Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

In a way, it doesn’t much matter to me whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. I guess the question interests me intellectually, but I don’t think I have an ideological investment in it.

Museum display of human with dinosaur

An exhibit at the Creation Museum shows a human happily coexisting with a hungry-looking theropod. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s how it does interest me: I’m writing fiction that is set in the remote past, during a period when the written history is sketchy. The first novel for my Edhai series is called The Cursed Ground, and the first episode is due for release on Jan. 20, 2015. The concept calls for a lot of world-building, and it could be interesting to portray some interaction between the human characters and some large reptile-like or large bird-like animals.

(Just a note that this blog entry highlights the value and relevance of the field of anomalistics to modern research. For a discussion of anomalistics, that is, the study of stuff that doesn’t fit the predominant paradigm in one way or another, see my previous article, “Anomalistics, Pseudo-Skepticism, and the Discovery of a 300-Million-Year-Old Aluminum Machinery Part.”)

But does it make any sense to build a fictional world in which humans are contemporary with dinosaurs, especially for a fiction series that is purportedly “historical”?

How you respond to that question could depend on your ideological stance.

A creationist (by which I essentially mean a young-earth creationist) would say, ‘Of course humans and dinosaurs lived together.’ That view holds that the earth and all life on it are only about 6,000 (or sometimes 10,000) years old. Artwork and even museum exhibits from that camp sometimes show humans and dinosaurs in the same scene.

A materialist would say it’s nonsense to place humans and dinosaurs into the same time frame (materialists love the word “nonsense”). Dinosaurs, at least what most people think of as dinosaurs, lived in the Mesozoic geologic period, according to the timeline most-commonly accepted in mainstream academia. That period is said to have ended 66 million years before the present (b.p.), whereas anatomically-modern humans are only supposed to have appeared within the last half-million years — too late to have ridden a triceratops or to have had to run away screaming to avoid getting stomped-on by a T-Rex.

That said, some intriguing scientific findings in recent years have called into question some long-held assumptions about when the non-avian dinosaurs actually lived. Could the consensus time frame be off — even way off? And could that triceratops horsey-ride have been feasible after all?

geologic time scale

Conventional geologic time scale. Credit: U.S. National Park Service.

Organic material found in a T-Rex fossil: Paleontologist Mary H. Schweitzer Of North Carolina State University stunned the fossil-hunting profession with her 2005 article in Science, “Soft tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex.” In her article, Schweitzer reported finding organic tissue in the femur of a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil. The problem is that, according to the current model of how fossils form, there’s no way any organic material should have remained in a fossil 68 million years old. Any such material should have long ago decomposed and been replaced by minerals, or have been destroyed by radiation.

Many critics claim that her sample must have been contaminated somehow. Schweitzer seems to think that the material really is 68 million years old and that this suggests that current theory about how fossils form might be wrong. That’s a useful idea, but another possibility is that the conventional means of dating fossils is way off, and that the T-Rex in question lived much more recently than is called for in the prevailing view of the geologic past.

Radiocarbon dating finds dinosaur fossils only 22,000-39,000 years old. Traditional paleontologists would never think of applying radiocarbon (RC or C-14) dating to Mesozoic fossils. After all, C-14 dating is only useful going back 50,000-80,000 years b.p., three orders of magnitude too soon. Yet an open-minded group of researchers (calling themselves the Paleochronology Group) decided, Why not? The tests have yielded ages between 22,000 and 39,000 years b.p. for fossils of Allosaurus, Triceratops, Hadrosaur, and Apatosaur.

Critics argue that these RC dates can’t be correct, because the non-avian dinosaurs studied all died out 66 million years ago. In other words, these findings are not in line with the consensus view, so they must be wrong. The Paleochronology Group argues that the conventional potassium-argon method used to obtain the very-old dating of Mesozoic fossils tests the supposed age of the surrounding deposits, not the fossils themselves.

Anyway, these are intriguing findings, and the controversy over them reveals a tendency to deny anomalistic evidence, findings that don’t fit the prevailing paradigm. Such denialism can particularly manifest if critics have an ideological bias that requires a very, very long time frame for life on earth, a long enough time frame for chance and necessity to supposedly produce a vast diversity of life. As atheist champion Richard Dawkins once said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986) Intellectual fulfillment does not die easily.

Anyway, those two sets of findings by paleontologists are suggestive of the possibilities for a novelist writing historical fiction based on Biblical settings. With some speculative elements thrown into the scenario, it might be possible to let some of the human characters encounter some strange and dangerous beasts. In fiction, the anomalous can make for good storytelling.

