife came in to drag him off to be best man, he still didn’t have his cuffs and his collar on and there was dust all over his good black clothes. He was absolutely rapt.

Dart looked at this fossil and saw in it something of ourselves. He saw it as an early human ancestor. The jaw is like ours, it has a parabolic shape, and the face is more vertical -relatively speaking – than in an ape. He described it, under the name Australopithecus africanus, as being in our own lineage and went off to a major scientific meeting, expecting a certain amount of interest in what he’d discovered. What he got was a fair bit of doubt, and some ridicule. How could he be so foolish? It was surely an ape.

By 1924 evolution was pretty much an accepted fact in the scientific community. But there was a particular model of what that meant. In some ways this built on the earlier, non-evolutionary concept of the Great Chain of Being. They also had a model that tended to view the epitome of evolutionary progress as white European males. It followed from this that humans had evolved in Europe, because that’s where all the ‘best’ people came from. Black Africans were sometimes placed as a separate species, and were regarded as being lower down the chain.

Yet here was Dart saying he’d found a human ancestor in Africa. This would mean the ancestor must have been black – which didn’t fit that world-view. It’s a racist view, but that reflected the general attitudes of society at the time, and the scientists proposing that view were embedded in that society just as much as we are embedded in ours today.

Another difficulty for Dart had to do with prevailing ideas about how humans had evolved. By the 1920s Neanderthal man was quite well known. Neanderthals have the biggest brains of all the human lineage – a much bigger brain than we have. And the perception was that one of the features that defined humans, apart from tool use, was a big brain. It followed from this that the big brain had evolved quite early. Dart was saying that Australopithecus was a hominin, but Australopithecus as an adult would have had a brain size of around 400cc. We have a brain size of around 1400cc. Australopithecus didn’t fit the prevailing paradigm. The big brain had to come first; everybody knew that.

And belief in that particular paradigm – accepted by scientists and non-scientists alike – helps to explain why something like Piltdown man lasted so long. Over the period 1911-1915 an English solicitor, Charles Dawson, ‘discovered’ the remains of what appeared to be a very early human indeed in a quarry at Piltdown. There were tools (including a bone ‘cricket bat’), a skull cap, and a lower jaw, which looked very old. The bones were quite thick, and heavily stained. This was seized upon with joy by at least some anatomists because the remains fitted in with that prevailing model: old bones of a big-brained human ancestor.

People began to express doubts about this fossil quite early on, and these doubts grew as more hominin remains were confirmed in Africa and Asia. But it wasn’t completely unmasked as a fake until the early 1950s. The skull looked modern because it was a modern (well, mediaeval) skull that had been stained to make it look really old. The jaw was that of an orangutan, with the teeth filed so that they looked more human and the jaw articulation and symphysis (the join between right and left halves) missing. When people saw these remains in the light of new knowledge, they probably thought, how could I have been so thick? But in 1914 Piltdown fitted with the prevailing model; no-one expected it to look otherwise. And I would point out that it was scientists who ultimately exposed the fraud. And scientists who re-wrote the books accordingly.

Thinking creatively

The next story is about Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, and the Nobel Prize they received in 2005. (These guys aren’t dead yet!) Here’s the citation:

[The 2005] Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who with tenacity and a prepared mind challenged prevailing dogmas. By using technologies generally available… they made an irrefutable case that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is causing disease.

The prevailing dogma had been that if you had a gastric or duodenal ulcer, you were a type A stress-ridden personality. The high degree of stress in your life was linked to the generation of excess gastric juices and these ate a hole in your gut. Marshall and Warren noticed that this bacterium was present in every preparation from patients’ guts that they looked at. They collected more data, and found that in every patient they looked at, H. pylori was present in the diseased tissue. One of them got a test-tube full of H. pylori broth and drank it. He got gastritis: inflammation of the stomach lining and a precursor to a gastric ulcer. He took antibiotics, and was cured. The pair treated their patients with antibiotics and their ulcers cleared up.

Because they were creative, and courageous, they changed the existing paradigm. And this is important – you can overturn prevailing paradigms, you can change things. But in order to do that you have to have evidence, and a mechanism. Enough evidence, a solid explanatory mechanism, and people will accept what you say.

