Monday, January 31, 2005

Birdbrains no more

Birds rise in intellectual pecking order,12976,1402910,00.html

The skylark could be going up in the world. The crow
has something to crow about. Scientists could be about to think again about the
little grey cells of the grey goose. From now on, a bird's brain may no longer
be classed as birdbrained.Mammals have complex brains, including a neocortex for
learning tricks and nerve cells called basal ganglia which control instinctive
behaviour.Birds, until now, have been thought to have only basal ganglia. But
the avian nomenclature consortium - an international team of 29 neuroscientists
led by Erich Jarvis of Duke University medical centre in North Carolina - argue
today in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that it is time for a change."We believe
that names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and the way in
which we think," they write. "Our current understanding of the avian brain
requires a new terminology."Birds have repeatedly shown human experimenters that
they deserve a higher place in the intellectual pecking order.Songbirds can
learn up to 2,000 different melodies. Scrub jays can remember things which
happen at a specific time or place, something once thought unique to
humans.African grey parrots can use words and numbers correctly in conversation
with humans. Pigeons can memorise up to 725 different visual patterns, choose
between man-made and "natural" objects and most astonishingly of all,
distinguish between Picasso and Monet, and cubism from impressionism.New
Caledonian crows in the wild routinely make and use two different kinds of tool
to get food and a crow reared in an Oxford laboratory stunned scientists with
its command of Archimedean physics when it picked up a length of wire, bent it
into a hook and started fishing out titbits from a tube.So the international
avian thinktank has proposed names that reflect the new thinking about the
brains of ptarmigans and tits, bitterns, budgerigars and buzzards."Many people
have outdated notions of what bird brains are like but there are lots of very
smart birds who do amazing things which it would be difficult to get mammals,
such as rats or dogs, to carry out," said Tom Smulders, of Newcastle
University."It's about time that people, not just scientists, appreciated birds
for what they are - a group of species which has independently evolved brains
and cognitive abilities comparable to those of mammals."

...and an even better article here:

Minds of Their Own: Birds Gain Respect

Birdbrain has long been a colloquial term of
ridicule. The common notion is that birds' brains are simple, or so scientists
thought and taught for many years. But that notion has increasingly been called
into question as crows and parrots, among other birds, have shown what appears
to be behavior as intelligent as that of chimpanzees.
The clash of simple
brain and complex behavior has led some neuroscientists to create a new map of
the avian brain.
Today, in the journal Nature Neuroscience Reviews, an
international group of avian experts is issuing what amounts to a manifesto.
Nearly everything written in anatomy textbooks about the brains of birds is
wrong, they say. The avian brain is as complex, flexible and inventive as any
mammalian brain, they argue, and it is time to adopt a more accurate
nomenclature that reflects a new understanding of the anatomies of bird and
mammal brains.
"Names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and
the way we think," said Dr. Erich D. Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Duke University
and a leader of the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium. "Old terminology has
hindered scientific progress."
The consortium of 29 scientists from six
countries met for seven years to develop new, more accurate names for structures
in both avian and mammalian brains. For example, the bird's seat of intelligence
or its higher brain is now termed the pallium.
"The correction of terms is a
great advance," said Dr. Jon Kaas, a leading expert in neuroanatomy at
Vanderbilt University in Nashville who did not participate in the consortium.
"It's hard to get scientists to agree about anything."
Scientists have come
to agree that birds are indeed smart, but those who study avian intelligence
differ on how birds got that way. Experts, including those in the consortium,
are split into two warring camps. One holds that birds' brains make the same
kinds of internal connections as do mammalian brains and that intelligence in
both groups arises from these connections. The other holds that bird
intelligence evolved through expanding an old part of the mammal brain and using
it in new ways, and it questions how developed that intelligence is.
are still puzzles to be solved," said Dr. Peter Marler, a leading authority on
bird behavior at the University of California, Davis, who is not part of the
consortium. But the realization that one can study mammal brains by using bird
brains, he said, "is a revolution."
"I think that birds are going to replace
the white rat as the favored subject for studying functional neuroanatomy," he
The reanalysis of avian brains gives new credibility to many
behaviors that seem odd coming from presumably dumb birds. Crows not only make
hooks and spears of small sticks to carry on foraging expeditions, some have
learned to put walnuts on roads for cars to crack. African gray parrots not only
talk, they have a sense of humor and make up new words. Baby songbirds babble
like human infants, using the left sides of their brains.
Avian brains got
their bad reputation a century ago from the German neurobiologist Ludwig
Edinger, known as the father of comparative anatomy. Edinger believed that
evolution was linear, Dr. Jarvis said. Brains evolved like geologic strata.
Layer upon layer, the brains evolved from old to new, from fish to amphibians to
reptiles to birds to mammals. By Edinger's standards, fish were the least
intelligent. Humans, created in God's image, were the most intelligent. Edinger
cut up all kinds of vertebrate brains, noting similarities and differences, Dr.
Jarvis said.
In mammals, the bottom third of the brain contained neurons
organized in clusters. The top two-thirds of the brain, called the neocortex,
consisted of a flat sheet of cells with six layers. This new brain, the seat of
higher intelligence, lay over the old brain, the seat of instinctual
In humans, the neocortex grew so immense that it was forced to
assume folds and fissures, so as to fit inside the skull.
Birds' brains, in
contrast, were composed entirely of clusters. Edinger concluded that without a
six-layered cortex, birds could not possibly be intelligent. Rather, their
brains were fully dedicated to instinctual behaviors.
This view persisted
through the 20th century and is still found in most biology textbooks, said Dr.
Harvey Karten, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, and
a member of the consortium, whose research has long challenged the classic view.
There is a bird way and a mammal way to create intelligence, Dr. Karten
said. One uses clusters. One uses flat sheet cells in six layers. Each exploits
the basic design of having a lower brain and a higher brain with mutual
In the 1960's, Dr. Karten carried out experiments using new
techniques to trace brain wiring and identify the paths taken by various brain
chemicals. In humans, a chemical called dopamine is found mostly in lower brain
areas, called basal ganglia, which consist of clusters.
Using the same
tracing techniques in birds, Dr. Karten found that dopamine also projected
primarily to lower clusters and no higher. Later studies show numerous
similarities between clusters in the mammalian brain and lower clusters in the
avian brain. Experts now agree that the two regions are evolutionarily older
structures that lie underneath a newer mantle.
Where the experts divide is on
the question of the upper clusters in a bird's brain. Agreed, they are not
primitive basal ganglia. But where did they come from? How did they evolve? What
is their function?
Dr. Karten and others in the consortium think these
clusters are directly analogous to layers in the mammalian brain. They migrate
from similar embryonic precursors and perform the same functions.
example, in mammals, sensory information - sights, sounds, touch - flows through
a lower brain region called the thalamus and enters the cortex at the fourth
layer in the six-layered cortex.
In birds, sensory information flows through
the thalamus and enters specific clusters that are functionally equivalent to
the fourth layer. In this view, other clusters perform functions done by
different layers in the mammal brain.
A second group, including Dr. Georg
Striedter of the University of California, Irvine, a consortium member, believes
that upper clusters in the avian brain are an elaboration of two mammalian
structures - the claustrum and the amygdala. In this view, these structures look
alike in bird and mammal embryos. But in birds they grow to enormous proportions
and have evolved entirely new ways to support intelligence.
In mammals, the
amygdala is involved in emotional systems, Dr. Striedter said. "But birds use it
for integrating information," he said. "It's not emotional anymore."
Meanwhile, examples of brilliance in birds continue to flow from fields and
laboratories worldwide.
Dr. Nathan Emery and Dr. Nicola Clayton at the
University of Cambridge in England study comparisons between apes and corvids -
crows, jays, ravens and jackdaws. Relative to its body size, the crow brain is
the same size as the chimpanzee brain.
Everyone knows apes use simple tools
like twigs, Dr. Emery said, selecting different ones for different purposes. But
New Caledonian crows create more complex tools with their beaks and feet. They
trim and sculpture twigs to fashion hooks for fetching food. They make spears
out of barbed leaves, probing under leaf detritus for prey.
In a laboratory,
when a crow named Betty was given metal wires of various lengths and a four-inch
vertical pipe with food at the bottom, she chose a four-inch wire, made a hook
and retrieved the food.
Apes and corvids are highly social. One explanation
for intelligence is that it evolved to process and use social information - who
is allied with whom, who is related to whom and how to use this information for
deception. They also remember.
Clark nutcrackers can hide up to 30,000 seeds
and recover them up to six months later.
Nutcrackers also hide and steal. If
they see another bird watching them as they cache food, they return later,
alone, to hide the food again. Some scientists believe this shows a rudimentary
theory of mind - understanding that another bird has intentions and beliefs.
Magpies, at an earlier age than any other creature tested, develop an
understanding of the fact that when an object disappears behind a curtain, it
has not vanished.
At a university campus in Japan, carrion crows line up
patiently at the curb waiting for a traffic light to turn red. When cars stop,
they hop into the crosswalk, place walnuts from nearby trees onto the road and
hop back to the curb. After the light changes and cars run over the nuts, the
crows wait until it is safe and hop back out for the food.
Pigeons can
memorize up to 725 different visual patterns, and are capable of what looks like
deception. Pigeons will pretend to have found a food source, lead other birds to
it and then sneak back to the true source.
Parrots, some researchers report,
can converse with humans, invent syntax and teach other parrots what they know.
Researchers have claimed that Alex, an African gray, can grasp important aspects
of number, color concepts, the difference between presence and absence, and
physical properties of objects like their shapes and materials. He can sound out
letters the same way a child does.
Like mammals, some birds are naturally
smarter than others, Dr. Jarvis said. But given their range of behaviors, birds
are extraordinarily flexible in their intelligence quotients. "They're right up
there with hominids," he said.