By the way, if you enjoy reading articles like this — and if you want to keep up with news about my historical-fiction series, The Edhai — please sign up today to receive my free email newsletter.

ARK — 15 January 2015




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I know that’s a provocative title and might sound extreme. However, it’s actually less extreme than the quotation I ran across today by 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in his diary in 1850:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion … while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

[Source: Soren Kierkegaard, The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, pt. 5, sct. 3, no 128 (1850)]

Søren Kirkegaard statue Copenhagen, Denmark

Søren Kirkegaard statue, Copenhagen, Denmark. Via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s a profound idea, and it makes me think about controversies today that center around the “consensus” opinion on questions of science and scholarship. Consensus is a tricky idea, because consensus occurs within a population, and how the consensus emerges depends on how big you draw the circle of people who are allowed to participate.

The problem of consensus comes up these days around the question of evolution. If you drew the circle of participants around the population of biology professors at major American universities, you might conclude that belief in evolution is the consensus opinion, and therefore the majority. But if you drew the circle around the entire adult population, you would get a more mixed result, because many lay people believe in creation. And me? These days, when someone asks me whether I believe in evolution, my usual response is, ‘Well that’s kind of complicated to answer, because I find that people don’t always mean the same thing when they talk about evolution. What does that word mean to you?’

Another magnet for the idea of consensus these days is climate change. One important narrative is that the consensus among climate scientists is that the heat balance of the earth system is increasing because of the greenhouse effect. Another narrative basically says, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ and keeps itself busy by poking holes in the consensus climate science. I’ve decided that where you stand on this issue says more about your ideological leanings than about your science literacy. But it emphasizes again that the idea of consensus is tricky and contingent.

I ran into the problem of consensus again recently, when a Jewish friend opened a Facebook discussion by claiming that the consensus among archaeologists now is that the Hebrew nation was never in slavery in Egypt and didn’t wander in Sinai for 40 years. Therefore, the suggestion was, Jews should stop claiming that the Passover is based on historical events and admit that the whole story is a fiction. My friend linked to an article with kind of thin reasoning, written by an undergraduate in Middle East studies — see “Were Jews ever really slaves in Egypt, or is Passover a myth?” He also linked to “Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?,” a more thoughtful piece by an actual professor, who writes more authoritatively (but who works in Bible studies, not archaeology, and seems really more interested in promoting his pet theories about the Hebrew Scriptures).

The question of the Hebrew exodus is an interesting topic, and I’m putting it on my to-do list to go into the topic more in depth in a future blog entry here. But it relates to this same issue of consensus and majority opinion. If the majority of archaeologists who are directly involved in Egypt and Sinai claim there is no evidence that a large nation of Hebrews lived in the area in the mid-second millennium BCE, what is their claim based on? What should we lay people think about it? Should we just assume they know what they’re talking about and accept it as gospel? Is there a minority opinion that questions the consensus? What are the minority’s arguments?

Anyway, I was struck by that Kierkegaard quote and wanted to pin it to the wall for future reference, because it’s a useful idea. The majority opinion can sometimes be intimidating and often works to get itself established as “The Official Version of the Truth.” Yet, majority and consensus are messy concepts, because whether an opinion is the majority depends on the population you are looking at, whether a narrow population of supposed experts or the larger population of everybody. In any case, all of us should be wary of accepting ideas credulously and taking the easy path of following the crowd.

Here are some previous pieces I’ve written about the question who gets to say what’s true:

“How Much Does Archaeology Really Reveal?”

“How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?”

Also applicable is this piece by a ‘colleague’: “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True”

Also, if you want to keep informed about future articles on this blog, and especially about my historical fiction series set in the ancient world, please sign up for my email newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/2U3Uf

ARK — 25 December 2014


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I know it’s a bit after Columbus Day, but this question came up recently when I heard yet another speaker say that Columbus proved the earth is round when he sailed across the Atlantic and didn’t fall off the edge of the world. The story goes that in the Middle Ages everyone believed the earth was flat, and that the courageous Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian) went to Queen Isabella of Spain and got her to finance his voyage across the ocean to prove everybody was wrong.

15th century global

A 15th-century Columbus-era globe. Credit: Alexander Franke, via Wikimedia.

