Archive for April, 2008

It’s worse than I thought

April 30, 2008

As promised, here’s a post on Orangutan Outreach, which director Richard Zimmerman pointed out to me in a comment to an earlier post.

The primary purpose of Orangutan Outreach is to preserve orangutans in their native habitat, and to rehabilitate orangutans held captive illegally. There’s more to it than that, of course, but that is why I refer the reader to their website.

If I’ve read correctly, the main threat to orangutan survival is posed by palm oil production. Palm oil is an ingredient of dozens of household products, as well as the basis for certain biofuels. The production of palm oil has lead to deforestation on a breathtaking scale in many countries, the displacement of millions of people, and the threat of extinction of orangutans, probably among others. The Orangutan Outreach page has information on what everyone can do to reduce this threat.

The page has a staggering wealth of information, pretty much all of which on topics I had never heard of. As I read over it, I began to reflect that, in this day and age, there is no excuse for this kind of ignorance. The continued existence of humanity is under threat from dozens of directions. All these issues can be remedied if action is taken, and all stem in some way from human activity. Further, information on all of these problems is freely available online.

I can easily think of one reason why ignorance of these issues persists. Reading about a small subset of these issues, for instance, has filled me with paralyzing fear. What can one person do in the face of all this? The answer is simple: one can do what one is capable of doing. If we all did that much, ensuring a bright future for humanity would be simple.

That’s enough confused babbling for today. Everybody head on over to Orangutan Outreach right now!

The truth behind biofuels

April 30, 2008

Richard Zimmerman, director of Orangutan Outreach, left a comment on yesterday’s post about the fishing orangutan. I followed the link to the program’s webpage, with the full intention of writing a post about it, when I was sidetracked by a rather horrifying article.

We’ve all heard President Bush’s praise for biodiesel and other biofuels. It may be that rather fewer of us, however, have heard of the major problems with them. A recent study showed, for example, that piofuel production actually hastens the buildup of greenhouse gases. This study was conducted by Nature Conservancy, and was published in the journal Science.

Further, top scientists with an international research consortium have urged that biofuel production be halted. They conclude that biofuel production reduces food availability and increases food prices. Read this article, and the others above, if you want more evidence of President Bush’s penchant for ignoring science.

The article on the Orangutan Outreach website that started this derailment describes a report presented to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The report states that millions of indigenous tribal peoples have been displaced from their land in the production of biofuel crops, including palm oil, sugar cane, corn, soy, mantioc and jatropha. It seems that in many countries, when plans are made to begin a new plantation, any indigenous inhabitants of the land are simply evicted.

This is another nail in the biofuel coffin. Isn’t it time it were buried?

Orangutan attempts to fish

April 29, 2008

This is a pretty awesome story. Adding to the support for the fact that humans are the most cultural animal, as opposed to the only one, an orangutan in Borneo was seen attempting to catch fish from a stream with a spear. He apparently was attempting to imitate the hunting behavior of some local humans. Make sure to follow the link, as it has a pretty impressive photograph.

It just goes to show that the capacity for cultural transmission is one more trait that evolved by slow degrees. Other animals have demonstrated the ability to teach skills to each other and to their offspring. Some examples:

  • Chimpanzees using a complex set of tools to “fish” for termites
  • Orcas teach their young how to fish, and how to make group-specific vocalizations

Human lineage nearly split

April 27, 2008

BBC News has a pretty cool article on some research published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. The claim is that there was an early split between two populations of Homo sapiens early on, and the two populations persisted in isolation for about 100,000 years. Apparently this wasn’t long enough to achieve reproductive incompatibility, because the populations later intermingled, and we’re left with a single species.

This kind of research always kicks off my imagination. What if speciation had occurred between those two African populations? What if they each began the slow march across the world? What if today, we had two separate, reproductively incompatible populations of sentient animals?

According to our modern sensibilities, there is really only one kind of human animal, and we are all essentially the same to a reasonable approximation. A human being from any part of the world can travel to any other part, and barring any cultural conflict, can learn the language of the people, pick up the customs, perhaps even start a family and produce fertile offspring. Our entire concept of ourselves revolves around our notion that there is only one kind of sentient animal on Earth.

What if there were two? What if there were an entire species whose language was forever impenetrable to us no matter how we tried to learn it, because of differences in brain structure? How would we interact with animals like that? Would we consider them beneath us? Would they consider us beneath them?

I don’t know. I could spin out a dozen more questions on this topic, but very few answers. The history of human evolution is a fascinating line of research.

Build up that wall, Mr. Jefferson…

April 23, 2008

…and the rest of us will work to keep it from being torn down.

There are numerous forces at work in the United States on dismantling Thomas Jefferson’s wall. Expelled is a well-known example, as is Florida’s Evolution Academic Freedom Act (which looks as they it may have cleared the Senate. Curses!)

