Transplanted Lizards Evolve New Traits in Just 36 Years?

April 21, 2008

Science Daily reports on a new study in which a species of lizards, transplanted to a new island, evolved a number of new traits in just 36 years. As is often the case with Science Daily, I’m a little skeptical of the reporting. If the transplanted lizards experienced morphological changes, how could they be genetically “identical” to the source population? And no matter how rare these “cecal valve” structures are in lizards, the fact that they are known in other lizards should at least suggest the alternative hypothesis that they are an environmental reaction rather than a genetic change (though it could also be a very simple and common mutation that only takes hold in certain environments).

In any case, rapid evolutionary change in response to a new environment is actually nothing new. Many previous studies have transplanted species into a new environment, and then observed morphological changes (the unit of measure here is charmingly called a “Darwin“) happening that are orders of magnitude faster than the fastest changes observed in the fossil record.

Findings like these are part of why the incredulity of most creationists about the power of evolutionary change is hard to square with the known realities of biology. If anything, one of the big mysteries in evolution is not how large changes can possibly happen quickly (or happen at all), but rather just the opposite: why change seems to have happened so slowly in the past compared to the potential for speedy change that we observe in the present.


Lessons that Ben Stein Taught Kevin D.

April 21, 2008

Seems like the target audience for Expelled is already picking up on the basic tactic of the film. To paraphrase one evangelical blogger:

How dare people be close-minded and not allow debate!

(…comments disabled)


Anti-Evolutionary Doc Expelled to be Turned into 8 hour TV Miniseries? Anti-Abortion Sequel?

April 18, 2008

I somehow missed this bit of news, but apparently that’s what someone was told at a recent screening.

HT to Turn the Clock Forward.


Sternberg Was Not Expelled By Big Science: More on Ben Stein’s Movie Misrepresentations

April 18, 2008

In honor of Expelled’s release, it’s really worth taking another long hard look at one of its key cases: the supposed destruction that rained down upon Dr. Richard Sternberg for publishing an article supporting Intelligent Design in a systematics journal. Since the crux of the film’s case (and the claims that even movie reviewers which hated the film bought into, is the idea that academics are wrongly persecuted merely for being open-minded) is that we’re living in another dogmatic Inquisition where merely questioning the scientific orthodoxy is career suicide, you’d think a little more attention would be given to seeing whether these claims really hold up to scrutiny.

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches on the Culture Wars has written a phenomenal article covering the controversy over at eSkeptic. The content covers much of what Expelled Exposed’s section on Sternberg does, but in much more detail.

The Discovery Institute makes a tepid response to the later, and you know what? It’s a good one for what it needs to do: which is simply to sound plausible at first. You read through it, and it sounds like it has some really strong points, and as long as you stop there, maybe you’ll think you’ve done your part, heard from both sides, and maybe split the difference.

Unfortunately, Ed Brayton is still around and kicking, and lays bare just how deceptive this additional defense of Sternberg’s ephemeral martyrdom is as well.


HJ Live Interviews Expelled’s Mark Mathis

April 15, 2008

Greg Wright and HollywoodJesus have been covering the film Expelled! over at SteinWatch for quite some time now. Wright has been fairly skeptical of both sides of this debate, and while I’ve spent some time disagreeing with his positions on the film, he’s nailed down enough excess, overstatement, and error from people in both camps to qualify as a must-read perspective.

For instance, Wright today has an interview with Expelled’s associate producer, Mark Mathis that manages to get significantly more detail on the film’s production than we’ve seen previously, including mention of other film titles that were under consideration along with “Expelled” earlier in the project’s production. Mathis also repeats his usual implication about the film not receiving substantive criticism:

Throughout the last weeks, maybe even months, what we have seen are allegations, charges that are made, that are not substantive, that don’t cut to the heart of the film’s arguments, that are really nothing more than insignificant distractions.

I agree that in the grand scope of things, debates over the behavior of the production are pretty insignificant (though I’m not sure that those aren’t issues still worth looking at on their own terms). But when it comes to whether critics have addressed substantive issues, I would say that it’s either Mathis that’s simply too distracted to notice that they have done so (indeed, in many cases have been doing so long before the movie was even conceived), or that he himself wants to distract others from noticing said substantial criticism.

If you missed it, Wright also interviewed PZ Myers a little ways back about his perspective on the film, his featured interview in it, and the infamous Mall of America screening that Myers was ejected from.


Expelled Exposed Goes Live With Response to Anti-Evolutionary Film

April 15, 2008

Expelled! is a movie promoting all the standard creationist canards, and Expelled Exposed is the answer to that movie. I don’t have time to review the site in detail until later today, but it looks nice, clean, and fairly comprehensive.

Link, read, and laugh at the idea that “debate” is silenced on these issues.


Ben Stein Contradicts “Crossroads” Explaination for Anti-Evolutionary Film Expelled!

