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Darwinism and Its Discontents – Book Review Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Posted by h3nry in anti-creationism, anti-fundamentalism, anti-ID, Behe, biology, book review, Charles Darwin, Christianity, consilience, creationism, Darwin, Darwinism, Dawkins, evolution, genetics, geology, God, Gould, Haeckel, human evolution, philosophy, Piltdown Man, punctuated equilibrium, rationality, reason, religion, science, scientific theory.
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I have been thinking about the ideas in this book for about four decades and have decided that the time has come to put them all together.

This is the opening sentence of Professor Michael Ruse’s latest book Darwinism and Its Discontents. Ruse is a well-known evolutionary philosopher and has been a great defender on Darwinism for a number of years. And with an opening statement like that, naturally I was thrilled to read what the discontents are all about, and if they matter at all.

The book is a defender of Darwinism and the fact of evolution from all sides of attacks, and is understandably light on refuting creationism of various flavours, so read this book to cement your understanding of Darwinism and evolution – I certainly learned a good deal from it.

Darwinism is defined as a particular theory in which evolution works. Its heart lies in the concept of natural selection, the chief causal process behind all organisms, and is the widely accepted evolutionary mechanism by the scientific community. However, it has always been under attack from various disciplines in social science, philosophy, religion, and even within science itself, and Ruse writes how these attacks are categorically mistaken.

Darwinism and Its Discontents Cover

The first chapter goes through the historical background of Darwinism. Ruse includes a number of notable historical figures ranging from people who did not have direct contribution to Darwinism such as Lyells and Malthus, to modern day scientists such as Fisher, Haldine and Wright. The conclusion of the chapter is right on spot – why was Darwin important? Because it was after him that a revolution happened – that life is a naturalistic, not a supernatural or God-inspired one.

The next few chapters are, I think, the highlights of the book as they outline what the fact of evolution is, its path, its cause and its limitations. Ruse presented the concept of consilience argument – that is, direct evidence supporting evolution from a myriad of fields of studies: palaeontology, biogeographical distribution, classification, morphology, embryology and so on. These chapters are essential in understanding the science of Darwinian theory of evolution – population genetics, adaptation, physical constraints on the phenotype, drift, and of course, natural selection, as well as a dash of Gould’s famous punctuated equilibrium theory.

The second half of the book then takes a different turn. It examines humans, the mistakes and dishonesty made in the history of evolutionary science (such as the Piltdown Man and Haeckel’s drawings) – and finally, Ruse looks at Darwinism from philosophical and religious point of views.

Overall I thought this book is very well balanced and not too technical for the layman; however it is definitely not an introductory level kind of book. If you are looking for the whole creationism vs. evolution debate then this is not an ideal book; conversely if you are looking for a book that covers a wide areas of Darwinian evolution – from past to present and across various disciplines, then this book is it.

Inorganic Particles In Plasma Displays Life-Like Properties Sunday, August 19, 2007

Posted by h3nry in biology, DNA, evolution, origin of life, physics, plasma, protein, science, science experiment.
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Here is another scientific research report published recently at ScienceDaily, this time regarding a discovery made by physicists that inorganic material shows life-like qualities:

Now, an international team has discovered that under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organised into helical structures. These structures can then interact with each other in ways that are usually associated with organic compounds and life itself.

In essence, the environment is the fourth state of matter – plasma – where electrons are no longer bounded to atoms. The particles in the plasma sate exhibit the ability of self-organisation to form helical structures, where they attract, divide and bifurcate to form two copies of themselves, interact with other particles – and even evolve into stable structures:

Quite bizarrely, not only do these helical strands interact in a counterintuitive way in which like can attract like, but they also undergo changes that are normally associated with biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, say the researchers. They can, for instance, divide, or bifurcate, to form two copies of the original structure. These new structures can also interact to induce changes in their neighbours and they can even evolve into yet more structures as less stable ones break down, leaving behind only the fittest structures in the plasma.

I was very excited to read this report – imagine the possibilities this discovery opens up! As the article points out, it could even more conceivable now that non-carbon forms of life exist somewhere out there in the universe. As a matter of fact, Imagine a universe where “life” and perhaps even “intelligence” exist in the state of plasma… this is frankly quite freaky and exciting at the same time.

There is one major issue with the report though. It is not clear to me if this discovery is yet another computer simulation or an actual experimentation (emphasis mine):

However, Tsytovich and his colleagues demonstrated, using a computer model of molecular dynamics, that particles in a plasma can undergo self-organization as electronic charges become separated and the plasma becomes polarized..

