Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics has nothing to do with evolution according to Michael Egnor MD

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Here's what Michael Egnor says on Evolution News & Views (sic): No, Despite Often-Heard Claims, Antibiotic Resistance in Bacteria Is Not Evolution.
This notion, however, is mistaken. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics has nothing to do with evolution. Evolution, in the Darwinian sense of undirected (unintelligent) process of random heritable variation and natural selection, is the process by which populations of living things change over time without intelligent agency causing or guiding the process. When the process of change in populations is guided by intelligence, it is called artificial selection -- breeding.

Of course I'm not the first to point this out. Charles Darwin, in the Origin of Species, made exactly the same argument. In his first chapter, he discussed artificial selection -- animal husbandry and breeding of plants. In subsequent chapters he developed an argument that in nature, changes in population are accomplished by natural selection, without intelligent agency. Darwin distinguished artificial selection from natural selection -- he distinguished breeding from evolution, and of course his theory of evolution is a theory of natural selection, not a theory of animal husbandry or plant breeding, which had been practiced for thousands of years and to which Darwin contributed nothing.

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is artificial selection. Antibiotics are intelligently designed by medical researchers, deliberately administered to patients by doctors, who understand that there are some bacteria that are not sensitive to the antibiotic and that have the potential to proliferate. Actually, the administration of antibiotics that kill some but not all of the bacteria in the patient is quite deliberate, because there are huge populations of beneficial bacteria (e.g. in the gut) that should not be killed since they are necessary for health.
Shhhh. Don't tell Michael Behe who wrote a whole book based on resistance to antimalarial drugs.

A quiz on Darwin's Theory of Evolution

Someone named James Lewis at a blog named American Thinker seems to be upset about journalists who question politicians about evolution. He wrote a little quiz for journalists. There are ten questions. He claims that "Any biology student should ace it." Denyse O'Leary liked the questions [Quiz for media on Darwin’s theory of evolution]. She's a journalist but she didn't give us her answers. I can't imagine why.

I think I can give reasonable answers to most of the questions except #3 and #6. Question #10 is hard and so is question #1. I'm not sure if James Lewis would like my answers. What do you think?
  1. What is a biological species? How does it differ from a variety? Give examples.
  2. How has Darwinian theory changed since Darwin? (Be specific.)
  3. Define the two criteria for "Darwinian fitness."
  4. What are "Darwin finches?" Where are they found?
  5. What is the function of HOX genes?
  6. What is meant by "ultra-conservation" in evolution? Give two examples.
  7. Give an example of a recent evolutionary change in humans, within the last 10,000 years.
  8. What is parallel evolution? Give an example.
  9. What is meant by "genetic drift"?
  10. Why are there two sexes in most species?
Notice that random genetic drift has recently penetrated the thick sculls of many creationists. That's pretty amazing. I wonder if they can explain it?

Is the University of Toronto promoting quackery and pseudoscience?

There's a conference this Saturday at the University of Toronto on the Scarborough campus. It features presentations by a number of leading homeopaths and naturopaths. You may not be familiar with them so if you want a brief summary of their quackery check out Scott Gavura's post at Science-Based Medicine: Pseudoscience North: What’s happening to the University of Toronto?.

That post documents a number of very troubling things going on at my university.

The conference is organized by an outside group who pays to hold the event on the university campus. This is very common and it does not mean the the university endorses the conference. I believe the contract specifies that such an endorsement must not be implied or stated.

The poster contains a prominent sign using the University of Toronto logo and crest. That certainly looks to me like the university is sponsoring and endorsing the event. I am trying to contact Bruce Kidd, Principal of the University of Toronto, Scarborough to clarify the situation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Watch what happens when a Canadian politician says he doesn't believe in evolution

Rick Nicholls is the Progressive Conservative Member of the Ontario legislature representing the riding of Chatham-Kent-Essex. (Ontario, is a province in Canada. Each province has it's own provincial government. The members of provincial parliaments are called MPP's.)

Watch the video where he says he doesn't believe in evolution and listen to the questions that the reporters ask.