Which was a problem for Ignaz Semmelweiss. He had evidence, alright, but he lacked a mechanism. Semmelweiss worked in the Vienna General Hospital, where he was in charge of two maternity wards. Women would reputedly beg on their knees not to be admitted to Ward 1, where the mortality rate from puerperal fever was about 20 percent. In Ward 2, mortality was three or four percent. What caused the difference? In Ward 2 the women were looked after exclusively by midwives. In Ward 1, it was the doctors. What else were they doctors doing? They were doing autopsies in the morgue. And they would come from the morgue to the maternity ward, with their blood-spattered ties, and I hate to think what they had on their hands. Then they would do internal examinations on the women. Small wonder so many women died. Semmelweiss felt that the doctors’ actions were causing this spread of disease and said he wanted them to wash their hands before touching any of the women on his ward. Despite their affronted reactions he persisted, and he kept data. When those doctors washed their hands before doing their examinations, mortality rates dropped to around three percent.

The trouble was that no-one knew how puerperal fever was being transmitted. They had this idea that disease was spread by miasmas – ‘bad airs’ – and although the germ theory of disease was gaining a bit of traction the idea that disease could be spread by the doctors’ clothes or on their hands still didn’t fit the prevailing dogma. Semmelweiss wasn’t particularly popular – he’d gone against the hospital hierarchy, and he’d done it in quite an abrasive way, so when he applied for a more senior position, he didn’t get it, and left the hospital soon after. He was in the unfortunate position of having data, but no mechanism, and the change in the prevailing mindset had to wait for the conclusive demonstration by Koch and Pasteur that it was single-celled organisms that actually caused disease.

Collaboration and connectedness

Scientists are part of society. They collaborate with each other, are connected to each other, and are connected to the wider world. Although there have been some really weird people that weren’t. Take Henry Cavendish – the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge is named after him. He was a true eccentric. He did an enormous amount of science but published very little, and was quite reclusive – Cavendish just didn’t like talking with people. If you wanted to find out what he thought, you’d sidle up next to him at a meeting and ask the air, I wonder what Cavendish would think about so-and-so. If you were lucky, a disembodied voice over your shoulder would tell you what Cavendish thought. If you were unlucky, he’d flee the room.

But most scientists collaborate with each other. Even Newton, who was notoriously bad-tempered and unpleasant to people whom he regarded as less than his equal, recognised the importance of that collaboration. He wrote: “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Mind you, he may well have been making a veiled insult to Robert Hooke, to whom he was writing: Hooke was rather short.

What about Darwin? Was he an isolated person, or a connected genius? We know that Darwin spent much of the later years of his life in his study at Downe. He had that amazing trip round the world on the Beagle, then after a couple of years in London he retreated to Downe with his wife and growing family, and spent hours in his study every day. He’d go out and pace the ‘sandwalk’ – a path out in the back garden – come back, and write a bit more. Darwin spent eight years of that time producing a definitive work on barnacles, and he didn’t do it alone. He wrote an enormous number of letters to barnacle specialists, and to other scientists asking to use work that they’d done, or to use their specimens to further the work he was doing.

He was also connected to a less high-flying world: he was into pigeons. This grew from his interest in artificial selection and its power to change, over a short period of time, various features in a species. So he wrote to pigeon fanciers. And the pigeon fanciers would write back. These were often in a lower social class and various family and friends may well have been a bit concerned that he spent so much time speaking to ‘those people’ about pigeons. And Darwin had a deep concern for society as well. He was strongly anti-slavery, and he put a lot of time (and money) into supporting the local working-class people in Downe. He was still going in to London to meet with his colleagues, men like Lyell and Hooker, who advised him when Alfred Wallace wrote to him concerning a new theory of natural selection. Now there’s an example of connectedness for you, and the impact of other people’s thought on your own! It was Wallace who kicked Darwin into action, and led to him publishing the Origin of Species.

That’s enough stories. I’m going to finish with another quote from Brian Greene:

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.
Science lets us see the wonder and the beauty of the stars, and inspires us to reach them.

The Prehistoric Boy Racer Gene

Bob Brockie thinks he can explain why the Skeptic editor gets woken up at 2am every Saturday morning

Doctors have a name for impulsive, over-energetic, risky, unpredictable, posturing, defiant behaviour — they call it ADHD (attention deficit hyper-active disorder) and it affects mainly boys.

About 12 years ago geneticists discovered a gene which “contributes” to this naughty behaviour. Nearly half the impulsive naughty boys in the US have this so-called “7R” gene.