Anyone has any ideas? I am leaning to interpret it as a computer model was used for the experiment. I will keep an eye out for it, because this is quite a remarkable discovery.

Creationism Article in The Seoul Times Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Posted by h3nry in anti-evolution, biology, Christianity, creationism, evolution, fundamentalism, intelligent design, Korea, religion, science, Seoul, South Korea, Turkey, UK, United Kingdom.
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I came across this creationist article the other day and didn’t really pay too much attention to it, as it is yet another typical creationist fundie mumbo-jumbo. Then again on a second thought, this article seems just a little bit different to the other ones out there. You will note that the publisher is The Seoul Times – a South Korean based newspaper.

You’d thought that creationism is a peculiar US phenomenon? Well, it is not true anymore. For example, the recent creationism movement in Turkey is making great inroads in the Islamic world and has captured the attention of the media in the West. The recent Intelligent Design Movement is also making some noise under the ironic name of Truth in Science in the UK. And now, this article published in a Korean newspaper shows just perhaps creationism is also making progress in South Korea.

A while ago I posted an entry showing how the theory of evolution seems not very well accepted worldwide, however there is no data regarding South Korea, a country with a history of producing Christianity cults, so perhaps we must not be all that surprised by it.

This is what the article has to say:

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Dembski – A Classless Bitter Soul Friday, June 29, 2007

Posted by h3nry in anti-creationism, anti-fundamentalism, anti-ID, atheism, biology, Chu-Carroll, creationism, Dembski, Europe, evolution, faith, intelligent design, Jason Rosenhouse, Jerry Coyne, rationality, religion, science, Uncommon Descent, William Dembski.
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A recent blog entry posted by William Dembski – one of the most prolific Intelligent Design proponent – has really infuriated me.

For those who do not know, Dembski posted a photo of the eminent evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne right next to a picture of Herman Munster – a Frankenstein monster from an old television show. That is right; Dembski is making fun of how Coyne looks. This sort of personal attack is low, despicable and inexcusable, and has provoked me to attack Dembski. Fellow blogger Jason Rosenhouse called Dembski “a classless, no-talent buffoon” in which I unapologetically agree.

That post was posted a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have tracked some of Dembski’s recent posts, and there is hardly any substance in any of them. They are simply short rants filled with bitterness, anger and negativity. You’d expect someone with Dembski’s qualification to do better than that. Don’t get me wrong – it is perfectly OK to post a rant or sarcastic mockery every now and then – but not continuously, not when you make fun of your opponent based on how he/she looks! This is truly sad.

Dembski Dembski in a grandpa’s sweater

So here is the list of Dembski’s posts for June 2007 in reversing chronological order.

25th June – Teaching ID = A crime against humanity

More short and bitter post by Dembski. I think he is at war against the Council of Europe. Here is what he is up against.

25th June – Dembski Interview with Mario Lopez

This is a transcript of an interview – perhaps the most positive post for this month.

22nd June – Have I been too hard on the NCSE?

Dembski complains about the National Center for Science and Education because of an advertisement states that an understanding of the separation between state and church, as well as the evolution vs. creationism is a plus.

21st June – Point-Counterpoint: Steven Weinberg vs. Eugenie Scott

I am not too sure what the point is?

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Do Evolutionists Believe in God? A Study Friday, June 22, 2007

Posted by h3nry in atheism, biology, Cornell Evolution Project, evolution, religion, science, secularism, survey, theism.
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The relationship between science and religion has always been uneasy and sometimes controversial. The religious views of eniment scientists have been studied in a couple of surveys conducted in the early part of 1900’s. In a poll conducted in 1910 to 400 scientists, 32% of them believed in a “personal god”. The same poll was again carried out in 1933, and this time the belief in a personal god had dropped to a mere 13%, which is not all that surprising given the rapid advancement in our scientific understanding back then, and even more less surprising is the fact that biologists scored lower percentages in both polls.

Now, in 2003, we have another similar but more sophisticates survey conducted – this among eminent evolutionists. This is the website for the study, and here is the article featured in American Scientist Online.

This time, the concept of god is widened to include more choices for the participants, and the graph below shows the result:

Cornell Evolution Project Chart on Theism

Only a mere 4.8% of the evolutionists consider themselves to be a full theists i.e. believer of a personal god. Yes – only 4.8% of them believe in the personal God most of us are familiar with!