This question about the shape of the earth and Columbus’s voyage sometimes comes up in discussions of the authenticity of the Bible, which is why I bring it up here. Critics of the Bible often claim that the Bible is unscientific. They might point to statements in the Bible that supposedly prove that its writers believed in a flat earth, as if using figurative language such as “the four corners of the earth” (Rev 7:1) or ‘the rising and setting of the sun’ (Ps 113:3) were somehow verboten.

Many of us who are students of the Bible accept it as an inspired expression of a divine Author. At the same time, it is literature and its individual writers were human, so there is nothing wrong with their use of literary devices. The Bible is not a science textbook, but we like to point out that when it touches on matters of proven science, it is accurate. There’s a lot to say about that topic, but one point we sometimes bring up is that the Bible as early as the 8th century BCE described the shape of the earth as round. Isaiah 40:22 describes that shape as a “circle” or “sphere” — chug in Hebrew.

While it’s beneficial to point this out, sometimes I hear folks add that the shape of the earth was not known until Columbus proved it in 1492. This is not accurate. In fact, the spherical shape of the earth was known by Greek scientists as early as the 5th century BCE. Here are a couple of articles that discuss this question briefly:

The best article I’ve seen on this topic, though, is “Inventing the Flat Earth,” by historian Jeffrey Russell, in History Today. Unfortunately, that article is not available online outside of a paywall. However, following are a few points of interest from Russell’s piece.

Russell writes that “after the fifth century BC very few Greek writers thought of the earth as anything but round.” In the Greek and Roman worlds in the last few centuries BCE, maps showing a round earth as well as “three dimensional globes … were used publicly as educational tools.” After that and all through the Middle Ages, the roundness of the earth was generally known among educated people, with flat-earthers few and far between and little-respected.

Russell says that the “Flat Error” or “Myth of the Flat Earth,” that is, the misconception that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat, was not widely disseminated until the early 19th century, when the American writer Washington Irving popularized the idea in his partly fictional writings about Columbus. After that time, it became common to portray the Middle Ages as a time of scientific ignorance, with belief in a flat earth as an important trope.

Interestingly, Russell writes, the Flat Error became a rhetorical tool in perhaps the most important ideological battle of the 19th century:

The Flat Error became an article of almost unquestioned faith for historians from the 1860s onward, and for a very deliberate reason. The Darwinist controversy was underway, and Positivists wanted to discredit the anti-Darwinists as foolish bumpkins. To do this they wanted both to compare resistance against evolution with resistance against sphericity and to incorporate it as part of a historical pattern of religious resistance to science. They created the historical myth of the warfare of theology and science.

Russell makes the interesting assertion that the persistence of the Flat Error really comes down to prejudice: “medieval people were so superstitious they must have believed in something as foolish as the flat earth.” Underlying this, he believes is “the Protestant prejudice against the Middle Ages for being Catholic, the Rationalist prejudice against Judeo-Christianity as a whole, and the Anglo-American prejudice against the Spanish…”

He believes that it comes down to fear as well, the fear of giving up cherished ideas, in way,  the fear “of falling off the edge of knowledge.” Easier “to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”

ARK — 21 October 2014



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In the popular mind, geological processes are extremely slow — the past was very much like the present, and the layers of soil, rock, and sediments that can be observed on cliffsides and in gorges were laid down very slowly, over thousands or millions of years. This concept of uniformitarianism is tied up in the popular imagination with evolution, which is also supposed to require eons of time to do its work.

Because geological uniformitarianism and evolutionism so conveniently prop one another up in so many people’s superficial beliefs about science, it’s not surprising that popular media don’t say much about catastrophism — the idea that geological processes can happen very quickly. Better not to complicate matters by revealing too many nuances and complexities.

Debris from Mt. St. Helens landslide

Unfortunately, then, it often falls to creationist groups to present evidence that geological processes can happen very slowly or very quickly and that it can be hard to tell the difference. As an example, I thought this article from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) was interesting: “Mt. St. Helens and Catastrophism,” by Steven A. Austin, Ph.D., chair of the geology department at ICR. ICR teams have studied the geological changes that occurred as a result of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. (The photo shown here is linked from the U.S. Forest Service web site about the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.)

Here is an interesting excerpt from Austin’s article:

Up to 400 feet thickness of strata have formed since 1980 at Mount St. Helens. These deposits accumulated from primary air blast, landslide, waves on the lake, pyroclastic flows, mudflows, air fall, and stream water. Perhaps the most surprising accumulations are the pyroclastic flow deposits amassed from ground-hugging, fluidized, turbulent slurries of fine volcanic debris, which moved at high velocities off the flank of the volcano as the eruption plume of debris over the volcano collapsed.