Am I glad I work on bird brains?

Related: Did Crows Eat Your Brain
Hat tip: Eric Gordy

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 11:16 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Carnival of the Godless

The first inaugural issue of the Carnival of the Godless is now online. Go read all the entries, bookmark/blogroll all the contributing blogs and, while you are still inspired, write your own entry for the issue #2.

Hey, another carnival is starting, the Carnival of Bad History. And if you are ineterested in the bad history of how that carnival got started, go here. Archy apparently did bad Balkan history in grad school, and I ran away from the bad history actually happening in the Balkans, thus I feel there is a connection there, somewhere....

...and Eric Gordy actually went into the Balkans to see first-hand the bad history happening. As a result, he is now doing some really good Balkan anthropology (actually, sociology, but I am not trained to understand the difference, ... anyway, read his book!). He is blogging over at East Ethnia ( and is starting a Carnival of the Balkans (, so, if you are from there, or you write about the Balkans wherever you are, submit a post to Eric.

Some recent issues of various Carnivals:

Carnival of the Carnies

Bonfire of the Vanities #82

Carnival of the Recipes #24

Carnival of the Cats #45:

Carnival of the Dogs #?

Philosopher's Carnival #8

Poetry Carnival #1:

Vox Apologia #2

Christian Carnival #54

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 1:39 PM | permalink | (3 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Friday, January 28, 2005

Do We Need An Anti-Creationist Think-Tank?

( Image: Sexism and Creationism , thanks All-Knowing Orac)

Previously, I have made a comparison between the challenges facing the reality-based community in politics and the challenges facing the reality-based community in science (some of it perhaps related to the underlying idea of the image above). Not everyone appeared to have liked it, as this guy who is "a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan" wrote this in response. I still do not understand from that post if he likes or hates what I wrote - it's pretty ambiguous - and I wonder why he picked that short paragraph (in which I paraphrase Matt Cartmill's thesis as Matt's, not mine) on Christian theology as so important to highlight out of such a very long post.

The Election 2004 brought a new awareness of the way Republicans invested billions of dollars into think-tanks in which the only thinking that is going on is thinking up the deceptive language for swindling the electorate to buy into the Reverse Robin Hood economics and Medieval ideology. The response on the Left is that liberal think-tanks are needed to counter this effort (with an added bonus that the language need to reflect the actual truth), for instance the Rockridge Institute.

Now, Mike the Mad Biologist writes:

What we need to do is get some private money and fund an
institute, "The Institute for the Study of Evolution", whose purpose is to
publicize evolution and attack creationism and ID. With luck, there would also
be national and state lobbying arms, as well as educational outreach and 'rapid
reaction teams.'

I agree, but most scientists want to do the science and not waste time on fighting the old tired meaningless ideological battles all over again. For instance, a new Center is opening this Monday: NESCENT (National Evolutionary Synthesis Center). If you look around the website, or read the Editorial, you will see that the main effort at the Center will be doing research (particularly meta-research, e.g., comparative genomics) and getting people with different backgrounds together hoping for a cross-fertilization of ideas and approaches.

Perhaps the last four years of head-on assaults on science by the Right Wing, led by the Bush Administration, will get more scientists to feel a need to devote more time and resources to counter the current anti-intellectual sentiment. An important element of NESCENT appears to be Outreach and Education. The language is not explicit, but it appears to be driven in part by the revolt against the anti-science nonsense, and leaves enough ambiguity to let people associated with the Center, if they are so inclined, pursue anti-Creationist activities.

Is this what needs to be done?

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 10:28 PM | permalink | (2 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Relevance of Superman To The Right-Wing Assault On Science

Everyone bothered by renewed efforts by Creationists, by Global Warming deniers, or the general anti-science sentiment in the Red half of the country (headed by the White House) needs to understand the language of contrarians, and why such language taps into some common misconceptions about science in lay population.

Here (
thanks Will for theheads-up and link) is a scholarly article on popular vision of science, as seen through the prizm of super-hero comic strips:

Fantastically reasonable: ambivalence in the
representation of science and technology in
super-hero comics
by Simon Locke

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 9:11 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

I Have A Friday Cat, Too

Well, everybody does it, and I have resisted so far, posting pictures of strange animals instead, but today I succumb...and here's my cat:


We adopted her (under the name Caroline) about two years ago, when she was about 6 months old. It took her about 6 months to get out of the closet. Now she owns and runs the house, is the best friend with the dog, and rotates her sleeping choices among all family members' beds on consecutive nights. As you can see, she loves the books, particularly about art.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 8:49 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

The Spawn Of Vanities

Excellent! Excellent! New Carnivals are starting everywhere.