April 12, 2008

The producers of Expelled! have long claimed that the premise for their film, the very “Expelled” theme and concept evolved organically: their horror at academic science and their crusade against it was something they discovered in the course of making the film. This story is critical to defending themselves against accusations that they deliberately mislead nearly all of their pro-evolution interviewees: remember, they came to these scientists under a completely different production company name that had no links back to the real production company or the evangelical main producers, were calling the film Crossroads, and described it as an even-handed exploration of the “intersection between science and faith.”

Well Wes Elsberry has come across some interesting interviews with Ben Stein that stand in rather stark contrast to the “Expelled evolved out of the interviews” account of things.

Here’s the key quote:

WORLD: How did you get involved with Expelled?

STEIN: I was approached a couple of years ago by the producers, and they described to me the central issue of Expelled, which was about Darwinism and why it has such a lock on the academic establishment when the theory has so many holes. And why freedom of speech has been lost at so many colleges to the point where you can’t question even the slightest bit of Darwinism or your colleagues will spurn you, you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be publicly humiliated. As they sent me books and talked to me about these things I became more enthusiastic about participating.

Plus I was never a big fan of Darwinism because it played such a large part in the Nazis’ Final Solution to their so-called “Jewish problem” and was so clearly instrumental in their rationalizing of the Holocaust. So I was primed to want to do a project on how Darwinism relates to fascism and to outline the flaws in Darwinism generally.

Compare this to the sneering excuses the producers were publishing back in September:

The release references “Crossroads,” as a “tentative” title, if that’s OK? So just to set the record straight, the film was titled EXPELLED only after we began to see the disturbing pattern and shocking information that the footage reveals! So, thanks for the title guys, we couldn’t have done it without you! And we’re still considering using “Crossroads” for something else! Watch out.

And remember: here’s the blurb that was shown to the scientists about what Crossroads was:

Crossroads – The Intersection of Science and Religion

It’s been the central question of humanity throughout the ages: How in the world did we get here? In 1859, Charles Darwin provided the answer in his landmark book, “The Origin of Species.” In the century and a half since, biologists, geologists, physicists, astronomers, and philosophers have contributed a vast amount of research and data in support of Darwin’s idea. And yet, millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews and other people of faith believe in a literal interpretation that humans were crafted by the hand of God. This conflict between science and religion has unleashed passions in school board meetings, courtrooms and town halls across America and beyond.

Nothing in there about claims of persecution or lack of academic freedom. No references to Hitler or fascism. No accusation of huge holes in evolution. No mention of Intelligent Design. In fact, the wording of the blurb seems to imply (somewhat incorrectly) that Darwin provided the answer to our origins, and that there are vast amounts of research and data that support evolutionary theory.

Now imagine yourself as an employee for Premise/Rampart: say, associate producer Mark Mathis. Take as a given what Ben Stein says he was told the film was all about even years prior to existence of Rampart, the public face you will be using to line up interviews, instead of the real production company, Premise.

How on earth could you possibly innocently sit down and write out that Crossroads blurb given the pretty darn uncompromising and specific description of the movie that Stein describes, which happens to pretty much match Expelled! exactly and Crossroads, almost not at all?


Why Christian scientists Were Expelled from “Pro-Religion” Expelled! Film

April 11, 2008

One of the glaring omissions from Expelled! is the existence of countless religious scientists who happen to support evolution and agree that Intelligent Design is not good science. Since a major thrust of the film is that evolution is not just science, but rather a particular (and distinctively atheistic) “worldview,” the fact that so many people all with very different metaphysical/theological worldviews can all accept evolution as sound science is a huge, huge problem.

How do the producers justify this omission? The implication seems to be that for the mostly evangelical crew that makes up expelled, these scientists, theologians, and everyday believers are all phonies. Producer Ruloff, for instance, claims that geneticist and evangelical Francis Collins is merely “toeing the party line” on evolution. The idea that he could be both a sincere believer and a scientist. What does Collins’ say?

That’s “just ludicrous,” Dr. Collins said in a telephone interview. While many of his scientific colleagues are not religious and some are “a bit puzzled” by his faith, he said, “they are generally very respectful.”

It’s worth fleshing that out a bit more: Dr. Collins certainly has seen his pro-faith arguments criticized by atheist scientists and scholars, which is a bit more than people being puzzled or even respectful. He, for his part, has responses to those criticism. But the point is that you can agree or disagree with either side of that debate without it having any real impact on the debate over evolutionary science. And even if you think that Collins arguments for faith are wrong, or his arguments for evolution are wrong, he’s still very relevant as an example of someone who endorses both.