Austin adds that:

Conventionally, sedimentary laminae and beds are assumed to represent longer seasonal variations, or annual changes, as the layers accumulated very slowly. Mount St. Helens teaches us that the stratified layers commonly characterizing geological formations can form very rapidly by flow processes. Such features have been formed quickly underwater in laboratory sedimentation tanks, and it should not surprise us to see that they have formed in a natural catastrophe.

Austin’s article discusses rapid erosion that has occurred as a result of mudflows, including a 140-foot-deep canyon system. He also describes a mat of upright logs that has formed in spirit lake, which offer an alternative interpretation of petrified forests that have been found at other locations. Geological processes have also laid down a rapidly-form peat layer that resembles coal beds found in other locations.

AB — 16 February 2011

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A recent story from BBC News emphasizes how difficult it can be to pick out the science from the hype when reading science news reporting.

The article, “Woolly mammoth extinction ‘not linked to humans’,” explains some recent research by a Durham University professor based on a computer simulation of climate change over the last 42,000 years, and how this would have affected vegetation.

This sounds pretty interesting, but what struck me more than anything was the way the results were reported, certainly by the BBC reporter, possibly by the researchers as well.

Reading the headline, you would think the case is closed — our hunter-gatherer ancestors are not guilty — vindication at last! “Woolly mammoth extinction ‘not linked to humans’.”

One clue that the truth is more nuanced can be seen in the BBC headline writer’s weaselly use of single quotes. The headline writer can make the article sound more sensational, while using the quotation marks to shift the burden of proof on others. (See a colleague’s comments on this practice: “John the Baptist’s Bones and BBC’s Quotation Marks.”)

The article says that the reason for the mammoth’s extinction has been controversial. Some scientists claim it was climate change, others that it was encroachment by humans. Others have rolled in the beloved deus ex machina of a meteor strike.

Now, according to the BBC writer, “that debate has been settled.” Case closed! Congratulations on your latest sensational science story!

But then I notice a quote from the actual scientist:

What our results have suggested is that the changing climate, through the effect it had on vegetation, was the key thing that caused the reduction in the population and ultimate extinction of mammoths and many other large herbivores,” he said.

“Our results have suggested…“? Humans have been exonerated and debates have been settled based on … ‘suggestions’?

Certainly a computer simulation of climate change and its affect on vegetation is interesting and useful, but it’s really just one piece of scientific evidence. And, like any computer program, a simulation is subject to one of the basic limitations on any computer program: Garbage in, garbage out. Not that the simulation is wrong, but it could be, especially if it is programmed based on erroneous assumptions.

When reading science news reporting, or original scientific research for that matter, it’s important to realize that it’s difficult to prove definitively what happened in the past. And the further in the past the events in question, the harder it is to prove anything, without written records by reliable observers.

Digging up bones, fossilized pollen, or pottery shards from the ground is valuable work, as are analyzing DNA and running computer simulations. But the interested reader needs to keep in mind that scientists (and the journalists who write about their work) have skin in the game in one way or another — whether that be professional ambitions, funding to attain, reputations to uphold, or just plain personal ideologies to justify.

ARK — 21 August 2010

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[Updated 18 June 2010]

This post is always going to be a work in progress, as there is a lot to say about it and there seems to be no end to the lunacy of those who adhere to Evolutionist ideology.

Normally I steer away from the design-evolution debate, but I think it will be useful for public discourse — and also for the Edhai project — to articulate some thoughts about what I call “knee-jerk evolutionism.”

I use the term “evolutionism” because for many writers, researchers, and commentators, a belief in evolution rises to the level of ideology — 10 percent science and 90 percent disingenuous credulity.

I use the descriptor “knee-jerk” because for many people evolution has become an unquestionable underlying assumption and is often trotted out for the skimpiest of reasons as an explanation for human behavior or phenomena in nature.

When I use the word “evolution,” I use it in its fullest sense, as in this definition:

Organic evolution is the theory that the first living organism developed from lifeless matter. Then, as it reproduced, it is said, it changed into different kinds of living things, ultimately producing all forms of plant and animal life that have ever existed on this earth. All of this is said to have been accomplished without the supernatural intervention of a Creator. Some persons endeavor to blend belief in God with evolution, saying that God created by means of evolution, that he brought into existence the first primitive life forms and that then higher life forms, including man, were produced by means of evolution.

(Source: Reasoning From the Scriptures. Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1985).