The first Carnival Of The Godless is coming out in two days:

You can start submitting your entries for the first issues of The Skeptics' Circle:

And, another one is about to get started, devoted to blogging from and about the Balkans ("Balkania Carnival"?):

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 5:00 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Measure Lakoff's Effect

If all you have read by Lakoff is "Don't think of an elephant", you either reject him or do not know how to use it because you do not really understand where it all comes from. If you do nto have time, money or enthusiasm to read "Moral Politics", at least do yourself a service and follow this ongoing series of posts at Effect Measure:

Lakoff - XI: the moral toolbox

Lakoff - X: thinking about morality metaphorically

Lakoff IX: moral accounting

Lakoff VIII: entering the thicket of morality

Lakoff VII: his important contribution to political discourse

Lakoff VI: prelude to politics

Lakoff V: setting the stage

Lakoff IV: complex metaphors

Lakoff III: embodied concepts

Lakoff II: preliminaries

Lakoff I: who is George Lakoff?

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 1:27 AM | permalink | (1 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Religious Vanities Etc.

Carnival Of The Vanities #123 is up on "Raving Atheist":

...and of course, RA organized them by religious affiliation of the posters, giving the atheists the prime position.

Grand Rounds XVIII is here (inexcusably without permalinks):

and the homepage of the Carnival is here:

I see that Carnival of Sin has changed its rules somewhat, expanding from just Lust to all of the Seven Deadly Sins. So, if you have written something recently about Greed, Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Anger or Sloth, send your entry to:


Also, Mick apparently fixed the homepage for the Blog Tower. Hopefully, this means the issue #3 is coming soon. Until then, you can read #1 and #2 here:

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 8:47 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Fizzler on the Roof

I have seen "Fiddler on the Roof" on stage more than 20 times in my life, starting at about the age of seven. Since I was about 24, I saw the movie a few times. I have had, over the years, LPs, tapes and CDs of several different renditions. I can play a few of the tunes on the piano. I love it. That is my favourite show of all times.

I have heard the music so many times, my brain is so wired to it that I cannot stop myself from crying every time I hear it (that is why I don't listen to it in the car - it is a traffic hazard). And it is not just a little bit of a teary eye, but full-blown sobbing. Shows my sensitive side, I guess, not something I am afraid of displaying in public. In the theater, I start while the orchestra is tuning. Watching a movie at home, it takes me about 10 minutes into it to begin.

I have never seen Topol as Tevye live. I just barely missed it one year, but I had to leave London and go home one day early as the ferries across the Channel were going on strike. Still, he is IMHO the best Tevye ever.

The second best was Mica Tatic, in Serbo-Croatian, in the Terazije theater in Belgrade. He was an unusual Tevye in that he is short and skinny. That actually made for a great effect, something that the usual big fat Tevyes cannot pull off. But he had SOOOOO much energy and was such a good actor, a famous comedian, and prety darn good singer as well. I loved the Belgrade show. It was staged only once a year due to expensive copyright. I believe they did it because the cast wanted to do it. At the end of the run, half of the actors were retired and only walked onto the stage that one time per year. It took quite a lot of make-up to make 50-year old actresses look young enough to be Tevye's daughters. But they acted and sang their hearts out. They did it because they wanted to have fun for themselves. They gave a 200%.

The Belgrade Golde, Zeljka Reiner, was, imho, the absolutely best Golde ever. Again, an unusual casting - she was taller than Tevye, thin and absolutely gorgeous, with a strong and beautiful voice. She had just the right kind of spunk for the role. I've never seen anything quite like it ever since.

Another interesting rendition was at Enloe High School here in Raleigh a few years ago. It was much less amateurish than expected, and every member of the cast put so much energy into the role. And I think that is the key to a good "Fiddler" - loads of energy.

Which leads me to the real reason I am writing this. We went to see "Fiddler" at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium last night. Paul Servino played Tevye and he was, by far, the worst Tevye in history. If I climbed up on the stage right there and then with no rehearsal, I would have done a better job. At least I know the lyrics. And I can sing, too. Servino does not seem to. And he was so nya-nya and wimpy and flaccid. Where's the energy. "Tradition", in the very beginning, was a shock. "If I Were A Rich Man" was a blasphemy. "Do You Love Me" was scary - I half-expected them both to just stop and apologize for not being able to hit the high notes.

Without a good Tevye, the whole show just has to be a flop. The three older daughters were superb, but they do not have enough stage-time to be able to carry the show. Their stuff was really good: "Matchmaker" was fantastic; "Far From The Home I Love" was beautiful until Sorvino ruined it in the end. The "daughters" segment of "Tradition" was the only good part of it. Why? It had energy. Those three girls have energy. They loved their roles. The rest of the cast was there to do a job. You cannot have a good "Fiddler" with that attitude.

Once the experience was ruined from the very start (and I did not shed a tear), everything else about the show grated my nerves. The choreography was excellent, but they could not find the dancers that could actually do it. Scenography was great for "Sabbath Prayer" - one wishes Topol was there to sing it. The "Dream" sequence had scenography fitting for "Showboat", not "Fiddler". Remember, it's happening in Anatavka, little poor village somewhere behind God's spine in Czarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. Such a village would have grey-brown wooden houses surrounded by gray-brown mud. Scenography for Fiddler has to be gray-brown and absolutelly minimalistic: a few items made of rough wood like a table and a chair and Tevye's cart. Not three carts. Not seven tables. It was just far too flamboyant for the period. Not to mention that a couple of things were, quite inappropriatelly, stolen from the movie!

Still, we had a great dinner at Est!Est!Est! before the show, and had fun being smug critics afterwards, so, all in all, last night's date with my wife was a brilliant success! So, let me finish with the painting entitled "No Fiddler on the Roof":


posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 7:47 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Cool Science Blogging

The Tangled Bank #20 is now up:
Go and read the coolest stuff from the science blogospehere.

Also, someone should ask this blogger to submit this today’s post for the next Tangled Bank:

On orgasms, epilepsy and the lack of sexual neuroscience

"Considering that sex is one of the most important human
activities, and the current findings have been thrilling to say the least, why
is it that we know so little about how the brain handles sex ?"

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 1:18 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Monday, January 24, 2005

Degradation of human genome?

Evidence for Widespread Degradation of Gene Control Regions in Hominid Genomes

Although sequences containing regulatory elements located
close to protein-coding genes are often only weakly conserved during evolution,
comparisons of rodent genomes have implied that these sequences are subject to
some selective constraints. Evolutionary conservation is particularly apparent
upstream of coding sequences and in first introns, regions that are enriched for
regulatory elements. By comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes, we show here
that there is almost no evidence for conservation in these regions in hominids.
Furthermore, we show that gene expression is diverging more rapidly in hominids
than in murids per unit of neutral sequence divergence. By combining data on
polymorphism levels in human noncoding DNA and the corresponding
human–chimpanzee divergence, we show that the proportion of adaptive
substitutions in these regions in hominids is very low. It therefore seems
likely that the lack of conservation and increased rate of gene expression
divergence are caused by a reduction in the effectiveness of natural selection
against deleterious mutations because of the low effective population sizes of
hominids. This has resulted in the accumulation of a large number of deleterious
mutations in sequences containing gene control elements and hence a widespread
degradation of the genome during the evolution of humans and chimpanzees.
The phrase "low effective population sizes", I assume, refers to the early hominid evolution. But relaxed selection on regulatory regions in many (most, all?) genes does not sound right. Those are the most important parts. It is not that a mutation will produce a low-efficiency enzyme, it will produce a new piece of information: where, when, and how many copies, if any, of a gene to transcribe. This alters the identity of a cell. That would have profound effects on development, as well as physiology.

Are hominids evolving evolvability? Have hominids invented a novel mode of regulation of gene expression in which 5' ends of genes are not that important? Any molecular biologists in the audience who can explain this to me?