The Globe & Mail reports that Rick Nicholls was quickly reigned in by party leaders [Ontario PCs distance themselves from MPP who denies evolution].
On Wednesday, Mr. Nicholls stood behind his comments.

“[Ms. Sandals] was very flippant in her response to my colleague and I gave a flippant response back to her,” he said, adding that evolution “is one’s personal belief set.”

Within an hour, he followed up with an emailed statement saying he’d been given a talking-to by PC House Leader Steve Clark: “I acknowledge that my comment is not reflective of Ontario PC Party policy,” he said of his anti-evolution remarks.
Here's how the views of Rick Nicholls are covered in the Toronto Star: Tory MPP Rick Nicholls says he doesn’t believe in evolution .

And here's how it is covered in Huffington Post Canada: Rick Nicholls Says He Doesn't Believe In Evolution, PC Colleagues Distance Themselves.

In Canada, it's pretty much political suicide to admit that you don't believe in evolution.

In other news, there's a debate going on in Ontario's House of Commons on introducing a new sex education curriculum into public schools (including the Roman Catholic schools). Another Progressive Conservative MPP, Monte McNaughton, said "it’s not the Premier of Ontario’s job, especially Kathleen Wynne, to tell parents what’s age-appropriate for their children."

Our Premier, Kathleen Wynne, is openly gay. She was a bit puzzled by the comments so she addressed Mr. McNaughton with the following questions.
"What is it that especially disqualifies me for the job that I’m doing? Is it that I’m a woman? Is it that I’m a mother? Is it that I have a master’s of education? Is it that I was a school council chair? Is it that I was the minister of education?" Ms. Wynne thundered. "What is it exactly that the member opposite thinks disqualifies me from doing the job that I’m doing? What is that?"

PC MPPs sat ashen-faced as Liberals heckled them and applauded Ms. Wynne.
Not a good day for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How do you explain the differences between chimpanzees. humans, and macaques?

Here's a figure from a paper by Marques-Bonet et al. (2009). It shows the differences between various human genomes (blue); between the human and chimp genomes (red); and between the human and macaque genomes (yellow).

The results are plotted a a fraction of sequence identity. (Convert to percent by multiplying by 100.) The window is 100 kbp (100,000 bp). Human chromosome 2 is on top and chromosome 7 is below.

Notice that the substitutions are pretty much randomly scattered over every part of the two chromosomes. The data is consistent with the idea that most of the DNA in those chromosomes is junk and most of the substitutions are nearly neutral mutations fixed by random genetic drift. The differences between each pair of species is consistent with an approximate molecular clock corresponding to a constant mutation rate over million of years. The absolute levels of sequence identity (i.e. 98-99% for chimp/human) is consistent with the time of divergence from a common ancestor based on the fossil record and other criteria.

Here are my questions. Is there any other explanation that accounts for the data? Is it possible to explain the results as adaptations—substitutions that are mostly fixed by natural selection? Is it possible to explain the results according to Intelligent Design Creationism?

I'm particularly interested in hearing from the creationists. What is your explanation?

Marques-Bonet, T., Ryder, O.A., and Eichler, E.E. (2009) Sequencing Primate Genomes: What Have We Learned? Ann. Rev. Genomics Hum. Genet. 10:355-386. [doi: 10.1146/annurev.genom.9.081307.164420]

Monday, February 23, 2015

Should universities defend free speech and academic freedom?

This post was prompted by a discussion I'm having with Jerry Coyne on whether he should be trying to censor university professors who teach various forms of creationism.

I very much enjoyed Jerry Coyne's stance on free speech in his latest blog website post: The anti-free speech police ride again. Here's what he said,

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What counts as "evidence"?

This post is a response to a question posed by Vincent Torley, "Is Larry Moran a conspiracy theorist?"

A few weeks ago the Toronto Star (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) published a front page article on the dangers of Gardasil, a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) that's recommended for adolescent girls. The article highlighted a number of anecdotal stories about girls who had developed various illnesses and disabilities that they attributed to the vaccine. The reporters thought this was evidence that the vaccine had serious side effects that were being covered up by the pharmaceutical industry.

