Archive for the 'Creationism' Category

US public opinion polls dampen my day yet again.

Polls about public science literacy in the US always manage to depress me. We are the richest nation in the world, have outstanding universities, and spend more money on education per capita than any country besides Norway. And yet, we slum it down with Turkey on the public acceptance of evolution.

The discrepancy between public science literacy in the US versus the rest of the first world is jaw-dropping. Here is a new poll from Angus Reid comparing views on evolution between the US, Britain, and Canada. The respondents were asked:

Which of these statements comes closest to your own point of view regarding the origin and development of human beings on earth?

  • Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years.
  • God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years.
  • Not sure.

And the results:

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Depressing? Yep. Surprising? Not so much any more.

This poll shows that virtually half of the US population is made up of young-earth creationists. HALF! Were not even talking intelligent design or wishy-washy, God-guided evolution here. Half of the US electorate thinks the universe sprung into unchanging existence less that 10,000 years ago; this is Flintstones creationism.

Only 35% of Americans can tell hard science from a fairy tale. How does this happen? Is it all because of rampant fundamentalist religiosity and anti-intellectualism? Are our schools really that bad at teaching science? Does the media drown human consciousness in insipid drivel, preventing people from being capable of a single fleeting critical thought? The answer is probably a lot of each, and it leaves me feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of ever overcoming it.

Science literacy in the United States of America:


Et tu, Connecticut?

Mark Tangarone, a Weston, Connecticut grade school teacher, came up with an awesome lesson plan to teach his students about evolution by recreating the voyage of the HMS Beagle:

To learn about Darwin, students would have retraced the path of the HMS Beagle, the expedition that inspired a young Darwin’s theory of evolution. Each student would study a stop in the voyage, reporting on the animals and adaptations that Darwin observed.

Now, that sounds like an exciting and engaging way to teach science to children. It presents science as the adventure that it is, while exploring the central theory of evolution that unifies all of biology. The first lesson, in the first biology class should always be about evolution, not a smattering of unconnected nature facts. Mark Tangarone astutely realized this, and for his creative efforts the school administration has twice rejected his lesson plan, driving him to earily resignation.

The administrators squeamishly claimed that they rejected to plan in order to avoid controversy stirred up by religious students and parents. However, the true colors come out in this quote from principal, Mark Ribbens:

While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life.

Surprise, surprise. Creationist administrators hiding behind ‘philosophy’ in order to deny their students a proper science education.

Kudos, Mr. Principal, for putting the interest of educating of your students third, behind your religious dogma and spinelessness. In addition you drove a good teacher into early resignation and put you school administration on a pedestal as a shining example of anti-intellectualism, uncharacteristic of New England.

Read more at Wired

Creationists visit awesome museum, intentionally learn nothing

Photo: NMNH

The Raw Story has a rage-inducingly depressing story about a field trip for the biology students at Liberty University to the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington DC.

First of all, I love this museum. It hosts an overwhelming diversity of priceless natural treasures arrayed through its halls for your enjoyment and appreciation. It’s hard to imagine that the wealth of displays in the actual museum are only the tip of the iceberg for the Smithsonian’s truly enormous collections; both on-site and at massive off-site warehouses. No trip to the capital is fully complete without checking this gem out.

The NMNH also does a good job of stressing the central importance of evolutionary processes in shaping the full diversity of life on earth over billions of years. It sticks to the science and makes no excuses to appease the faithful; as any honest presentation of evolutionary biology should. However, what do creationist students, rigorously conditioned to believe fairy tales and un-think their way around reasonable evidence, get out of a visit to this very special and enlightening museum?

Apparently nothing.

Let’s take a look at some quotes from the students. Keep in mind these are prospective science graduates: Prepare to be overwhelmed by jaw dropping lapses in critical thinking and logic.

In reference to the date associated with this model of a Morganucodon ‘rat’ Lauren Dunn, 19, authoritatively states,

210 million years, that’s arbitrary. They put that time to make up for what they don’t know.

Objection, your honor! Projection and a baffling lack of critical self-analysis. Just because you choose to believe made up explanations for natural phenomena does not mean that paleontologists operate under the same absence of rigor. The Rhaetic strata where the earliest Morganucodon fossils are found have been accurately dated with a variety of techniques (ICS Upper Triassic timescale PDF).

Regarding the the same Morganucodon model, Nathan Hubbard, a MD hopeful, said,

There is no scientific, biological genetic way that this, this rat, could become you.

Yes there is. It looks something like this (Luo, 2007), and it is supported my mountains of peer-reviewed science. Also, why the revulsion at the prospect of being cousin to ‘this, this rat’? Morganucodons walked the earth for at least 50 million years during truly tough times. I’m proud to know I’m biologically connected to a surviving mammalian lineage whose rat-like progenitors somehow thrived alongside theropod dinosaurs. I wonder how Nathan would feel if I told him we are also related to tapeworms, dung beetles, jellyfish, and Treponema pallidum via ancient common ancestors.

Marcus Ross, a paleontology professor from Liberty says,

In order to be the best creationist, you have to be the best evolutionist you can be… [it can be difficult to convince people to take creationist beliefs seriously]. The attitude is when you are a creationist you are ignorant of the facts.

Please demonstrate otherwise…

He (Ross) says carbon-dating techniques that have been used to suggest the Earth is in fact billions of years old are simply not reliable.