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Why Darwin Matters – The Case Against Intelligent Design Saturday, June 16, 2007

Posted by h3nry in anti-creationism, anti-evolution, anti-fundamentalism, anti-ID, biology, book review, Charles Darwin, Christianity, creationism, Darwin, Evangelical, evolution, fundamentalism, Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer, rationality, religion, science, United States, Why Darwin Matters.
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This is the title of a highly enjoyable book written by Michael Shermer, which I have just finished reading now (how can one ignore a book with such a title?). Prior to this I have never read of Shermer.

Why Darwin Matters - The Case Against Intelligent Design

It is important that we read what Shermer has to write on this topic. A former creationist and Evangelical Christian, and even more interestingly a friend to some of the Intelligent Design proponents such as Dembski, Shermer presents a highly readable and well-researched book to the general public.

The first few chapters are on the defensive. They tell what evolution is, and why it is under attack. Then the book begins its attack on Intelligent Design – its fallacies and the real agenda behind it. Shermer then concludes the book with a couple of chapters on why evolution cannot contradict religion – and why fundamentalist Christians should accept evolution.

One thing I like about Why Darwin Matters is that the author fills the book with many real life examples, not just dry and scholarly arguments. One of my favourite example looks at dogs. Dogs evolved from wolves very recently, yet there is hardly any “transitional fossils” available – however,

the convergence of evidence from archaeological, morphological, genetic, and behavioural “fossils” reveals the ancestor of all dogs to be the East Asian wolf.

Although personally I think the attack on Intelligent Design somewhat lacks some punch – see Jerry Coyne’s brilliant paper on this attack – however, I think Shermer writes with the general laymen in mind, hence the book is not as technical nor as in-depth.

In summary, I very much enjoyed reading this well-structured and well-researched book. It is a great book for the people who are curious about the whole evolution-vs.-creationism debate, and a fantastic introductory book for anyone interested in knowing evolution better.

Notable Quotes #3 Saturday, June 9, 2007

Posted by h3nry in biology, Catholics, Christianity, church, consilience, embryology, evolution, genetics, morphology, Notable Quotes Series, paleontology, pope, religion, science, Vatican.
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Pope John Paul II stated in 1996 that the theory of evolution is of no threat to religion:

New knowledge has led to the recognition that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

- Pope John Paull II

The “convergence of various fields of knowledge” is also known as the consilience argument, in that various unrelated studies all agree and point to one fact. In the case of evolution, studies such as paleontology, fossil records, biogeographical distribution, morphology, genetics, embryology, biological classification, modern medicine… and so on, has independently verified evolution.

Dollo’s Law Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Posted by h3nry in anti-creationism, biology, Dawkins, Dollo's Law, evolution, genetics, Richard Dawkins, science, sea snails, Stephen Gould.
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Dollo’s law is one interesting hypothesis in the theory of evolution. In its original form, it states that evolution is irreversible – that is, once an organism has lost or discarded a structural feature during the course of evolution, then it cannot regain that feature.

This law was proposed firstly in 1890 by a biologist named Louis Dollo. In its modern form, this law should be understood as one that hypothesises that evolution is highly unlikely reversible – that is, it is highly improbable that an organism would regain a lost feature.

This law kind of makes sense under the first impression – life evolves from simple to complex, and it seems that there is no known case of organisms regrowing a previously discarded feature. However, on a second thought, one must pause and examine the issue further. None of the evolution mechanisms – natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, genetic mutation, genetic recombination, symbiogenesis and so on – dictates that organisms cannot completely regain lost features. In fact, scientists have argued that at least theoretically there is no block to evolutionary reversion.

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R.I.P. – Stanley Miller, Father of Origin of Life Chemistry Thursday, May 24, 2007

Posted by h3nry in biochemistry, biology, chemistry, exobiology, Harold Urey, Miller-Urey, origin of life, sarcasm, science, science experiment, Stanley Miller.
6 comments

Stanley Miller, a leading pioneer in biochemistry, has sadly passed away due to heart failure at the age of 77.

Stanley Miller

He is known for his landmark and famous Miller-Urey experiment conducted as a graduate in 1953. This experiment shows that simple chemical elements can be catalysed into amino acids – the building blocks of protein – that is, simple inorganic chemical compounds can be made into organic elements.

The novel experiment was designed to show that the assumed primitive atmospheric condition of the early Earth could possibly produce life chemical compounds. With only water, hydrogen, methane and ammonia mixed in a flask, zapped with some serious sparks of electrical discharge, amino acids were formed in a “molecular soup” within a week.

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