Almost every scientist who read the story recognized that correlation does not mean causation and that the "evidence" promoted by David Bruser and Jesse McLean was no different than the claims of Jenny McCarthy and her supporters about the MMR vaccine and autism. There were dozens of health professionals and scientists who criticized the article in the Toronto Star culminating in a op-ed article that clearly pointed out all the flaws in the original piece [Science shows HPV vaccine has no dark side]. That article was signed by 63 scientists and physicians.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The top ten problems with evolution according to Intelligent Design Creationists

Most of Intelligent Design Creationism consists of whining about evolution. Their main goal seems to be to discredit scientists and evolution in order to lay the ground work for a new approach to science, one that demonstrates the existence of an intelligent designer.

Most of their criticisms of evolution are ridiculous but a few of them require a response. So far, after more than 25 years of whining, the creationists have utterly failed to make a convincing case against evolution.

Are they still trying? You bet. Casey Luskin has done us the favor of listing "The Top Ten Scientific Problems with Biological and Chemical Evolution" in a series of blog posts on Evolution News & Views (sic).

Here they are for your amusement.
  1. No Viable Mechanism to Generate a Primordial Soup. I think he's right about this one. But then, I don't think a primordial soup plays a role in the origin of life.
  2. Unguided Chemical Processes Cannot Explain the Origin of the Genetic Code. This has nothing to do with the origin of the genetic code. It's an argument against "RNA world." Casey Luskin is correct. We don't know how the first information-containing molecules arose and how they came to be self-replicating.
  3. Step-by-Step Random Mutations Cannot Generate the Genetic Information Needed for Irreducible Complexity. Luskin is dead wrong about this one.
  4. Natural Selection Struggles to Fix Advantageous Traits in Populations. Casey Luskin doesn't understand modern evolutionary theory, and it shows.
  5. Abrupt Appearance of Species in the Fossil Record Does Not Support Darwinian Evolution. Casey Luskin doesn't understand modern evolutionary theory, and he doesn't understand the scientific literature. What else is new?
  6. Molecular Biology Has Failed to Yield a Grand "Tree of Life". Modern scientific discoveries have revealed that there may not be a universal tree of life common to all genes. Casey Luskin accepts the evidence but rejects the idea that scientific explanations can change when new data comes in.
  7. Convergent Evolution Challenges Darwinism and Destroys the Logic Behind Common Ancestry. This is nonsense compounded by wishful thinking.
  8. Differences Between Vertebrate Embryos Contradict the Predictions of Common Ancestry. Dead wrong.
  9. Neo-Darwinism Struggles to Explain the Biogeographical Distribution of Many Specie. What?
  10. Neo-Darwinism's Long History of Inaccurate Predictions about Junk Organs and Junk DNA. You'll have to read that post yourself to see how many different ways Casey Luskin can go wrong and the very few ways he can go right.

Who's to blame for bad science communication?

Most of us agree that there's a problem. A lot of what passes as science isn't being correctly communicated to the general public.

Lot's of people share the blame but I tend to focus on those people whose job is science communication. It must be true that science journalists aren't doing as good a job as they should.

A few years ago I attended a meeting on "The Two Cultures" in New York City. E.O. Wilson gave the plenary talk and he explained why everyone likes scenery that resembles the African savannah. It's because that's where humans originated [E.O. Wilson in New York]. The science journalists who were there applauded enthusiastically. I didn't.

Later on there was a session on science communication featuring a panel of science journalists. They insisted that the problems were not their fault. They can only rely on what scientists are telling them and that's what they report. Elizabeth Pennisi would be proud.

Carl Zimmer pointed out that it is important for science journalists to have a good source of scientists they can call on for advice whenever they are working on a new story. The other journalists didn't get it.

Richard Lenksi wonders who's to blame and he has created a poll [Science Communication: Where Does the Problem Lie?]. Go and vote.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How many scientists does it take to screw ... ?

This morning I was flipping through the pages of the week's issue of Nature to see if there was anything interesting. There was. I'll tell you about it later, maybe.

