‘’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.

Newsfront

Biologist expelled from ‘Expelled’

The Intelligent Design (ID) movie Expelled (Editorial, NZ Skeptic 86) has scored a spectacular public relations own-goal at a screening in Minneapolis (New York Times, 21 March). University of Minnesota developmental biologist PZ Myers, best known for his blog Pharyngula, was one of many who took up the offer to register on-line for the pre-release public screening.

A vocal critic of creationism, he appears in the film, and is even thanked for his participation in the credits. But, when he turned up at the theatre, a security guard refused him entry. Myers’ wife, his daughter and her boyfriend, and his guest were, however, allowed in. No one seemed to recognise the guest, who was … Richard Dawkins! He also appears in the film, along with Eugenie Scott from the National Centre for Science Education, and skeptic Michael Shermer. All say they were interviewed under false pretences, having been told it was a film about the interface between science and religion, to be called Crossroads. On Pharyngula, Myers recounts how Dawkins, who was in town to attend the American Atheists conference, used the question and answer session at the end to challenge the film’s producer, Mark Mathis, on Myers’ expulsion. What Mathis must have thought when he spotted Dawkins in the audience one can only guess. The irony of someone being expelled from a movie called Expelled-a movie which purports to defend intellectual freedom-has been lost on no one.

Except, possibly, the ID lobby group, the Discovery Institute. In full damage control mode, they’re accusing Myers and Dawkins of trying to sneak in without a ticket, in what they call a sophomoric stunt. But this was a screening where nobody had tickets, and Myers had registered, in the approved way, under his own name. Dawkins was not asked for identification, although he had his passport ready. In any case, surely these two are justified in attending a film they both appear in? The hypocrisy of the people behind this movie defies belief.

New Age fair does roaring trade

“Psychic medium” Sue Nicholson was picked out for special attention by the Nelson Mail (25 February) in their coverage of a recent New Age fair, the Festival of Opportunities. Best known for her appearances on Sensing Murder and TV One’s Good Morning show, Nicholson was selling copies of the book she has written to capitalise on her TV-enhanced fame. On the first page of each copy she wrote a brief message-two purchasers reported themselves happy with their messages, declaring them accurate and relevant. She also held psychic workshops on both afternoons of the fair.

The Wellington-based Mrs Nicholson said she had seen spirits from an early age but only “came out of the closet” as a psychic 13 years ago. She claims everyone is born with a sixth sense and just has to learn how to develop it and be open to it.

Festival organiser Debby Verdonk estimated the event attracted about 1800 people, despite the drizzly weather.

New twist on Nigerian scam

Nigerian scammers seem to be getting craftier (Dominion Post, 4 March). Dawn McKee, a US-born Auckland woman seeking a partner on the NZMatch.com website, was contacted by a man calling himself Robert Thomas, and claiming to be a 41-year-old, Italian-born man who had gone through a “messy divorce” in the US before coming to New Zealand. He provided photographs, including some with friends, and the pair developed a rapport.

Two weeks later, he said he was going on a business trip to Amsterdam … then Nigeria. And not long after that, Ms McKee received an email from him asking her to lend him money, saying his cheques were useless in the country as only cash was used there. She sent $400, then $900 to help with airline tickets. When he asked her for another $400 to cover “flight tax”, alarm bells rang and she cut off contact.

Ms McKee, a computer programmer, told her story to the paper to warn others against fraudsters during Fraud Awareness Week.

“He said all the right things,” she said. “I feel a bit stupid … and really angry. How could people be so non-caring that they hurt somebody else like that?”

Fraud Awareness Week was organised by the Commerce Commission and Consumer Affairs Ministry, who were promoting the message: “Fight the Scammers. Don’t Respond” to educate people about those trying to fleece them.

Commission spokeswoman Deborah Battell said it was impossible to say how many people were targeted as fewer than five percent reported their experiences-most were too embarrassed. Most scams originated from outside the country and probably cost the economy millions every year, she said.

“People have been scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. They need to be extremely careful and not respond.”

Scams can be reported at www.consumeraffairs.govt.nz/scamwatch

Kennedy conspiracies still hold appeal

More than 40 years later and half a world away, the assassination of John F Kennnedy continues to fascinate. Now three young Palmerston North film-makers have concocted an 88-minute documentary, titled Imagining the Kennedys (Manawatu Standard, 10 March).