PLoS-B has published a commentary which does not answer my questions, or even go any further than the paper itself:

Hominids Lose Control

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 11:03 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

The Koufax Awards: Best Series

Hey, this is the only category where I made it onto the roster. If you like either my Lakoff series, or my Darwin series, make your voice heard here:

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 8:34 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Will somebody buy me this:

On The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volumes 1 and 2
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited with a foreword and notes
by Leslie S. Klinger, and with an introduction by John le Carre
Lance Mannion writes this about Sherlock Holmes:
but I have always understood that it was Sherlock Holmes who retired to the country to raise and study honeybees, while Dr.Watson realized that he needed the hustle and bustle of London. Who is right?

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 7:34 PM | permalink | (1 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

The Satin Pajama Awards

Awards for best blogs from/about Europe:

Go vote for East Ethnia in a few categores, and where it is not a contestant, hey, there are chezNadezhda, Draxblog, Helmintholog, Histologion, Flogging The Simian....

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 7:23 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Round-Up of Carnivals

I love Blog Carnivals. So, I went on a search of the latest installments, and here is what I found. It is interesting to see how many issues some carnivals have, how big some of them get, while others languish and die.

First, the original Carnival:

The Carnival of the Vanities #122

That was the best of blog writing. For the worst of blog writing, go here:

Bonfire of Vanities #81

Another old and established carnival:

Best of Me Symphony #60

and also this one: Sneak's Wide World of Blogging #17:

Blog Tower is having technical difficulties, so the issue #3 is temporarily lost:

It appears that the previous issue #2 is unavailable if not lost, but you can see some great writing at #1:

The Tangled Bank, carnival about biology, nature and medicine had the last issue here, so just scroll down. The next issue, #20, is coming out this Wednesday (here:, so perhaps you can still submit your entry in time for it. For more information, go here:

Indian scientists have their own carnival:

ScianMelt #6

And so do Indian non-scientists:

Bharteeya Blog Mela #?

Doctors and nurses meet at Grand Rounds #16:

Philosopher's Carnival #8 is here:

The brand new History Carnival #1:

Carnivalesque #3 (sometimes erroneously refered to as Early Modern Carnival) is getting big, so it is in two parts:

Hungry? Check this out:

Carnival of Recipes #23

No politics, no science, just well-written stories:

Storyblogging Carnival #10

You can find Christians here:

Christian Carnival #?

...and Jews here:

Haveil Havalim #6

...and the Carnival of the Godless is starting next week:

Although I am a biologist, I am not so certain about handling dangerous animals, though. I tried to help my colleagues once, taking blood samples from copperhead snakes, and that may have been the last time...I'll stick with nice, cute and cuddly species for now. That is why I will not provide the link to the latest Carnival of Bush Bloggers - they seem like such an alien, venomous and dangerous species. But we can have some cute animals, can't we? Here are the cats:

Carnival of Cats #44:

...and here are the dogs:

Carnival of Dogs #?:

This one is new but it is exploding! Warning, not work-safe! Also, this is the only one, I believe, where the editor actually has to refuse some entries, as there are too many (is that true?):

Carnival of Sin #9:

In a similar vein, The Carnival of Capitalists #?:

Some carnivals have died. Apparently this is the last Carnival of Pajamas (#11):

What happened to the Kissing Booth? It's nowehere to be found.

Snarkfest was supposed to be here:

but I cannot find it.

Cul de Sac was supposed to start here:

Are there any more issues?

Carnival of Consumers is officially dead:

Carnival of Families may never have really taken off, as I cannot find any recent issues:

The Carnival of Rugrats apparently met the same fate:

And the same appears to be true of the Carnival of Poetry:

The most recent Carnival of Canucks I could find is #23, back in June:

If you know where to find recent issues of these Carnivals, let me know. Also, if you know of Carnivals not listed here, let me know.


This one links to some of the Carnivals (including the Family Picnic starting this week):
Carnival of Carnivals #44

These are blogs from Iraq (by both Iraqies and Westeners):
Carnival of the Liberated

Watcher's Council:

Christian Apologetics? It's called Vox Apologia. Who are they apologizing to? I know what they are apologizing for, but that will take a very long time as the list is long:

Carnival of the Commies is a carnival put together by the nuttiest, creepiest Wingers, Freepers and Foozballs so they can "monitor" the Leftie Blogosphere. Watch out!

Update 2:

Funny, I already had my fingers on the Ctrl-V to post this, when Brandon chimed in with the same information:

Poetry Carnival

Update 3:

Catholic Carnival #14:

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 6:14 PM | permalink | (2 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Why Creationists Need To Be Creationists

I always loved animals and always loved science. I read the kids' science and nature books and encyclopedias, as well as adult stuff, like huge volumes about animals e.g., "The Life of Animals" by Alfred Brehm. The best present I ever got was a chemistry set my brother brought me from a trip to Egland.

I started learning English when I was five years old. No surprise here, as my parents met at the University, both studying English. It took a while until I was capable of reading serious books in English, though. The first one, at the age of eleven, was a biography of Bruce Lee, followed by "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull" and "Karate-Do: My Way of Life" by Gichin Funakoshi, then a bunch of books about horse-training. The next big one, at about the age of thirteen, was Darwin's "Origin of Species". That was a tough read and I don't remember if I ever made it to the end. But it certainly made an impression. Growing up an atheist in an atheist family in an atheist country meant that reading the "Origin" did not create or resolve any cognitive dissonances as none were present. It was just so fascinating. And reading it was a turning point of sorts: moving from reading fun stuff about animals to actually understanding nature, moving from description to explanation, from one's intellectual childhood to adulthood. Now, I am certainly not the Raving Atheist, I just grew up with it and never had to really think about it very hard. I lamented how, of all the numerous drawbacks, the biggest single factor that would prevent me from being elected to any office in the USA is my open atheism (also: On Religion and Power of Internal Pollesters).

All of you interested in the whole evolution/creation debate probably know the ubiqutous little book with light-blue hard covers by Henry Morris, the kind you can find in every church bookstore. Well, I got one from an old lady in a remote village in Eastern Serbia and read it in Serbo-Croatian translation when I was a teen. I just laughed at it. I wish I still had the copy for historical and sentimental purposes (I got myself an English-language copy here - that was easy).

I did not take this seriously until I arrived in the United States in 1991, and soon afterwards realized how many people here truly believe that crap. I was astounded. I could not believe it, even less understand it. I started reading about the phenomenon, then got sick of it, then got back into it when I started blogging last year and encountered the news of renewed efforts to push IDC into the school science curricula. I was still resisting immersing myself into the old tired controversy until I heard that the Minister of Education in Serbia tried to push evolution out of schools there. As a Serb, and as a biologist, I felt I had a responsibility to cover the whole saga on this blog (I Take This Personally, Saga Continues, Serbs Like Darwin After All, Darwin In Serbia, and More On Darwin In Serbia) and then, I could not stop any more (Definition Of Theory As In Theory Of Evolution, Evolution/Creation Debate, Evolution/Creation Discussions On DailyKos, Skeptical Or Not Skeptical Enough, Sweaty After Debating Creationists, and IDC Blog Craze).