I kept flipping. I found a paper with an intriguing title "New genetic loci link adipose and insulin biology to body fat distribution" [doi:10.1038/nature14132]. The authors found 68 loci in the human genome that are statistically correlated with excess body fat. That's not very interesting because very few of these association studies pan out in the long run. Most of those 68 loci are probably genetic noise.

The end of the paper was somewhat interesting. There seemed to be a lot of authors and affiliations. Let's count the authors 1,2,3,...401! There are 401 authors on this paper and they work at 300 different institutes and universities. The list of authors and affiliations take up three pages in the print edition of the journal!

The next paper has a similar title, "Genetic studies of body mass index yield new insights for obesity biology" [doi: 10.1038/nature14177]. The authors found 97 loci correlated with body mass index (BMI). These loci accounted for ~2.7% of BMI variation.

Not interesting.

There are a lot of authors on the second paper as well. Let's count them: 1,2,3,.....481! There are 481 authors from 347 institutes and universities. The list of authors and affiliations covers almost four pages (!) in the print edition of the journal. Is this a record?

It gets worse. In both lists of authors there are entries under "T" like "The PAGE Consortium" and others. They are marked with double daggers and the footnotes say "A list of authors and affiliations appears in Supplementary Information."

I checked it out. For the second paper there are about 800 additional scientists listed as members of the various consortia.

Am I the only one who thinks this is ridiculous?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The null hypothesis of Darwinian evolution, again

I've read the paper by Schopf et al. (2015). Here's the entire section on Darwinian evolution.
How could the seemingly identical sulfur-cycling anoxic sediment-inhabiting biotas of the ∼1.8-Ga Duck Creek and ∼2.3-Ga Turee Creek cherts, like those of Proterozoic stromatolitic cyanobacteria (6, 8), have evidently remained fundamentally unchanged over billions of years?

We suggest differing answers for these two early-evolved hypobradytelic lifestyles:

i) For cyanobacteria, the answer evidently lies in a genetically encoded ecological flexibility derived from their early adaptation to geologically exceedingly slow changes of the photiczone environment (e.g., of solar luminosity, UV flux, day length, and CO2, O2, and usable sulfur and nitrogen). Because of their large population sizes, global dispersal by ocean currents and hurricanes, and capability to generate oxygen toxic to anaerobic competitors for photosynthetic space, these ecologic generalists adapted to and survived in a wide range of habitats (6).

ii) Once subseafloor sulfur-cycling microbial communities had become established, however, there appears to have been little or no stimulus for them to adapt to changing conditions. In their morphology and community structure, such colorless sulfur bacteria—inhabitants of relatively cold physically quiescent anoxic sediments devoid of light-derived diel signals and a setting that has persisted since early in Earth history—have exhibited an exceedingly long-term lack of discernable change consistent with their asexual reproduction (6).

Given these observations, it might be tempting to interpret such sulfur-cycling communities as evidencing the “negative” null hypothesis of Darwinian evolution—if there is no change in the physical biological environment of a well-adapted ecosystem, there should be no speciation, no evolution of the form, function, or metabolic requirements of its biotic components—a confirmation of Darwin’s theory that seems likely to be provided only by ecosystems fossilized in an environment that has remained essentially unaltered over many hundreds of millions of years.

Although logically required, this aspect of evolutionary theory has yet to be established.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The null hypothesis of Darwinian evolution

In my last class we discussed the view that natural selection is the only mechanism of evolution (false). We then discussed the view that evolution only occurs when the environment changes (false). Finally, we tried to imagine how any species could become so perfectly adapted to it's current environment that further increases in fitness are impossible (silly).

Along comes a new paper by William Schopf whose earlier claim to fame was the discovery of 3.5 billion year old fossils. A claim that has been discredited. The "fossils" weren't fossils [Did Life Arise 3.5 Billion Years Ago?]. The latest study was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

I can't read the paper right now because I don't have access but here's the summary from PNAS.

Happy 50th birthday to Canada's flag

Americans have changed their flag many times1 but Canada did it only once, on Feb. 15, 1965 [Flag of Canada]. Today is the 50th anniversary.