*Facepalm* Carbon dating has nothing to say about billion year time scales; it is only useful on material up to around 60,000 years old. Other methods are used for much older time scales. So yes, my attitude will continue to be that you are ignorant of the facts. It’s either that, or you are lying, delusional, or a little of each.

Beyond the braindead quotes from the Libertines, this article about this field trip is a boatload of fail. It doesn’t challenge a single wild assertion from the creationists, explains evolution (befuddledly) in half a sentence, and states that creationism is, ‘an increasingly popular theory’. This article goes well beyond an equal-time treatment (which itself is useless when comparing science with bullshit) and gives creationism a special pedestal from which to drop their nuggets of inanity onto the The Raw Story’s readership.

The most unfortunate part about all this is that these Liberty University students allegedly have honest career aspirations. They want to be scientists, researchers, doctors, and professors; perhaps because of a true passion for science, or maybe as a means to leverage their faith on society. Regardless, they will be at a disadvantage. Beyond ignorance of modern scientific knowledge, they have not been taught to think critically. The scientific process that these students learn begins with a conclusion and then flails around impotently trying to support it with facts. That is not how research science works, it is antithetical to it.

Creationists love mantis shrimp

My graduate adviser and some of his collaborators recently published a paper in Nature Photonics, about the efficiency of the natural quarter-wave retarder used in the mantis shrimp’s circularly polarized light detection system. The paper got a lot of play in popular press (because mantis shrimp are awesome), including a write-up by the “prestigious” Institute of Creation Research (ICR).

Too be fair, their article actually starts off better than most of the popular science writing about these animals. However, after the fifth paragraph it takes a nose-dive into a mire of fairly typical creationist misconceptions and misdirections. The downward spiral begins with heaping helping of “living-fossil” nonsense.

“The mantis shrimp is also one of many examples of “living fossils”―creatures that have not changed over supposedly vast evolutionary time spans. Some modern mantis shrimps are exactly the same as their ancestors that were fossilized in Devonian strata, which have been assigned an astounding age of 400 million years. The odds of this creature remaining unchanged for that length of time are fantastically remote.”


No biologist claims that mantis shrimp have remained unchanged since the Devonian. Mantis shrimp diverged from other crustaceans around the Devonian. Here is a comparison between a fossil and modern mantis shrimp.

Sure they share some superficial similarities; similarities also shared with thousands of other malacostracan crustaceans. However, these are different animals, with different morphologies and ecologies.

Take, for example, the raptorial appendages (red arrow). The raptorial appendages in modern mantis shrimp are massively enlarged maxillipeds (mouth-parts). They are highly specialized and used for predation (I will post in depth about this at some point). You can see that the fossil proto-mantis shrimp does not have an enlarged set of maxillipeds. It took hundreds of millions of years for them to evolve to their modern glory. This evolutionary modification of the first maxillipeds is obvious in the fossil record.

The ICR continues,

“And the odds of nature having constructed the world’s most complicated eyes so soon after the “Cambrian Explosion” of life, only to have left them perfectly alone ever since, seems counter-evolutionary.”

The eyes, like the raptorial appendages, obviously did not reach their full complexity when the mantis shrimp diverged in the Devonian. They also took hundreds of millions of years of evolution to develop from their proto-typical form into their elaborate modern design. There is nothing “counter-evolutionary” about the mantis shrimp eye.

“This research had little to say about the origin of the mantis shrimp eye, but it is clear that such high design demands a high designer.”


Argument from incredulity? Check!

Evolution builds complexity, the currently unknown is not unknowable, and just because we haven’t figured a particular detail out yet doesn’t mean we are going throw our arms in the air and give up. “Vision is complicated and science is hard, therefore God did it,” is a pitiful capitulation.

“While the source of mantis shrimps’ rarefied level of vision is unclear to evolutionists, other researchers, who are not convinced that nature is the only explanatory option for ultimate origins, suspect that the exquisite level of specificity, elegance, and effectiveness in the mantis shrimp vision system testifies to the unsurpassed level of the Creator’s genius.”


The source of stomatopod vision is not unclear to evolutionists. It is obviously the modified product of a suite of evolutionarily conserved visual pigments and optical components. These components are closely related to those in other crustaceans, slightly less related in other arthropods, and present (in some form) in all animals.

Also, I would like to know who these “other researchers” are. I am fairly well immersed in the mantis shrimp literature; it is not a huge research community. Nowhere have I heard a researcher present evidence or submit speculation that mantis shrimp are anything but the product of evolutionary processes. These “other researchers” are not studying the mantis shrimp visual system. They cherry-pick research from real scientists, and throw a creationist spin on it. Actual researchers do not doubt the evolutionary ancestry of the mantis shrimp visual system.

Creationists love mantis shrimp for one of the same reasons that I love them: because they are complicated. Creationists see this complexity, reported to them by actual researchers, and having done no work of their own, declare victory. Scientists also love mantis shrimp for their complexity. They offer unique and exciting opportunities for further research. Research in genetics, evolution, biomechanics, visual ecology, and neurobiology.

Tomorrow, countless scientists will go into their offices, labs, observatories, and field stations. They will work to better understand our world, and communicate that understanding with others. Scientists are driven by the ecstasy that comes with discovery, and they need not doubt that, “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” -Carl Sagan

I have moved.
Arthropoda can now be found here.

Michael Bok is a graduate student studying the visual system of mantis shrimp.

Flickr Photos