The film is the work of school friends Matthew Keenan and Seamus Coogan, now in their 20s, and Agnieska Witkowski, who “wandered into their lives from Nova Scotia, Canada.”

In the years immediately following World War II America was unquestionably The Good Guy, Coogan said. Now, this has eroded to distrust and events such as the assassination and 9/11 have become wreathed in conspiracy theories. “The result has been the birth of a conspiracy industry and the dehumanising of the victims.”

The trio point out their documentary doesn’t set out to solve any mysteries. Rather, it looks at the impact of the event on people like Coogan thousands of miles from Dallas. The documentary follows him as he travels to the US and talks to Americans about the event.

Seamus Coogan admits to having had a fascination with the assassination since he was about eight. He said he believed Oswald was set up to be caught as a cover for another shooter.

“My mother always said there was something more to it and the moment I saw the Zapruda film I said ‘Holy guacamole, there’s no way that shot came from behind.'”

In one of those coincidences science can’t explain, I watched an episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! last night on conspiracy theories. The pair showed, with the aid of a honeydew melon, how a shot to the back of the head will propel the head backwards. Hard to see where any second gunman could have been standing, then. Certainly not on that grassy knoll.

Foreskins and the universe

There was plenty of interesting reading in the Sunday Star Times‘ Sunday magazine recently (23 March). First, a cover story on the circumcision debate-remember, you read it here first (NZ Skeptic 86).

Circumcision is still seen as a rite of passage in some Polynesian cultures, and there have been calls for the procedure to be publicly funded. But the Ministry of Health says that won’t happen any time soon. Says Auckland University of Technology pathology lecturer Ken McGrath: “We spent 50 years turning it [circumcision] off, and we don’t want to see that sort of nonsense again.”

The same issue also discussed Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling book, The Secret, which states the universe will give you anything you ask, if you truly believe. It recommends downloading a blank cheque made out to the universe from the book’s website, and believing the money into existence. Writer Angela Barnett wrote out a cheque for $100,000; all she got was a $25 library refund. The Secret has a handy explanation, she says-she must not have believed enough that she really deserved the money.

The article concludes by quoting Einstein: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not so sure about the universe.”

Newsfront

Female ‘sorcerers’ tortured and murdered

Four Papua New Guinea women, believed by fellow villagers to have used sorcery to cause a fatal road crash, were tortured with hot metal rods to confess, then murdered and buried standing up in a pit (Stuff, 25 January).

A local newspaper said that police had only recently uncovered the grisly murders, which occurred last October near the town of Goroka in the jungle-clad highlands some 400km north of the capital, Port Moresby. Black magic is widespread in the South Pacific nation where most of the 5.1 million population live subsistence lives. Women suspected of being witches are often hung or burnt to death.

Local police commander Chief Inspector David Seine told the newspaper that people in the village of Kamex accused the four women of sorcery after a road crash killed three prison officers. The women were reportedly tortured into admission by being stabbed with hot metal rods, said Seine.

It appeared the women were blindfolded with thick sticky tape strapped across their faces and mouths and their hands had been tied before they were murdered, he said.

Commander Seine said the women were buried in an old narrow toilet pit in the standing position. The pit was then covered with soil and two old vehicle tyres placed on the top.

“They planted a banana tree on top of the pit with fresh grass making it difficult for anyone to discover the site, but police got to it with the help of some elders from the village,” he said.

Red netting benefits ‘a myth’

A retired scientist is questioning the effectiveness of red horticultural shade cloth which is being erected on a growing number of orchards around the Nelson region (Nelson Mail, 17 March).

Orchardists use the red cloth because it is thought to enhance pipfruit crops. But the bright red netting has run into a storm of controversy with lobby groups and neighbouring land owners who say it is visual pollution.

Now Rob James of Motueka, who was involved in tobacco research at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research for 18 years, claims the benefits of red netting are a myth.

Mr James said he had been in touch with scientists in New Zealand and at Cornell University in New York and none of them knew of any research that proved that red netting was better than any other coloured netting.

“There’s no published research on the use of red netting in the world. If there was, we would have found it.”

If people did have scientific evidence on the benefits of the netting on pipfruit he would like to see it.
Pipfruit New Zealand chairman Ian Palmer agreed there was no scientific proof of the benefits of red netting, but said that was irrelevant. Fruit grown under red netting was “elite”, he said. “The evidence is in the fruit itself.