Even Goggle celebrates.

1. The last time was in 1960.

Vincent Torley and the evidence for god(s)

Vincent Joseph Torley (vjtorley) didn't like my recent post where I said there was no evidence for the existence of god(s) [Evidence for the existence of god(s)]. The reason this is important is because I define science as a way of knowing that, among other things, relies on evidence. If you believe in something without supporting evidence then that conflicts with science as a way of knowing. There may be other ways of knowing that do not rely on, or conflict with, evidence but you first have to convince me that the knowledge produced by this other method is actually true knowledge.

Here's what I said in that post ...
I am always on the lookout for evidence that some sort of god actually exists. The reason I'm an atheist is because I've never seen any evidence that's the least bit convincing. I keep asking for evidence but nobody ever supplies any.
Vincent Torley ctiiticizes me for not making a clear distinction between "evidence" and "convincing evidence" and he is correct [see No evidence for God’s existence, you say? A response to Larry Moran]. When I say there's no evidence for the existence of god(s) I mean that there is no "evidence" that stands up to close scrutiny. That's not quite the same thing as saying that there's no "evidence" that others might believe or no potential facts that are presented as possible evidence.

It's an important distinction to keep in mind but It think it quite clear that when I say there's no evidence for the existence of god(s) I mean that there's no valid evidence. That brings up the question of what defines "valid evidence." The short answer is "I don't know" but I know it when I see it.

Let's look at one of Vincent Torley's claims that there's evidence for god(s); namely, the evidence of miracles. Note that he accepts the process of science. In other words, he is willing to defend his belief that god(s) exist by pointing to "valid evidence" that his belief is correct. What that means is that we discuss his claim using the ground rules of science according to my view of what science is.1
Professor Moran will want to see good evidence of miracles, so I’ll confine myself to one case: the 17th century Italian saint, Joseph of Cupertino, who was seen levitating well above the ground and even flying for some distance through the air, on literally thousands of occasions, by believers and skeptics alike. The saint was the phenomenon of the 17th century. Those who are curious might like to have a look at his biography by D. Bernini (Vita Del Giuseppe da Copertino, 1752, Roma: Ludovico Tinassi and Girolamo Mainardi). The philosopher David Hume, who was notoriously skeptical of miracle claims, never even mentions St. Joseph of Cupertino in his writings. Funny, that.

The evidence for St. Joseph’s flights is handily summarized in an article, The flying saint (The Messenger of Saint Anthony, January 2003), by Renzo Allegri.
If I were to accept the claim advanced by Vincent Torley then this would, indeed, constitute evidence that something very weird happened back in 1630. But I reject the claim. I simply don't believe that people actually witnessed Joseph of Cupertino flying through the air. It's not a fact. It's not evidence.

This is a case where an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence. You can't just rely on what people say they saw because if that's all you need then there must be fairies at the bottom of the garden. And UFO abductions would be real.

Read Vincent Torley's other claims of "evidence" for the existence of god(s). Some of them are quite interesting but most of them are just wishful thinking. Take "fine tuning" for example. If the universe is really "fine tuned" for the existence of life—and that is disputed by many scientists—then why does that constitute evidence of gods? We could not possibly find ourselves in any universe that was not compatible with the existence of life. If this universe arose entirely by accident then we would still be here discussing the meaning of evidence.

Fine tuning is not evidence that gods exist. The best that could be said is that if you believe in gods then you can construct stories about supernatural beings who made the universe with the goal of producing life on one small insignificant planet near the edge of an otherwise unremarkable galaxy. If you don't believe in gods then it all looks pretty haphazard.

1. If you believe that science cannot address any claim that involves the supernatural then, presumably, you will have to dispute Vincent Torley's claim using some other way of knowing. I don't know what that is. Perhaps one of you can describe it for me?

Friday, February 13, 2015

What did Judge Jones say in 2005? (Part III)

For those or you who are still interested in the debate over the nature of science and how it played out in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District back in 2005, I present to you ....

A Reading List

Science at the Bar—Cause for Concern by Larry Laudan