As regular visitors to this blog know, I spend most of the time here trying to understand the Red/Blue divide, what makes a conservative a conservative, or a liberal a liberal. I have read Lakoff, Ducat, Carse and Parenti, as well as many good blogs and articles on this question, trying to get into the psychology of one's ideology. At the same time, I am trying to understand the psychology of people who reject evolution versus the psychology of people who reject creationism. And I see some parallels. Of course, not every creationist voted for Bush, and not every rational person voted for Kerry, but still, some similarities are emerging.

I want this post to be a philosophically sound one. However, I have absolutely no formal training in philosophy (or religion). I have read the cartoon book "Philosophy for Beginners" and a couple of collections of popular essays by Bertrand Russell. I had Marxism in school and barely remember reading the "Manifesto" in high school. As a kid, I started to read the Illustrated Bible for Children, but abandoned it as boring once I got into the New Testament. The only serious philosopher I
found useful to read a lot, including thick obscure volumes full of boring details, was Charles Darwin. Yet, I have been quite a regular participant in bi-weekly meetings of the Duke University Philosophy of Biology group and found that a sufficient philosophical training for my purposes as a biologist. I hope that commenters will set my arguments straight.

One of the assumptions of my argument will be that George Lakoff's model of political ideology is correct. If there is a good fit between his model and the groundwar rhetoric of anti-evolution and anti-creationism camps, this will strengthen his theory. Let's use this case as a test of Lakoffian theory.

I have no idea how this post is going to end. I will think-as-I-go and hope to be surprised by the final conclusion. What I intend to do is start with a hypothesis that the core motivator for rejection of evolution is some kind of fear or anxiety. First, I will try to list all the reasons that creationists, as well as their critics, have put forward to explain rejection of evolution. I will try to look at each of those reasons in the context of fear: what kind of fear it addresses, and what kind of mechanism for coping with fear it provides. Then, I will look at the reasons why evolution appears to be such a threat while other scientific theories do not. Next, I will look for reasons people not just reject evolution, but also accept various types of creationism, ranging from the most primitive Young Earth Creationism all the way to the most sophisticated Intelligent Design Creationism. Finally, by the time I finish, I will probably have developed some ideas of the ways we can fight back, and why. So, buckle up and join me for the ride.

Arguments Put Forward By Creationists

Argument From Logic

Yesterday on NPR, on Science Friday with Ira Flatow, a caller stated that she arrived to her IDC position via logic. Steven Weinberg, in the studio, told her to go back and re-examine her logical steps.

Logic is not as easy as it seems. If you really want to arrive at a particular conclusion you can easily miss an error in your logic. For instance, when Daniel Dennett's book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" first came out, I bought it and started reading it. Dennett builds his argument in a series of logical steps and his starting points are things everyone will agree with. The scheme of most of the first half of the book was: A thus B, B thus C, C thus D, .....Y thus Z, with Z= Stephen Jay Gould is a lyer and a moron. It all sounded neat and impressive, but his final conclusion raised a red flag. I understand (thus like) Gould too well to accept Dennett's conclusion so easily. So, I went back and re-read every logical step, thought about it, and discussed it in a group of several very smart biologists and philosophers of biology, until I finally found which logical step was not as logical as it seemed at first reading. There was, after all, a step P thus Q, where "thus" was not warranted, and everything after that was just plain wrong. Please don't force me to torture myself by re-reading first 200 pages of Dennett's writing again just so I can find the exact P=>Q step all over again after all these years. Take this as a homework assignment - find out for yourself.

If a professional philosopher who is also an extremely intelligent person like Dan Dennett can be blind (to this day, and in spite of criticisms) to his own illogical step, and it is so difficult even for a bunch of well educated and trained people to detect that logical error, how can an average person ever trust his or her own un-trained logic? So many smart people have read Dennett's book and were misled by his good writing and impressive rhetoric to agree with him. Likewise, so many people are impressed by apparent logic of the IDC argument. In the age when rationality is held at high esteem, it is great personal PR to assert one arrived at one's conclusions by logic. It tags the speaker as an intelligent and educated, thus credible person even if that is not exactly the case. Buyer beware.

The argument from logic (or the related argument from "facts") is not very informative about the person who voices it. It does not readily reveal the real motivation behind one's rejection of evolution. Thus, it is impossible to diagnose the type of fear motivating such a person, and how the argument from logic acts as a coping mechanism. It, perhaps, shows that there may be a fear of being seen as stupid and uneducated in a world in which intelligence and education are held in highest regard, but this cannot be the primary fear.

Argument From Morals

People who have grown up religious assume, without much thought, that ethical behavior of humans is dependent on a higher being giving humans the rules of ethical conduct. This view is dependent on a hierarchical view of the world, including the hierarchical view of moral order, in which ethics stemming from basic human emotions, mental make-up, and evolutionary theory are unfathomable.

Impuning immorality to atheists is a logical conclusion from a Strict Father worldview sensu Lakoff, and evolution is seen as particularly dangerous due to its misperception as a theory that removes God from science. This misperception is due to deliberate propaganda by Creationists' PR machines, like the Discovery Institute, as well as to the generally horrendous state of science education in the USA. It also harks back to the time when Darwinism was seen as removal of humans from the center of God's attention, just like Galileo removed the Earth from the center of the Universe and, later, Freud, took us off the pedestal of rationality.

Is the "argument from morals" actually an argument from fear of modern civilization? Is the world becoming too confusing? Is this a nostalgic pull towards some imaginary Golden Age in the past? Or is this a fear that humans, left to their own devices, cannot build a reasonable moral code? After all, conservatism as a worldview is based on the (outdated and erroneous) view that people are inherently bad and that only strict upbringing through harsh (Dobsonian) discipline can build "character" and lead to moral behavior in adulthood. If people get their morals from strict childrearing practices of their parents, and parents get their moral guidance from God, then removing God will, logically, lead to the emergence of a whole generation of immoral brutes incapable of raising another generation of moral people. The precarious chain has been broken and there is no way to put it back together again.

This is a fear of what the world would look like if people behaved according to their "animalistic" instincts (ah, what a confusion - belief in animal nature of humans leads to rejection of animal ancestry of humans). In the conservative worldview, the world is very dangerous as it is, and will always be dangerous no matter what people do. This is why a threat of terrorism works on psyches of people living in rural Idaho where no terrorist will ever invest time, money and energy to attack. The only thing we can do is prevent the world from becoming even more dangerous than it already is, an almost unthinkably dangerous world of total chaos, murder and mayhem. This is fear of not being in control of external events and blaming other people's inherently bad natures for such a bleak state of things.

Need for Literal Reading of the Bible

This is a direct offspring and an extreme position of the argument from morals. If the Bible is not to be read literally, that means the Bible is not a Word of God, thus there is an opening for disputing God's existence, thus there will be no source of moral code, thus the world will be run over by people "behaving like animals" (which is a misunderstanding of the way animals behave, as the intraspecies murder and cannibalism are quite rare in the animal kingdom). Everybody who has read first two chapters of the Bible can see that it is impossible to read the Bible literally: which of the two accounts of Creation is correct? Yet, the insistence on literal reading of the Bible reveals an extreme insecurity about one's own strength in dealing with the external world, the complexities of the human civilization, and the vagaries of nature.

The extreme Dobsonian Strictfathering results in an extreme need for an external locus of moral authority. As American children (unlike their counterparts in most of the world) are kicked out of the house to fend for themselves at the age of eighteen, the reliance on one's father for moral guidance is forcefully replaced by a need for reliance for moral guidance on one's Higher Father (isn't this something Bush said to Woodward?). This type of childrearing leads to people too insecure to find strength of moral conviction within themselves, thus the idea that our code of ethics stems from our psychological make-up honed by our evolutionary history is not just unfathomable, but extremely threatening. The notion of internal moral locus is just not something that people raised this way can comprehend.