Geneticists know that this gene is very ancient and think we may have inherited it from apes. The risk-taking behaviour may have helped prehistoric hunter-gatherers to survive, but once people settled down and became farmers, the impulsive behaviour became in-appropriate and socially disruptive.

Paradoxically, the gene has become commoner in some parts of the world over the last 10,000 years. Now a Dr Chen leads a team of Californian geneticists who suggest this is because risk-taking people left their ancestral Africa and China to migrate long distances, taking their overdrive genes and unpredictable behaviour with them. Dr Chen sampled 39 communities round the world and fiound that the risk-takers have migrated to the ends of the Earth where their 7R genes now concentrate.

His team found that nearly all the Yanomamo men up the Amazon and those ferocious guys in New Guinea have the gene. These blokes live in a state of local aggressive anarchy, spend all day adorning themselves and posturing, sharpening their elaborate weapons, and eating and sleeping separately from their hard-working women.

By contrast, Dr Chen’s team found the risk-taking gene was rare or totally absent among Kalahari bushmen and Chinese farmers. These long-settled men live peaceably, don’t make fancy weaponry or show off. They help rear their children and share everything with their wives. No wonder the Yanomamo are known as “The Fierce People” and the bushmen as “The Gentle People”. Europeans and other Africans fall somewhere in between these extremes.

And what about us? Whether Polynesian or Pakeha, we New Zealanders are all descended from long distance risk-taking migrants. If Dr Chen’s theory is right, our boys should be awash with the 7R gene.

My impression is that we have plenty of defiant, risk-taking, hyperactive boys. Just what we need to play rugby. And what about our boy racers, all those kids sent home from school for disruptive behaviour, and our 12,000 kids on Ritalin, the drug used to treat the condition?

Enough of this armchair theorising. Some geneticist will have to go out and survey our youths’ 7R genes. Our boy racer genes.
Originally published in the Dominion Post, July 22, 2002

Evolution Website a Hit with Teachers

A Waikato University website on evolution has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from teachers, says biological sciences lecturer Alison Campbell.

“We held a teacher meeting in April for the Waikato and Bay of Plenty area from which we got some very favourable comments, but I’ve heard that teachers from Auckland and Wellington are quite taken with the site as well.”

The site is aimed primarily at providing expert support and quality material for New Zealand’s science teachers. It has been developed over eight months by a group of staff from the School of Science and Technology.

“Why did we do it? Penny Cooke and I have been concerned for quite a while now about the low level of understanding of evolutionary theory that we find in our first-year earth science and biology students. In addition, I’d been fielding requests from biology teachers for some sort of resource that could help them teach evolution.”

The team, which also includes Kathrin Cass and Kerry Earl, tried to produce a comprehensive site that dealt with many aspects of evolutionary theory and research and the related earth sciences concepts.

“We put a lot of effort into making it attractive and easy to use, and from teachers’ comments I feel we’ve succeeded in this.”

She has had other feedback, including a query from one person asking why there was nothing on “alternative theories” such as Intelligent Design. “I directed him to the site page addressing the nature of scientific theories. And then there was one from someone who intends to use the site to demonstrate the failings of scientists to their children, to counteract the teaching on evolution they’ll receive from school…”

Much of the content fits in with the curriculum objectives of the NCEA. “It was very important to us that the site has New Zealand flavour, as students are expected to be familiar with New Zealand examples of evolution.”

She feels there’s a lot of very good evolutionary material on the web, but it lacks this New Zealand focus.

The content will be reviewed annually so that the site remains accurate and relevant. “In human evolution, for example, there’s a lot of new information coming on stream every year, and it’s very hard for individual teachers to keep up with this, but we can offer them this service.”

The team felt that the sections on the nature of science and the context in which evolutionary thinking developed are essential areas of the site. “One of the main objections for many people is that evolution is ‘just a theory’. Similarly, science education research has demonstrated that students are more likely to come to accept the theory of evolution if they are given the opportunity to see how it developed, rather than just having the fact of it dumped on them.

Dr Campbell has heard that colleagues at other universities intend to use the Waikato website with their second and third-year students, and she has used it extensively with her own first and second-year classes.

“From what I’ve heard, my own students have found it a very useful resource.”

As well as dealing with the science of evolution, the site tackles, in rather oblique fashion, the old skeptics’ bugbear of creationism. Evolution is, the site says, probably the only theory to be rejected on grounds of personal belief.