Over at Higgaion, Christopher Heard transcribes a sit-down discussion between Mark Mathis and the editors of Scientific American. Scientific American editors point out that there are countless scientists who are also Christians who have no problem with evolution and oppose the motives and methods of the Intelligent Design movement. Then they ask why, for instance, one prominent biologist, Ken Miller, (who is also a believing Catholic) wasn’t featured or even mentioned in the film. Mathis replies:

Mathis: But I would tell you from a, my personal standpoint as somebody who’s worked on this project, that Ken Miller would have confused the film unnecessarily. I don’t agree with Ken Miller. I think that you, I think that when you look at this issue and this debate, that really there’s, there’s one side of the line or the other, and you, it’s, it’s hard to stay, I don’t think you can intellectually, honestly, honestly intellectually stand on a line that I don’t think exists—

Doesn’t agree with Ken Miller? On what? Believing in God in the way he does? And why does it matter that Mathis disagrees, whatever that means? Religious opponents of Intelligent Design, religious evolutionary scientists, right or “wrong” these people are all stark counter-factuals to the central dichotomy of the film: that evolution is purely an atheistic worldview, rather than a scientific explanation based on evidence which people of any worldview can appreciate. Mathis doesn’t want them recognized because “they would have confused the film unnecessarily.” On the contrary, these people are a simply reality. It’s thus a very necessary “confusion” (i.e. complication) for anyone trying to understand the debate.

It gets even more ridiculous from there: Mathis apparently isn’t a “theological expert” and thus has no idea until some Catholics inform him that most Catholics are not biblical literalists (Is Mathis? Why do the producers of the film so often seem to just assume that most Christians are?). This is kind of big deal, folks, because it just so happens that Catholics represent the bulk of the world’s Christians. And what’s the official position of Catholicism on evolution? That it’s a reasonable explanation for the diversity of life on earth and is based on the evidence. The Church, of course, requires a list of other additional beliefs (like God ensouling humans at some point, and so on) that all run outside the scope of science, but there is no hard and fast theological impossibility to be seen here.

For Mathis, though, there is this line: “when you look at this issue and this debate, that really there’s, there’s one side of the line or the other.” What Mathis seems unwilling to concede is that there is more than one line. There is certainly a line between accepting evolution as good science or not. But then there is also a line between whether one believes in a god or not. Indeed, that latter line isn’t even a single line either: people can believe or not believe in all sorts of different religious ideas about gods.

The fact is: no position on any these lines directly determines you position on any other, and we have examples with nearly every combination. Logically, they are all distinct and cross-compatible (though, of course, any one specific religious belief may assert something that’s incompatible with evolutionary science… but then it could just as easily be incompatible with another religious belief as well).

Given all this, you can finally see how grossly misleading the core contentions of Expelled! are. It tries to make the case that evolutionary theory implies an ideology they call “Darwinism,” which turns both descriptive science into crude normative assertions as well as making atheism all but inevitable. But if this is the case, how can some of evolutionary theory’s best defenders, and some of Intelligent Design’s harshest critics, hold worldviews and values so radically different from “Darwinism?”

The filmmakers don’t seem interested in even bringing up the subject, and when pressed on it, their escape seems to be implying that these people are basically crazy, or not real Christians, or not really understanding what they, the producers, know evolutionary science is, at heart.

There’s no doubt that Expelled! is grossly insulting to non-believers: trying to imply that we must logically hold or lack all sorts of values. But by neglect and deliberate omission, it’s not much kinder to Christian scientists either.


Ben Stein’s Expelled! Can’t Face Critical Reviews from Scientific American And Michael Shermer

April 9, 2008

Let me just state at the outset that I’m really quite surprised at this point: as all these negative reviews roll in, defenders and promoters of this film seem amazingly scarce outside of their own protected websites and conclaves. They celebrate, instead, the few positive reviews, almost all coming from devoted creationists, and almost all simply parroting and celebrating the claims made in the film rather than analyzing them, as the critics do.

They talk a big game. Their rallying cry is supposedly for more debate and free speech (even if they badly misunderstand those principles). But I’ve seen next to nothing from either the producers nor their fans making any substantive response to these criticisms. Bragging about the existence of harsh criticism just isn’t the same thing as having a good response to it: it’s a means of quickly changing the subject. According to them, however, defenders of science are “scattering” in fear of their assault. And yet, here we are, front and center, taking all comers, with no sign that they have any serious responses to our arguments in turn.

That out of the way… Michael Shermer, one of the many hoodwinked interviewees from the film, has now written up his review of the picture.

Read the rest of this entry »


The 4th Wave of Creationism: Guerrillas for God

April 5, 2008

As Ed Brayton at Dispatches notes, we now have at least six US state legislatures that are either considering or have already passed so called “academic freedom” bills: Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama. In various forms, they all claim to protect teachers from any repercussions for teaching what they term “scientific weaknesses with evolution.” The insincerity of this sudden concern for “academic freedom” is obvious, given that the bills do not protect teachers from teaching children about, say, birth control or 9/11 conspiracy theories. Only the usual stalking horse of conservative creationists is fair game for fifth-grade science teachers.

With so many similar bills appearing in such a short time, all with such similar language and intent, it’s pretty clear that we’re seeing a new phase of in creationist efforts to attack evolution in public school science class. For those unfamiliar, the first three main phases have been Creationism proper, Scientific Creationism, and Intelligent Design, all as outlined in this Dispatches post. The phases have all overlapped to some extent (most obviously in the recycling of many of the same arguments), and advocates of prior phases all remain, though often strategically friendly to the newest effort. But this 4th phase doesn’t go under any sort of banner or title: and that, in fact, is the whole point.

Read the rest of this entry »


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