Need for an Activist God

A couple of years ago I invited Dr.Matt Cartmill to give the traditional Darwin's Birthday Seminar in our Department of Zoology. I have not found his argument online or detected if it was ever published somewhere, so I am not able to provide a link. You will have to trust me that I am not completely butchering his account (though, perhaps I am, so only Matt would know).

Christian theology postulates a God who is omnipresent (i.e., aspatial) and atemporal. God is not just everywhere, He is also everywhen. Christian God does not travel in time with us, from past through present to the future. When God created the Universe, he did not create just its beginning, he created ALL of it, including the whole HISTORY of the Universe, much of it is still in the future from our perspective, but can be seen all at once by God. When God is looking on his Creation, he is SIMULTANEOUSLY seeing the primordial soup, Galileo's trial, bomb exploding in Hiroshima, you praying, and your great-great-grandchildren going on a school field-trip to Mars. Why would He make changes in his Perfect Creation just because someone is praying for something? A little tweak of the fabric located just after the act of the prayer? Why? Our future has already been created for us long time ago, and that future is exactly what God wanted all along. No free will. No reward. No punishment. And remember that a folk behaviorism of stick and carrot is the core of strictfathering childrearing philosophy and a core conservative understanding of human nature (thus need for death penalty, more prisons, tougher laws and more invasions of other countries, as well as the "enabling" frame of welfare).

However, majority of Christians, especially the vocal conservative creationist kind, do not see the Christian God in this way. They want a God that is like Zeus: travelling through time with us and, being a God, having some superhero superpowers ("miracles") he can use to make some changes in the way history proceeds. Such a God can be potentially mollified through prayer and adoration. Such a God could be expected to occasionally intervene. Such a God would be expected to craft living species one by one in his basement shop. Such a God gives us free will to do whatever we want and that is scary, as other people may choose to do nasty stuff if they want, making the world a dangerous place. Such a God demands that we, of our own choosing, behave morally, as He will personally punish or reward every individual. A Zeus-like God makes us tremble - he is too interested in our day-to-day lives and our behavior. A Zeus-like God behaves like a Father. A person raised by a Strict Father grows up to believe in a Zeus-like father-like God, not the disiniterested God of Christianity who, in his wisdom and creativity (if He exists at all) created the evolutionary process as a mechanism for creation of all living things. Finally, people who believe in such a Zeus-like God are quite open about it. They do not see it as being un-Christian (while the theologians cringe), but as a badge of honor that they are serving in the army of an activist vengeful God. Thus, "Left Behind" books get sold by the millions....

Arguments Put Forward By Critics Of Creationists

Need for a Benevolent (yet Strict) Father

While conservative Christians think their belief in an Activist God is great, the liberals see it as dependence and cowardice, something to ridicule, something akin to the "just followed the orders" excuse at the Nurenmberg Trial. This attitude comes from the liberal dependence on internal locus of moral authority derived from one's Nurturant Father upbringing, which, in turn, stems from the core liberal belief that people are inherently potentially good and that childrearing is an exercise in honing this goodness, not an eradication of inherent badness. From here comes the notion that the world is not THAT dangerous after all (thus much less fear of terrorism by liberals even in places such as NYC - the obvious target for terrorists) and that it can be made less dangerous by human activity. This is basically an optimistic and future-oriented view of the world. Liberals tend to look to the past in horror and look to the future with hope. They see an arrow of time denoting progress. They see evolution as a process that hones the good to become even better. Conservatives, on the other hand, invent a beuatiful pastoral past they keep trying to bring back. They see history as a cycle of time, bringing more and more chaos and danger with each cycle. They see evolution as a process that prunes and kills the perfect and imperfect alike. The world has been going downhill ever since its inception (i.e., being kicked out of the Garden of Eden).

Need For Belogning In A Community

I have written a lot about the way conservative upbringing leads to the "Village" mentality: the need to belong to a tightly knit community of like-minded people. Group selection theory, as exemplified by David Sloan Wilson's application to the origin, evolution and adaptive function of religion, wonderfully explains the way Strictfathering engenders the Village mentality.

One of the most interesting properties of a Village-like community is the importance of a shared "secret" language. This is phatic language, used not to exchange information but to form emotional bonds between the group members. Various code-words and phrases are important components of such language, as they reveal shared membership. For instance, there was a recent analysis of the code-word Dude as it is used in the phatic language of membership in youth cultures. Other recent examples are Dred Scott and Maternity Group Homes, phrases that GW Bush used in the debates to signal the membership in the evangelical, anti-abortion and mysoginist crowd.

Bashing evolution is an example of phatic language. Words like "Darwinist" and "evolutionist" that are never used by actual evolutionary biologists serve as code-words for belonging to the Creationist Village, just like saying "Democrat party" instead of "Democratic party" immediatelly signals one's political party affiliation (GOP). These two words, ending with "-ist" also serve to provide equivalency between creationist belief and evolutionary methodology, infering that evolutionary theory is a religious belief instead of a method for understanding the material world. If the two are seen as two opposed religions, they can have a war on equal footing in which "my religion is better than yours" contest can take place and Christians, due to sheer numbers and the tight community spirit are confident in victory. This kind of rhetoric also allows the creationists to show up on TV as equals to evolutionary biologists, as the naive media misreads phatic language as logical language and, following the American fairness sentiment, indulges in destructive "He said/She said" pseudo-journalism.

Inability To Grasp Complex Non-Hierarchical Systems

I have written about this quite a bit here, here and here. Briefly, conservative/churchy upbringing leaves people at a Piagetian developmental stage in which they can make correlations and perhaps some linear (thus hierarchical) cause-effect relationships, but are incapable of grasping complex system of many interacting parts producing emergent complexity. Perhaps some people are afraid of evolution because they are incapable of understanding how it works. It is a complex system, after all. Fear of incomprehensible complexity?

Being in a Pre-Conscious State

Related to the previous argument, the notion that conservative Strict-Father upbringing does not lead to the breakdown of the bicameral mind (sensu Julian Jaynes), thus the envious fear of fully-conscious people by semi-conscious people .

Lack of Education and Sheer Stupidity

These two are probably the most often invoked reasons to understand why some people reject evolution. I do not think that Creationists are stupid, even if my whole Lakoff/Piaget/Jaynes construct is correct. The upbringing may have severely impaired their ability to understand the complex-system nature of evolutionary theory, but they are not stupid. Lack of education is definitely an important factor, but it is an argument of a different kind. It does not reveal anything about the psychology of anti-evolutionists. It deals with a lack of a possible remedy. But, if the Lakoff/Piaget/Jaynes scheme is correct, then it is extremely difficult to turn a creationist into an anti-creationist by schooling alone. The victims need not just remedial education, but remedial upbringing, something that may or may not be possible once a particular developmental age (and stage) has been passed.

Postmodernism As A Self-Inflicted Wound

We live in a post-modern world. Science is passe, so yesterday... On the other hand, creationism is fully postmodern, thus more in sync with the mood of the times.

Barely-Hidden Racism

There is nothing I can add to what these smart people have written about this idea:Creationism and Racism, Creationism Implies Racism, William Gibson on Creationism and Re Creationism. There is something to this argument for sure, though I do not think that this has been fully explored and understood yet.