There’s a section on the distinction between hypotheses, theories and laws, reinforced in the Frequently Asked Questions section, where “Isn’t evolution ‘only a theory’?” gets a clear response. The FAQs also include creationist-related queries such as: “If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” and, “Living things have fantastically intricate features, shouldn’t they be the products of intelligent design, not evolution?” As well as providing brief answers to these, the site has links to external sites which cover these issues in more detail.

A section titled Darwin and Religion has quotes from such people as Pope John Paul II and Stephen Jay Gould on the proper relationship between science and religion, followed by interviews with two scientists who see no real conflict between the two.

The Evolution for Teaching website is on: sci.waikato.ac.nz/evolution/index.shtml

Family Obligations

Our acceptance of evolution brings with it moral obligations, believes geneticist Professor David Penny, who has been fighting for greater consideration to be given to the well-being of the great apes

From the path we gaze down at them. From their grassed mound they turn an occasional incurious gaze back – primate watching primate. I have seen very few chimpanzees. For them we are just part of an eternal procession of their depilated, camera-toting, child-accompanying, gawping kin. Behind the idling chimps, beyond the grassed enclosure with its climbing poles, beyond the zoo, rise the hills and houses of Wellington.

As we watch, one of the smaller chimps breaks away and speed-shuffles towards us. Alongside me, Suzette Nicholson the curator of primates, tenses, then relaxes. Along the way Gombi, an adolescent chimp, has picked up a broken plastic water container, and now he dippers himself a drink from the moat that separates him from us, fastidiously avoiding the muddy margin.

No good was what Suzette thought this sweet, obviously misunderstood creature was up to. “Gombi is 9 now, which is like the terrible teens, and he’ll throw things at the public if he can. He runs round trying to be big and staunch,” she explains.

Gombi is one of 15 chimpanzees at the Wellington Zoo, or, more broadly, one of the around 30-or-so great apes in New Zealand. Not many, and nor do we have the complete set. Of the species that make up the great apes – chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos (once known as pigmy chimpanzees) and gorillas – we have only the first two. Yet New Zealand is often referred to as an example by those fighting for the great apes to be brought more fully within our circle of moral consideration, or even to be granted some form of rights.

The reason is the handful of lines in our 1999 Animal Welfare Act stipulating that any experiments with the great apes must be justified on the grounds of a benefit to the apes themselves and that these experiments must have the final approval of the director-general of Agriculture.

There has never been experimentation carried out with the great apes in New Zealand. The provision is intended at least as much as an example for others as it is for domestic consumption.

A Few though they are, these lines were hard fought for by the New Zealand membership of the Great Ape Project, and one of the most persuasive of advocates was Professor David Penny. An activist by disposition – he protested the Springbok tours and the Vietnam war – he says we should accord the great apes greater consideration, letting our morality be driven by the evidence presented by our science. We now know how close to us they are. In fact, viewed through the dispassionate eyes of molecular geneticist and evolutionist David Penny, we are ourselves great apes. The differences between their species and ours are of degree, not kind.

For the great apes – or more exactly the other great apes – life is generally far from great at all. Bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas are native to central and western Africa; orang-utans to Sumatra and Borneo. In these developing – or in some cases undeveloping – regions, conservation is often not a leading concern. Deforestation, the trade in baby orang-utans as pets, and, in Africa, the trade in bushmeat are whittling away great ape numbers. Their species have been given at best a vulnerable and at worst a highly endangered rating by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In captivity, whether kept as pets or as circus animals, the great apes largely live their lives at the favour of their owners. Often this means a life arbitrarily cut short at the age of 7 or 8 when the tractable youngster becomes, like Gombi, an assertive, unpredictable and physically powerful adolescent. (Bebe, the matriarch of Gombi’s group at 40-plus, could live for another 20 years.)

In the US thousands of the great apes are used as laboratory animals. Animals used to roaming distances are kept in close quarters, infected with diseases such hepatitis or Aids, and subjected to medical procedures.

They are our substitute in experiments for one reason: they are so like us. Like us, some non-human primate species have naturally occurring osteoporosis and hypertension, some undergo the menopause, and they are susceptible to many of the same diseases that threaten human populations.

On the other hand, Penny believes the case for testing with the great apes is often overstated. Take Aids, for example. The epidemiological and laboratory evidence from human populations is actually very strong, and “we have learned virtually nothing of benefit to humans from infecting many chimpanzees with HIV”.

