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Chewing on Evolutionary Stories

Fish chew by sending their food on an assembly line to the back of the mouth. Mammals chew by positioning food for the teeth. Can evolution explain this difference? Science Daily was sure of it. “Evolution has made its marks -- large and small -- in innumerable patterns of life,” The article said. “New research from Brown University shows chewing has evolved too.” When one looks for the evidence that chewing has evolved, though, one only finds blanks with the assumption that evolution must have done it.

Can evolutionary theory explain terrorism?

In military strategy, it is vital to know what the enemy is up to. Can evolutionary theory help? An interdisciplinary team at the University of Miami got their heads together and appealed to an evolutionary notion called the “Red Queen” hypothesis, and claimed it provides a “Pattern in Escalations in Insurgent and Terrorist Activity” that is neutral regarding the good guys and the bad guys. It resembles, they argue, how pedators and prey evolve in nature. They offer their model as a way military planners can have the ability “to estimate not only the number of fatalities but how often attacks that result in fatalities will take place.” They applied their pattern prediction to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How robust is this notion, and should evolutionary theory take credit for it?

The Evolution of… Come Again?

Science news articles speak freely of the evolution of this or that, but the fine print often shows a disconnect with the evolution explanation.  Can one speak of the evolution of something that has not changed for millions or years?  The details in the following stories raise questions whether anything significant has evolved in the […]

Cells Have Dimmer Switches

A metaphor has been emerging among biophysicists: cells have rheostats or dimmer switches.  The metaphor implies that some cellular regulatory processes are not just on or off; they have continuous ranges of values that can be finely tuned for the need of the organism.  It's been years since our first report that gene expression is […]

Complex Arthropod Eyes Found in Early Cambrian

Complex eyes with modern optics from an unknown arthropod, more complex than trilobite eyes, have been discovered in early Cambrian strata from southern Australia. The exquisitely-preserved imprints of the eyes in shale were reported by Lee et al. in Nature. The abstract started by quoting Darwin and affirming evolution, but then revealed evidence that complex eyes go further back in the fossil record than previously thought possible.

A Tale of Two Pollens

Ambiguity is a bad word in science. Scientists want to be objective. To scientific realists, scientific truth is “out there” in the world, waiting to be discovered. The 20th century tempered scientific realism somewhat from its extreme form (scientism, the belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth). Knowledgeable scientists are more or less aware of the role of paradigms, social pressure and webs of belief that can affect interpretations of scientific data. But there is still a widespread perception that science “finds” truth in the world. Whether that happens can be pondered while exploring two recent stories about fossil pollen that arrived at opposite conclusions: one (by evolutionists) that supports old-earth geology (and “climate change” politics), and one (by creationists) that undermines it, finding fundamental biases among evolutionists who refuse to accept the implications of the data.

Avoid Confusion: Disbelieve Paleoanthropologists

If you care about the true history of the human race, don’t believe paleoanthropologists. They are clueless and confused. Every solution they come up with creates new problems, and their boastful announcements are likely to be overturned. That’s the gist of a commentary in PNAS by Bernard Wood, who wrote, “The origin of our own genus remains frustratingly unclear.” He ought to know; he’s an eminent paleoanthropologist himself.

NOMA Still Isn’t Working

Science journals and websites continue to act as if religion is a subcategory of the science department.  If Stephen Jay Gould thought that NOMA was a good idea to keep peace between science and religion (see 11/05/2006), nobody paid any attention.  Scientism has taken over the world. Teen religion:  In “Teens Maintain Their Religion,” Medical […]

Flap Over Flight Evolution

Birds flap their wings when they run up ramps. It takes less energy than flying. This is uncontroversial; it is observable, and science can measure the energy cost. But for at least eight years now, Ken Dial at the University of Montana has been claiming that this behavior explains the origin of flight in birds (01/16/2003, 12/22/2003). When he first came out with this hypothesis in 2003, Elisabeth Pennisi in the journal Science said, “I imagine people will continue to argue about the origin of bird flight for a long time.” There’s been very little argument in the media over the years, though (05/01/2006, 9/22/2007, 1/25/2008); in fact, the BBC News just gave another plug for Dial’s hypothesis with no criticism at all.

Political Science 101: Doubt Scientific Claims

Science goes through a chain of messengers from data to consumer. In between are fallible scientists, who speak often in incomprehensible jargon and often only partially understand what they observe, but often wish to gain notoriety with a major discovery (or need to publish or perish). Next, the institutional press offices decide what is significant and try to digest the jargon to layman level. The predigested stories are then delivered to science reporters, who sometimes sensationalize the filtered stories to make a name for themselves. Finally, the media outlets, prone to peer biases, dress up the products to grab the eyes of readers of their newspapers, magazines, or web pages. How much of the real scientific data remains at the end of this game of Telephone? Sometimes the bias is clearly evident, but often the product is delivered with all the presumptive authority of science. Once in awhile, a reporter comes clean about the dirty work involved.

If This Is Evolution, What Is Trivia?

Some science news articles appear confident about evolution, but offer little evidence except trivial change . Sometimes, they even offer evidence that contradicts their expectations. If this is evolution, what is trivia?

Wrong Again: Planetologists Embarrassed

In most careers, being wrong too often is grounds for dismissal. False prophets in ancient kingdoms were stoned or shamed out of town. Only in science, it seems, can experts consistently get it wrong, and not only keep their jobs, but be highly esteemed as experts. Among the guiltiest of the lot are planetary scientists, whose predictions have been consistently wrong for almost every planetary body studied since the dawn of the space age. Their orbital mechanics is solid; they do get their spacecraft to arrive at the right place at the right time with uncanny accuracy. But what the missions reveal is often completely different from what scientists had told the public they expected to find. This has been true of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, comets, asteroids, and most of the moons of the solar system, where hasty revisions have had to be made after spacecraft data falsified the predictions. Here are some recent examples of “theory fail” in planetary science.

Follow the Leader: Nature

Ever since biomimetics (the imitation of nature) gradually emerged around 2002 and really took off in 2005, it has not slowed down. Over 90 previous entries in these pages have reported teams all over the world seeking out natural designs for ideas. The reports have accelerated in recent years to the point where there is only space for short summaries that give a taste of the wide variety of engineering work taking inspiration from plants, animals, and even cells. You yourself might inspire some inventor. Here are a few more highlights from recent adventures in biomimetics.

Humans Are Devolving

“We are all mutants,” proclaimed a headline on Science Daily. “First Direct Whole-Genome Measure of Human Mutation Predicts 60 New Mutations in Each of Us.” The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute press release reported 60 new mutations per individual, received from parents – a “striking value” the article characterized the “unexpected findings”.

Inner Ear Hair Cells Overcome Friction

The cochlea, that spiral-shaped structure in the inner ear, is filled with fluid. In this fluid, tiny hair cells called stereocilia are positioned in bundles along the length of the structure. These bundles sense vibrations transmitted into the fluid from the bony levers of the inner ear. The vibrations picked up by the hair cell bundles, each tuned to its own frequency, mechanically transduce the sound impulses by opening ion channels that set up electrical impulses in the auditory nerve, that travel to the brain. But motion in fluid creates friction known as viscous drag. How do the hair cell bundles overcome it? Scientists have figured out that the hair cells in the bundles are not only finely tuned to reduce viscous drag, but actually to employ it for even higher sensitivity to sound.
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