Anxious Masculinity

If you have read the links just above, under the previous heading, you have seen that racism is, in fact, a stand-in for sexism stemming from anxious masculinity. Since I have written about this A LOT, let me just give you a couple of the best links instead of repeating myself and making this post even more ridiculously long:
Bush, Frogs, Baboons, Horses
Two Americas: Past, Present and Future
Enslaving Women: Not Just Fundies
I'm Gone Country
Rent Wars: It's Sex, Stupid
Hypocrisy Or Natural Order Of Things
Conservative Manly Men: What Are They Afraid Of
Conservatives Are Crazy And Dangerous

Science In General Or Just Evolution?

The same caller to the NPR Science Friday show who said that she arrived to IDC by logic was also asked by Steven Weinberg if evolution is the only scientific theory that bothers her, or if there are any other parts of science that she objects to. Her answer was a fast and strong "Just evolution!". So Copernicus, Galilei, Newton, Freud, Einstein and Weggener are no threat, but Darwin is. Why? And to whom?

I guess the biblical literalists would also object to all the other stuff: after all, the Earth is flat, static and in the center of the Universe. Having harems and enslaving enemies are good ideas, too. But the more sophisticated folks object only to evolution. If their problem was that it is "just a theory", they would have problems with other theories as well. If their problem was biblical inerrancy, they would have problems with all of science. If their problem is dethroning humans from the pinnacle of Creation, at least Freud would also be problematic. And here may lie the key.

Why is Freud OK, but Darwin is not? Is it because Freud affirms the basic notion that humans are born bad and have to be trained to become good? According to their reading of Freud, men have animalistic natures that can be tamed. According to their reading of Darwin, humans have animalistic natures that cannot be tamed. Both readings are wrong, but popular and consistent with their embrace of Freud and fear of Darwin. They do not understand the naturalistic fallacy to be a fallacy. If what "is" determines what "ought to" be, and we are basically animals, then nasty social Darwinism will take over society, and aggressive brutes will come and kill nice white rich boys. Nice white girls will choose big muscular brutes to marry. Freud is also understood to affirm male superiority, making anxious males much more comfortable with him than with Darwin. Thus racism and femiphobia seem to me to be extremely important motivators for rejection of evolution, and all other reasons, including those based on God and religion, are just add-ons to boost the argument or make it more palatable to the modern (e.g., "PC") social environment.

Mapping Types of Fear to Types of Creationism

All of the discussion so far examines the reasons for rejection of evolution, not reasons for acceptance of creationism in any of its forms. First, let's revisit the taxonomy of creationisms - read this article:
The Creation/Evolution Continuum and keep in mind the graphic from the article, reproduced right here:

If all of the discussion above makes any sense, only the biblical literalists would go for the Young Earth Creationism. Everybody else, no matter what arguments they present and what fear drives them, should be perfectly OK with Intelligent Design Creationism. This is the Age of Enlightement, the post-Darwinian Age in which the language of science, education and sophistication is held in high regard. If wrapping one's fears into scientific rhetorical pita-bread helps push one's anxiety-driven agenda, then by all means, go for it.

What Can Be Done?

If my thesis is correct, the motivation for rejection of evolution is not cerebral but visceral. It does not come from stupidity, miseducation or economic (or political) self-interest (though all of these can help). It is not motivated by religion (although religious rhetoric is used to defend the stance). If one is liberal, brought up in a Nurturant Father's home, and is a Christian, then something like Thestic Evolution is just fine. But Theistic Evolution is evolution, not creationism (see the Figure). Rejection of evolution is, instead, motivated by basic emotion of fear of the dangerous world inhabited by dangerous people. It is motivated by sexual anxiety. It is a coping mechanism for people who cannot bear the thought of losing control over the external events and do not trust in the natural goodness of other people.

Anti-evolution rhetoric is phatic language. We speak a language of logic and reason. We use language to convey information. They use language to share emotional bonds. It does not matter how hard we try to explain the facts about science, scientific method, scientific meaning of the word "theory", or details of evolutionary biology. This they cannot hear. We are speaking Martian to them. We are using the faculty of language in a strange way. It scares them when we talk like that. More we insist more fobic they get, thus more strongly they need to believe what they believe.

It is now obvious why the political leadership of the new Republican party is pushing the battle over evolution in schools so hard. This is a potent way to induce fear OF LIBERALS, as opposed to fear of foreigners and terrorists. This is also a way to induce a racist, sexist and anti-gay frame in conservatives and rally them to the cause. This is also a way to replace the current "Nurturant" model of education (from elementary to graduate school) that undermines their ideology, with a "Strict Father" model of education (a la Dobson) that will ensure the continuous dominance of their ideology.

Thus, we need to see the battle over evolution not as a separate battle, but as a part of a bigger war between Enlightement and Anti-Enlightement. One cannot be won without the other. And while some battles in this war can be and should be fought at the level of national politics, the battle over education, including the battle over evolution, requires us to get at their kids. For that, we need to go local. Winning cases in court works only for the short term - they will come again and again and, with conservative activist judges being appointed left and right, they will start winning soon. Getting elected to school-boards, teaching in schools, teaching the teachers, pushing for non-test-based educational systems, pushing for tests of critical thinking (including evolutionary thinking) in schools as well as for home-schooled children, ...those are the ways to fight them long term, thus the only way to win this battle. Winning this battle - the battle over childrearing and education - will be the key for winning the whole war long term. Without new recruits from the new generations of children, the forces of Anti-Enlightement will dwindle in numbers, lose power, and finally die out. As a liberal, I am an optimist, a believer in progress, and cannot see how, in the long term they can win and we can lose. But in the meantime we need to fight to prevent them from incurring too much damage while they still have the power. Explaining evolution over and over again is not the way to do it.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 2:01 AM | permalink | (10 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Friday, January 21, 2005

My Blogosphere Namesakes Going To India To Do Some Good

Prof to aid tsunami relief effort in India

Varghese said he plans to supply residents with coturnix, small quail, to use as food and income. The quail are able to lay eggs 35 days after it hatches and is considered a delicacy.
Varghese is the president and founder of Coturnix International Ministries Inc., an organization formed in 1990 to "provide food for the body and soul."
"God gave me the quail to give to poor people," Varghese said. "It takes one pound of feed - which costs at most 10 cents - to raise a quail to maturity. They are so small they don't need space."
In this plan, those affected by the tsunami can sell the female quail eggs and slaughter the males for food.

And yes, these quail are a delicacy! Hungry graduate students can attest to it.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 11:30 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

What Are Gonads For (Among Else)?

This really cool science post:

Speaking of sex differences…

...reminds me of a seminar I attended a few years ago, about a parasitoid wasp that injects a single egg (together with some toxins and a DNA virus) into a (somewhat larger) egg of its moth host.

The speaker spent his 50 minutes describing his painfully difficult and inconclusive molecular experiments, trying to figure out where the DNA (from the injected viruses) inserts itself into the host genome and how does that insertion affect the host. The effects of parasitism were some small changes in size and head-to-body proportions, complete loss of gonads (in both sexes), and a developmental change: instead of going through four instars before pupation, the parasitized host went through five instars and then, after a very long period in the fifth instar, died during the process of pupation.