And his argument for ending experimentation with the great apes is much the same as that employed by those who want it to continue: the great apes are so like us.

Penny’s office is not much more than a glass cubicle inside a laboratory in a ’60s building on the Palmerston North campus. There’s a clutter of papers – apologised for with some perverse pride – and students are forever wandering to the door to seek guidance on papers or theses. Now is the most exciting time ever in the molecular biosciences, he says. Eternal questions are being answered.

Using DNA and protein sequences, Penny and his colleagues have looked at the origin and dispersal of modern humans, not only confirming the likelihood that humans originated in Africa, but also, with their finding that Maori share ancestry in a group of around 50 to 100 women, lending weight to the Maori oral tradition of the seven canoes that settled New Zealand.

The chimpanzee genome has been another particular interest. Penny sees the differences between human and chimpanzee as something of a test for whether microevolution – small changes over generations – is enough to account for macroevolution, the more major differences between species.

One estimate puts the genetic similarity between chimpanzees and humans at 98.76 per cent. (If you want to quibble you can find a smidgen more or less difference by selecting different categories of DNA.) Counterintuitively this makes us more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are related to gorillas.

DNA sequencing can also be used to put dates to our evolutionary history. The difference between chimpanzee and human DNA has come from the mistakes that are made as the DNA is copied from generation to generation. The errors occur at a reasonably constant rate in certain types of DNA. So if you know the rate, can compare the two DNA sequences, and have some sophisticated mathematics at your command, you can arrive at a date for a common ancestor.

The common ancestor of man and chimpanzee turns out to have walked the earth about 6.5 million years ago. Although this is around half a million years before the Grand Canyon started to form — and although it has to be realised that this is 6.5 million years in which chimpanzees and humans have evolved down their respective paths – in evolutionary terms it is the blink of an eye.

So close is our genetic makeup to that of the other great apes that the question for Penny and others like him is not why humans are so similar to the other great apes, but rather how to account for the differences. Penny’s answer: our species has a much longer growth period during which the brain and body are increasing in proportion.

If evolution seldom creates features out of nothing – and microevolution is sufficient to explain macroevolution – then we should expect our own attributes in the other great apes. And the more closely researchers look, the more this turns out to be so. Chimpanzees employ mental representations. They are self- aware. They are capable of deceit. They use tools. They transmit culture. They can acquire language.

In the mornings at Wellington Zoo the chimpanzees are given cups of blackcurrant drink fortified with vitamins. Overnight the female chimpanzees have been segregated – a welcome break from the attentions of the males. The status conscious males line up to be passed their drinks. The females and infants extend their hands through the bars in a prehensile tangle. The hands are rough and powerful; they look as if they have been crafted from black latex.

As the males head back outside to join the females they let loose with a rising anarchic chorus of pant-hoots.

Anatomy is destiny. The smartest of chimpanzees is still not going to be able to talk. They lack the breath control and physical equipment to do so. Nor should we expect a watchmaker chimpanzee. See how well you do at manipulating objects if you stop using your opposable thumb.

C But if “chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee” – to quote the Doctor Dolittle song – isn’t going to happen, having a conversation is still possible. Beginning with Washoe the chimpanzee in the 1960s, numerous great apes have been taught Modified American Sign Language or have been shown how to communicate using the lexigrams on symbol keyboards.

At age 5 Washoe the chimpanzee was capable of using more than 100 signs and understanding hundreds more. Panbanisha, a bonobo, can produce about 250 words on a voice synthesiser and understand about 3000. Koko, a 26-year-old gorilla is claimed to understand about 2000 words of English and to have an IQ of between 70 and 90. These acculturated apes produce an extraordinary effect on those who meet them.

“I have been strongly influenced by some of the chimps who have been taught American sign language, and once you look a chimp in the eye and see something there that is different from a dog, you have a different perspective,” says Massey primate expert Arnold Chamove, who has met the likes of Washoe, and Lucy, who was raised from infancy by American psychologists, the Temerlins.

The Temerlins, who seem to have been like-totally-60s, raised Lucy as one of their own children, to the point that she had become, as primatologist Jane Goodall put it, a changeling, neither chimpanzee nor human. Lucy was accustomed to serving tea to guests, fixing her own pre-dinner cocktails, and masturbating to Playgirl centre-spreads. Eventually the Temerlins felt it best that Lucy move on, and she was sent to Gambia for a difficult and lengthy rehabilitation back into the wild.