Wandering about the blogosphere (OK, just one blog) has turned up two other egregious yet small-scale examples.

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Arguing with creationists is a waste of time

April 23, 2008

ARGH!  I’ve been sucked into that corner of the Internet where reason goes to die: a YouTube comment thread.

This will surprise no one.  Some clown posts a video in which he claims to be better informed than professional scientists, and the other creationists lap it up. I regret linking to it already; some of my comments might not reflect well upon me.

Irreducible complexity is science…

April 23, 2008

…but intelligent design still isn’t. Even if certain structures were found to be irreducibly complex, this would not count as evidence for intelligent design. Consider the following.

Irreducible complexity, of course, is the hypothesis that some structures are too complex to have arisen by the slow accumulation of changes over time. Its champion is Dr. Michael Behe of LeHigh University. His favorite example to pull out is the flagellum of certain bacteria, which is operated by a molecular motor which propels the only freely spinning axle in the natural world. This is all well known.

The irreducible complexity hypothesis is perfectly scientifically valid, because it yields testable predictions. For any structure postulated to be irreducibly complex, it must be impossible find a plausible sequence of evolutionary intermediates. Either the whole structure is in place, or it is useless, and thus can’t evolve by slow degrees. Therefore, if the structure in question does in fact have a sequence of plausible intermediates, then it is proven not to be irreducibly complex. The hypothesis is perfectly falsifiable (and of course has been falsified for every case in which it is proposed.)

What would happen if a structure were rigorously established as irreducibly complex? Just one thing, and one thing only: that structure would be proven not to have arisen by evolution. This might weaken the position of evolutionary theory, since it would no longer be possible to claim that natural selection and drift are wholly responsible for the origin of biological complexity. There are many things that would empatically not happen, and these are more important.

  • It would not disprove the evolution of structures whose history is well-established.
  • It would not undermine the mountainous evidence in favor of common descent and evolutionary theory.
  • It would not provide any positive evidence at all for the central claim of intelligent design, being that life at some level is the intentional work of an intelligent agent.

So irreducible complexity, scientific though it may be, is a dud from the start from the intelligent design standpoint. If a valid example were shown, all it would do would be to undermine (slightly) the importance of evolution.

Allow me to finish with a testable prediction: such an example will not be found.

S. melanogaster? WTF?!?

April 22, 2008

The newest post on Evolgen breaks an interesting story: the genus Drosophila is in trouble.

You probably remember Drosophila as that adorable mass of writhing, squirming maggots and fruit flies you tended in your high school biology or university genetics class. The most well known representative of the genus is the common fruit fly, D. melanogaster, friend of geneticists the world over. Unfortunately, as the article points out, the genus is not only too large, but is paraphyletic. This means that the most recent common ancestor of all members of the genus is shared by members of other genera. Drosophila is not a good clade. Since our taxonomic system is based on evolutionary relationships, this is a problem.

The post indicates that the most likely course of action will be to split the genus into smaller genera. Since the genus is already split into subgenera, those subgenera will probably simply be promoted one taxonomic level. This means, however, that Drosophila melanogaster will become Sophophora melanogaster!

This doesn’t really change anything, of course. They’re still the same animal. I simply find it personally interesting when the scientific community gets shaken up over things like this. It’s important to keep the taxonomic system consistent, and in line with the best estimate of evolutionary relationships between and among taxa, but it seems like the most resounding consequences of this change will be that high school students will have to memorize how to spell Sophophora instead.

Now we just need to put some weight behind this proposal.

What is it about lava?

April 20, 2008

I’m a pretty curious guy. At any given moment, there are bound to be a dozen questions floating through my mind. “If gravitational force is propagated by gravitons, how is it able to act instantaneously?” “Who invented baldness, and where is he so I can kick his ass?” “Why is the guy at the next urinal staring at me?” The burning question that will make up the subject of this confused rant is the following, “Why does the bad guy in fantasy movies always live in a dark, smoky castle surrounded by molten rock? What is it about lava?”

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Set Ben Stein Straight (please!)

April 19, 2008

I just sent an entry in for the NCSE’s brilliant contest “Set Ben Stein Straight.” It’s very simple. Here’s what you do:

1. Find an erroneous statement by Ben Stein made during the promotion of his ludicrous film, “Expelled.”
2. Explain why that statement is wrong, and why Ben Stein is a moron and a liar. (The last part is optional.)
3. Send the statement and the refuation by e-mail.

All you guys (there are some of you, right?) should drop an entry right now. I doubt Ben Stein will ever read it, but if even one person is saved from the brain-sucking tendrils of ID, ’twill not have been in vain.

Plus it’ll be super funny.