“It had the sort of appearance that made it some of the best fruit I’ve seen.”

Mr Palmer said the red netting seemed to enhance the colour of the fruit, giving it a pinkish finish. He said he had not seen the results of fruit grown under white netting.

Vitamins ‘do more harm than good’

Proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) may be attracting a lot of attention, but they have yet to convince anyone who counts that their ideas should be taken seriously. In the latest setback, school authorities in Kansas have deleted language from teaching guidelines that challenged the validity of evolutionary theory, and approved new phrasing in line with mainstream science (Guardian Weekly, 23 February).

The 6-4 vote by the state board of education is seen as a victory for a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, science educators and parents who had fought for two years to overturn earlier guidelines. It reverses the decision taken by the same authorities two years ago to include language undermining Darwinism on the insistence of conservative parents and the ID movement. The board removed language suggesting key concepts, such as a common origin for all life on Earth and for species change, were seen as controversial by the scientific community. They have since received a petition of nearly 4000 signatures opposing the new decisions.

Herbal medicine perceptions studied

The perceptions that consumers of alternative medicines have about the treatments they use are to be studied by a Waikato University psychology student (Hamilton Press, 21 March). Kirsty Bell is concentrating her research on depression, and she is seeking people who are interested in sharing their experiences.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 75 percent of the world’s population uses some form of alternative medicine, and New Zealand statistics show that one in four New Zealanders over the age of 15 use them.

Alternative health industry setback

A letter from Tertiary Education Minister Michael Cullen has quashed the alternative health industry’s hopes of establishing a New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA)-approved industry training organisation (Sunday Star Times, 23 February).

The Health Training Organisation (HTO) is now considering removing itself from the national qualifications framework. HTO executive officer Roger Booth said responsibility for setting standards in the industry was held by the NZQA, but it stepped down from this role on February 28. The HTO wanted to take on responsibility itself, but its application to establish itself as an Industry Training Organisation (ITO) had been turned down. The NZQA wanted the organisation to align itself with another ITO, Mr Booth said.

NZQA deputy chief executive, quality assurance, Mike Willing said alternative health standards and qualifications would eventually be removed from the framework if no ITO took over standard-setting for the sector.

Mr Booth said discussions with several ITOs had found no natural partner.

‘Used car salesman’ a ‘fraud of the worst kind’

John of God got short shrift in the Sunday Star Times (25 February). Described as a “faith healer and used-car salesman” by journalist Ruth Hill, the Brazilian otherwise known as Joao Teixeira de Faria was holding a four-day event in Lower Hutt.

He claims to cure cancer, Aids, and other conditions including ‘spiritual desperation’ by channelling 36 ‘spirit doctors’. New Zealanders are the biggest single group of foreign visitors per capita to his çheadquarters in southwest Brazil, largely through tours promoted by Wellington naturopath Peter Waugh.

NZ Skeptics chair-entity Vicki Hyde said she was unimpressed by what she had seen of his performance, which consisted of “old carnival tricks”.

“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a quack.”

She said the Skeptics were concerned the ‘healer’ was preying on vulnerable, desperate people. Victims of failed faith healings were often reluctant to speak out because they blamed themselves for not having enough faith-“another nasty piece of psychological manipulation” on which faith healers relied, said Hyde.

US stage magician James Randi, best known as a debunker of pseudoscience, is convinced John of God is “a fraud of the worst kind, making money from other people’s suffering. To any experienced conjuror, the methods by which these seeming miracles are produced are very obvious.”

Haden sticks to his guns

The passing of long-standing NZ Skeptics member Frank Haden was widely reported. Perhaps the best tribute came from Tom Scott’s cartoon in the Dominion Post (March 9). A voice booms from the clouds: “What’s all that swearing at the gate?” St Peter, standing at the Pearly Gates, replies: “Crusading journalist Frank Haden is refusing to come in. He says he didn’t believe in this place before and isn’t about to change his mind now…”

www.stuff.co.nz/281630a17218.html

Bomby: The creationists’ favourite beetle

A knockout blow for evolution turns out to be nothing of the sort

AS JBS Haldane famously said, God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles, he made so many of them. Of all the tens of thousands of the horny-winged horde, the creationists have chosen, as the absolute knockout anti-natural selection example, the bombardier beetle. Only the great Organic Chemist in the sky could have designed the chemical weapon system which enables this beetle to deal with ants and other predators.