“She was sent away from her family to be rehabilitated and she was depressed,” says Chamove. “I had worked as a clinical psychologist, so I knew a bit about depression. It was just like someone had taken a 5-year-old out of her family and put her in a zoo with some chimpanzees. And she was thinking ‘Jesus Christ, how long is this going to last?’ No blankets, no beds, no food she was used to.”

Could it be that Chamove was over-empathising?

“I didn’t see any substantive difference [between Lucy and someone in the same situation].”

For Suzette Nicholson at the Wellington Zoo the chimpanzee colony has all the continuing interest of a long-running and perfectly comprehensible soap opera. Recently a palace coup ousted the dominant male. “Mahdi, the youngest of the big males wanted to take over, so he tried to beat up Boyd, the alpha male, when he had been sick. What happened was that the girls all ganged up on Mahdi and chased him around the park at full speed. Now the three males share power.”

When one of the babies died the colony went into mourning. “We let the mother keep the baby for a couple of days until it became a health hazard and we took it off her. When we did, all of the other females would sit round her, grooming her and fussing over her. They do grieve. One of our females died not long ago while under anaesthetic. After she died we let the other chimps in to see that she was dead and wasn’t coming back.”

As it becomes ever more evident that we are as much the product of evolution as any other creature, and that evolution has no higher goal, so Penny hopes the centuries-old paradigm of the Great Chain of Being (GCB) will begin to crumble. The GCB is the notion that there is a progression of living things: from creatures barely alive on the lower rungs, to sentient then rational beings, and, above that, beings that are no longer anchored to material existence. Less perfect beings are there to serve more perfect beings. The GCB is us-and-them. Animals and us.

Penny finds the quote he wants and recites with theatrical enjoyment: “‘There is none that is more powerful in leading feeble minds astray from the straight path of virtue than the supposition that the soul of brutes is the same nature of our own.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”

This is the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes, but the GCB’s pedigree can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Plato, for example, thought there were three different kinds of souls: the primitive, the mortal and the immortal, but that the immortal soul – the one that counted – resided strictly in humans, and even then not all of them; children and slaves, for example, were out of luck. The ancient Greek thought meshed nicely with the part of Judao-Christian teachings that put all of nature at man’s disposal, and in the fifth century Saint Augustine folded the one into the other.

Penny sees the GCB as a licence for environmental despotism and will be pleased to see an end to it.

As for the law, this is a 3000-year old accretion of precedent which generally holds animals, no matter how intelligent, to be no more than property. And property can neither suffer injury nor sue; injury can only be done to the owner. Hominum cause omne jus constitum – the law was made for men and allows no fellowship or bonds of obligation between them and the lower animals – runs a tag derived from Roman law. In his book Rattling the Cage, Harvard law lecturer Steven Wise puts a case for legal personhood for the great apes, but it seems unlikely that this will happen any time soon. Still, it is well to remember that it is only within relatively recent times that various groups of humanity have gained fundamental civil rights.

What Penny and his fellow members of the New Zealand Great Apes Project have wanted has been more modest. Steering clear of the contentious issue of rights, they would have liked to introduce a system of legal guardianship into the An-imal Welfare Act as a pragmatic way of dealing with the courts. In the end, the backlog of legislation awaiting Parliament in the lead-up to an election dictated what was achievable.

Of course if we admit the great apes within a widened circle of moral consideration, it begs the question of where to next. If we extend rights to the great apes, then what about those other primates that exhibit similar attributes, if to a lesser degree?

Making more of a species leap, what about, say, whales? While it is easy enough to imagine oneself inhabiting the mental landscape of a primate, says Penny, the world of a whale is almost unknowable. So much of how we perceive and interact with the world is defined by our bodies and our senses. If you put two blind people in a room they will still use hand gestures to emphasise what they are saying. Such things are hard-wired. Comprehend how the world must seem to a whale – how can we?

Questions answered with questions. If we are to discuss the issues surrounding our treatment of the great apes, then Penny seems keen that we discuss the particular issues, and not go haring off to who knows where.

Yet with the Great Chain of Being displaced by DNA’s double helix it seems hard to see this debate as anything other than the harbinger of many others to come.

David Penny will be speaking at the Skeptics’ Conference in Wellington, September 19-21.

Reprinted from Massey University Alumni Association newsletter with the author’s permission.