Everyone in the room, including the speaker, made an assumption that DNA virus somehow disrupts development, ensuring sufficient time for the parasitoid to hatch inside the host and eat its way out of it. That is why the guy tried so hard to find the insertion place. Of course, the inevitable question arose during the Q&A session: why are the hosts castrated? Neither the speaker, nor anyone in the audience had a faintest idea. It seemed quite superfluous: all of the hosts die before adulthood, so there is no sense in preventing them from breeding after they are dead anyway.

I thought of it completely differently. My understanding (a testable hypothesis, I guess) was that viral DNA inserts in such a way that it induces castration. Perhaps it inserts smack in the middle of one of the genes responsible for the embryonic development of the gonad. But then, the lack of gonads and their hormones results in botched-up development. After all, a number of hormones, including juvenile hormone, ecdisone and some gonadal steroids are involved in control of metamorphosis (both from one larval instar to the next and from larva to pupa). While others saw castration as a mysterious side-effect, I saw it as the main mechanism by which the parasitoid manipulates the developmental timing of the host.

And if I am right, all that expensive and inconclusive molecular tinkering was unneccessary. Remembering the photo of the larva from the slide-show, I remember the gonads being huge and just below the surface (cuticle). Surgical castration should be technically relatively easy. Removing the gonads would then, if I am right, result in the appearance of the fifth instar and death in pupation in non-parasitized larvae. Injections of gonadal extracts, or candidate hormones, into the castrated hosts at approriate times would recover the normal pattern of development. Actually , such work could help discover what the "appropriate times" are, thus helping us understand insect development better.

So, (as I wrote before on the difference between US and Russian science:, don't automatically switch on your PCR machine. Think first!

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 10:57 PM | permalink | (1 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink

Here's One For The Birds!

Cool research at my University:

Relatives of Living Ducks and Chickens Existed Alongside Dinosaurs More Than 65 Million Years Ago

A reconstruction by well-known dinosaur artist Michael Skrepnick shows Vegavis in the immediate foreground with a duckbill dinosaur (hadrosaur) in the background. Copyright Michael Skrepnick 2005.

Newly published North Carolina State University research into the evolution of birds shows the first definitive fossil proof linking close relatives of living birds to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Research by paleontologist Dr. Julia A. Clarke, an assistant professor in the marine, earth and atmospheric sciences department at NC State, and colleagues provides unprecedented fossil proof that some close cousins to living bird species coexisted with dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago. Information from a new avian species called Vegavis iaai indicates that these birds lived in the Cretaceous period and must have survived the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) mass extinction event that included the disappearance of all other dinosaurs.

Analysis of fresh evidence from computed tomography (CT) scans of the fossil – which uncovered new bones deep within the rock matrix – and recovery of latex peels made of the specimen just after its discovery in Antarctica in 1992 revealed its importance to avian evolution and that it represented a new species. This partial skeleton is the most complete specimen from the Cretaceous to be found to have its evolutionary relationship to a living bird group. These new data show Vegavis is within the group Anseriformes, which includes ducks and geese.

The research is published in the Jan. 20 edition of the scientific journal Nature.

The question of whether relatives of living birds existed alongside non-bird dinosaurs has evoked intense recent controversy in scientific circles. Some scholars, arguing from some “molecular clock” models and new DNA sequence data as well as the distribution of living bird groups, have concluded that relatives of living birds must have existed alongside non-avian dinosaurs and survived the mass extinction of dinosaurs at the K/T boundary, about 65 million years ago. Until the discovery of Vegavis, fossil data to support this hypothesis was weak at best.

Other scientists have claimed this limited previous data was unreliable and that the fossil record showed no evidence of living bird lineages in the Cretaceous. In a “big bang” theory of bird evolution, these scientists have proposed that relatives of today’s birds came on the scene only after non-avian dinosaurs became extinct at the K/T boundary.

“We have more data than ever to propose at least the beginnings of the radiation of all living birds in the Cretaceous,” Clarke says. “We now know that duck and chicken relatives coexisted with non-avian dinosaurs. This does not mean that today’s chicken and duck species lived with non-avian dinosaurs, but that the evolutionary lineages leading to today’s duck and chicken species did.”

The fossil’s fragility – the specimen was damaged as it was being prepared for study – led to difficulties in conducting a full examination in 1992. Earlier this year, Clarke received a grant from the National Science Foundation to give the fossil – named for the location it was discovered (Vega Island in western Antarctica) and for the name of the party that made the discovery (the Instituto Antártico Argentino, or IAA) – a second look with a team of colleagues from Argentina and the United States.

Clarke and her fellow scientists conducted new analyses on the fragile partial skeleton. CT scans were performed on the fossil for the first time; these X-rays uncovered new bones in the rock matrix, including a number of vertebrae, pelvic bones, and arm and leg bones. The researchers also found the original latex peels – applied to the fossil before any other preparation had been done – that provided a mirror image of the bones originally exposed on the rock surface.

The newly discovered bones and latex peels allowed the scientists to compare features of Vegavis to other birds and determine its evolutionary relationships. Clarke and her colleagues used some of the largest data sets available and all placed Vegavis within the radiation of living birds – as most closely related to ducks and geese. Histological analysis of the bone tissues present in a cross section of a Vegavis arm bone not only indicates that Vegavis was an adult at the time of death but also supports inference of its evolutionary relationships from the independent phylogenetic results.

The data place Vegavis within Aves, which includes common ancestors of all living birds we have today and all its descendents – that is, the radiation of all living birds – and specifically within one group of Aves called Anseriformes, the waterfowl, which includes ducks, geese and allies. Within this group Vegavis is positioned close to the lineage leading to true ducks and geese, called Anatidae.

Clarke will now continue her search for more clues to the evolution of birds. “Looking to the Cretaceous for more parts of extant avian radiation is essential,” she says.

Funding for the research came from an NSF Office of Polar Programs Small Grant for Experimental Research.

Abstract of the Nature paper:

“Definitive Fossil Evidence for the Extant Avian Radiation in the Cretaceous”
Authors: Julia A. Clarke, North Carolina State University; Claudia P. Tambussi, Museo de la Plata-Conicet, La Plata, Argentina; Jorge I. Noriega, Centro de Investigaciones Cientificas y TTP-Conicet, Entre Rios, Argentina; Gregory M. Erickson, Florida State University; Richard A. Ketcham, University of Texas

Published: Jan. 20, 2005, in Nature

Long-standing controversy surrounds the question of whether living bird lineages emerged after non-avian dinosaur extinction at the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary or whether these lineages coexisted with other dinosaurs and passed through this mass extinction event. Inferences from biogeography and molecular sequence data project major avian lineages deep into the Cretaceous period, implying their “mass survival” at the K/T boundary. By contrast, it has been argued that the fossil record refutes this hypothesis, placing a “big bang” of avian radiation only after the end of the Cretaceous. However, other fossil data – fragmentary bones referred to extant bird lineages – have been considered inconclusive. These data have never been subjected to phylogenetic analysis. Here we identify a rare, partial skeleton from the Maastrichtian of Antarctica as the first Cretaceous fossil definitively placed within the extant bird radiation. Several phylogenetic analyses supported by independent histological data indicate that a new species, Vegavis iaai, is a part of Anseriformes (waterfowl) and is most closely related to Anatidae, which includes true ducks. A minimum of five divergences within Aves before the K/T boundary are inferred from the placement of Vegavis; at least duck, chicken and ratite bird relatives were coextant with non-avian dinosaurs.

See also:

Mother of all ducks shared a swamp with Tyrannosaurus Rex,,3-1447705,00.html

Birds scientists in a flap

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