The special feature is a sac containing a mixture of two chemicals, which do not react with each other spontaneously. When danger threatens the beetle is able to initiate changes in this mixture which cause it to be expelled explosively. The resulting missile is not only toxic and corrosive, but also, because of the heat generated by the reaction, it is boiling hot. Some species adopt a blunderbuss or scattergun method of discharging their weapon, others are even cleverer and can aim at their target like a marksman.

To understand why creationists have been so excited, and to follow the suggested evolutionary pathway leading to this phenomenon, we must look more closely at the chemistry of the process. The storage sac contains two substances, hydrogen peroxide and a relatively simple organic compound, quinol. The latter is oxidisable to quinone, but, although hydrogen peroxide is an oxidising agent, the two can coexist without reacting if left undisturbed. When danger threatens, the sac containing this mixture is emptied into a reaction chamber containing the enzymes catalase and peroxidase. The catalase decomposes the hydrogen peroxide almost instantaneously into water and oxygen, and the peroxidase causes it to react with the quinol, oxidising it to quinone. This in turn causes two things to happen; the heat released in this reaction raises the temperature to boiling point, and the sudden release of gaseous oxygen forces the liquid out with great force. In passing, we note that the creationists have the chemistry and sequence of the process wrong, but, as is their wont, they persevere in their error after being corrected.

Why have the creationists seized on this as a clincher for their belief? Well, it’s all so complicated, isn’t it? Quantities of two unusual chemicals, two enzymes, as well as the anatomical arrangements. Each is necessary, the system would not work if any one was missing. In modern creationist jargon, it is irreducibly complex. Therefore dear old Bomby must have been intelligently designed, mustn’t he? No. It ain’t necessarily so! A plausible sequence leading from a generalised arthropod to this specialised animal can be suggested. It nicely illustrates the way features with one function can be co-opted for other purposes, and demonstrates how small steps, each conferring a minute selective advantage, can lead eventually to large changes. We can note first that each of the four chemicals is not unusual, as claimed by creationists, but is a common constituent of arthropod metabolic systems. Quinone is made by numerous insects; it ‘tans’ the cuticle making the exoskeleton more or less rigid and dark in colour. Quinol may be synthesised by a similar route; it is not confined to bombardier beetles. Hydrogen peroxide is widespread in nature as a product of oxygen metabolism. Catalase and peroxidase are also found universally in the animal kingdom; oxygen, on which our life depends, is not an unmixed blessing, and these enzymes destroy dangerous by-products of oxygen metabolism (think anti-oxidants). Greater gene activity, leading to the biosynthesis of increasing amounts of these chemicals, seems an obvious pathway of natural selection. M Isaak (2003) has linked this process to the anatomical changes which would have taken place concurrently with the chemical developments. Each step in this scheme confers an obvious advantage and so would be selected for. Though the combination of features makes the bombardier beetle unique, individually they have counterparts in many other insects; for example, the secretory glands which produce the pheromones and other chemical signals. Isaak’s article discusses the issue in more detail, and is recommended (Isaak, M. Bombardier beetles and the Argument of Design www.talkorigins.org/faqs/bombadier).

This article was suggested by my reading The Bombardier Beetle’s Chemical Defence, by Marten J ten Hoor, Hoogezand, Netherlands, in CHEMNZ, no. 100. I am grateful to Mr ten Hoor and the editors of that journal for providing that stimulus.

Newsfront

In a decision which sets an important precedent for US science education, a court has ruled against the teaching of the theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ alongside Darwinian evolution (BBC, 20 December). The ruling comes after a group of parents in the Pennsylvania town of Dover had taken the school board to court for demanding biology classes not teach evolution as fact.

Continue reading

The Wedge’s thin edge gets blunted

The decision by Judge John Jones ruling that the promotion of Intelligent Design (ID) in schools is a violation of the constitutional ban on teaching religion, is at least a temporary victory for scientific integrity (Newsfront, p10). Previous attempts to get creationism into the American classroom have been more ambitious, notably a Louisiana act which would have mandated for biblical literalism to be granted equal time alongside evolutionary theory, finally struck down in a majority Supreme Court decision in 1987. The proposal in Dover, Pennsylvania, was modest by comparison. It required that teachers read a 159-word statement declaring evolution “a theory … [t]he theory is not a fact”, and stating that ID is “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” The book, Of Pandas and People, was recommended for students who wished to understand what ID involves.

Continue reading

Opening Pandora’s Box

Demands for equal time cut both ways.

Armies of the night, science-writer and novelist Isaac Asimov once called them. He was referring to the countless millions of evangelicals who believe the book of Genesis to be literally true and therefore reject any evidence to the contrary.

President Bush is one of them. So is Michael Drake, principal of Auckland’s Carey College.

As reported in the Weekend Herald (27 August), Drake believes that one can provide dates for the main events in the history of the universe by adding up all the ‘begats’ in the Bible. The date of creation turns out to be just over 4000 BC, and that of Noah’s Flood about 2400 BC.

What can these young-earth creationists say when confronted by scientific evidence that the universe began more than 12 billion years ago, that life began over 4 billion years ago, that dinosaurs became extinct some 63 million years ago, or that fossils of our hominid ancestors are shown by potassiumargon dating to be more than three million years old?

Their best ploy is to say that God created the universe with all this contrary evidence built into it. This, says Drake, is “perfectly possible”. It seems not to bother him that this hypothesis makes God, not just a Great Designer, but a Great Deceiver as well.

And what about the ancient civilisations whose historical and archaeological records spitefully ignore the Flood and the death of all living creatures, other than the inhabitants of the ark? Clearly, God must have even more tricks up his sleeve. After all, as Drake points out, tautologically, “God is God.”

Most mainstream Christians outside the US would reject this version of intelligent design. Like fifth century St Augustine, they would say that biblical literalists deserve to be “laughed to scorn” for their “utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements.”

Adopting Augustine’s figurative interpretation of Genesis, liberal Christians believe they can accommodate the findings of science and history. Thus those who call themselves theistic evolutionists can, without contradiction, accept Darwin’s laws of natural selection as one of the laws of nature — along with those of physics and chemistry — with which God endowed his creation at the outset. No need for him to intervene on this account.

Enter a third version, one that reintroduces elements of evangelical creationism into the evolutionary story. Michael Behe, in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, claimed that although evolutionary mechanisms can explain a lot, they can’t explain the emergence of certain highly complex biological systems. His examples include the flagellum of E. coli, and the human immune system.

These systems, Behe argues, are “irreducibly complex” in the sense that none of their simpler parts would have survival value until they were assembled in the right way by the intervention of a supernatural deity. Unlike theistic evolutionists, Behe believes God has to tinker with his initial design.

How scientific is all this? Well, Behe himself is a scientist. And scientists certainly do find complexity in the biological world, especially at the molecular level.

But is there scientific evidence that this complexity is irreducible? Scientists can literally see complexity. But they can’t see irreducibility. Behe has to argue for it. And his arguments have been found wanting by both philosophers and scientists.

Philosophers disparage his argument’s form: “We don’t yet understand how these complex forms could have emerged, so God must have created them”. It is a rehash of the ‘God of the Gaps’ fallacy. Flawed faith-based reasoning. Not sound evidence-based science.

Meanwhile scientists continue to plug those gaps with accounts of the evolutionary pathways that generated these supposedly irreducible systems. What becomes of Behe’s argument for an intelligent designer if all the gaps get filled?

Now to the important question: Should intelligent design be taught in schools? If so, which version?

Mary Chamberlain, curriculum manager for the Ministry of Education, says science classes should allow for some version or other. She seems to echo Bush’s recent call for ‘equal time’ for those who oppose evolution.

Equal time counts both ways. If equal time is to be given to those who think there are arguments against evolution, then it should also be given to those who think there are arguments against intelligent design. But then we get into what philosophers call “the problem of natural evil.”

If you think an intelligent designer designed the universe, then think about the unsavoury aspects of his design. Think of diseases like Alzheimers, cancer, smallpox, and those caused by Behe’s favourite, E. coli. Think of disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. If complex design demonstrates intelligence, then by the same token the “god-awful” nature of much of God’s design demonstrates defective or malevolent intelligence.

On reflection, do its promoters really want intelligent design analysed and evaluated in schools? And if so, by whom? Do they really want to open Pandora’s box?