Recent examples of the Evolutionist ideology can be seen in the otherwise-excellent books The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan and Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Both authors fall back on evolutionary psychology and sociobiology and the requisite just-so stories as explanatory tools for phenomena in nature and human psychology.

A post on BoingBoing from Andrea James on 11 January 2010 makes some great points about knee-jerk Evolutionism — see “What’s wrong with evolutionary psychology?” James provides this excellent list of “often-believed tenets of evolutionary psychology”:

  • Computational mind (the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ)
  • Determinism (biology is destiny)
  • Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion)
  • Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will)
  • Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable)
  • Intelligence is definable and measurable
  • Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism
  • The “function” or “purpose” of life is to make more life
  • The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.

James also quotes a hilarious (but not untypical) example from one paper that maintains that “women’s brains developed to prefer pink because their brains specialized with trichromacy for gathering fruits”:

… these underpin the female preference for objects ‘redder’ than the background. As a gatherer, the female would also need to be more aware of color information than the hunter. This requirement would emerge as greater certainty and more stability in female color preference, which we find. An alternative explanation for the evolution of trichromacy is the need to discriminate subtle changes in skin color due to emotional states and social-sexual signals; again, females may have honed these adaptations for their roles as care-givers and ’empathizers.’

Another particular silly example of sociobiology attempts to explain why middle-aged men embarrass their kids by dancing awkwardly at weddings (see “‘Dad dancing’ may be the result of evolution, scientists claim,” Matthew Moore, Telegraph):

The cringeworthy “dad dancing” witnessed at wedding receptions every weekend may be an unconscious way in which ageing males repel the attention of young women, leaving the field clear for men at their sexual peak.

“The message their dancing sends out is ‘stay away, I’m not fertile’,” said Dr Peter Lovatt, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire who has compared the dancing styles and confidence levels of nearly 14,000 people.

I expect to update and expand this entry from time to time, as the silliness in this area of fringe science is never-ending.

ARK — 10 December 2009

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Should the Neanderthal people be looked at as a group of humans that lived only before the Deluge or only after the Deluge — or both?

It’s an interesting question. What brings it to mind for me is the discovery of a Neanderthal skull fragment at the bottom of the North Sea, 15 km off the coast of the Netherlands — the first known human specimen ever to be found on a sea bed. For more details, see the BBC News article “Sea gives up Neanderthal fossil.”

As I understand it, mainstream researchers believe that the Neanderthals lived about 400,000-30,000 BP (before present). This would place their period of habitation during the Pleistocene, spanning the Middle, Lower, and Upper. I believe the Pleistocene is also considered concurrent with the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age.

Many consider this dating to be highly conjectural. Basing a dating system on radioactive techniques involves certain assumptions, and it is possible that these attributed time periods are ballooned by orders of magnitude.

So I guess there are multiple questions to consider:

  • Should the Pleistocene and Paleolithic in fact be considered concurrent?
  • Does it make sense to consider the Pleistocene as pre-flood, post-flood, during the flood, or some combination?
  • Or should the Pleistocene be thought of not so much by timeframe but by environmental circumstances? In other words, is what we think of as the Pleistocene merely an ancient environmental condition that could have occurred in various geographies during many time periods both pre- and post-flood?
  • Should Neanderthals be considered an extinct group that perished in the Deluge, or a natural (but now-extinct) human variety whose genetics survived with Noah and his family?

My current tendency is to consider the Pleistocene as a period starting before the Deluge, and continuing through the flood and a little after, as the flood waters and frozen areas retreated. I think of the Neanderthals as an exclusively post-flood race.

But I would be very interested in comments from other researchers on these questions.

Could the skull fragment found on the bed of the North Sea be a remain from someone who died in the Deluge? It’s an intriguing thought.

The BBC News article is fascinating and worth reading. Here is a link to a photo of the Neanderthal skull fragment (the bulge on the right is the man’s brow ridge):

And here is a link to a great artist’s rendering of what a Neanderthal man might have looked like — much more interesting (and probably more realistic) than the ape-like images so often put forward:

ARK — 18 June 2009

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The Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company of Houston, Texas, is premiering (May 14-30, 2009) a controversial play, The Third Side, written and directed by playwright and screenwriter Tom Vaughan.

The play centers on an untenured university biology professor, Henry Darden, who stirs up a hornet’s nest by admitting that he thinks Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection is not a sufficient explanation for all the diversity of life. Henry believes in evolution and thinks natural selection is part of the story, but, he says in the opening scene,

…. in my humble opinion, when the last chapter on evolution is finally written, natural selection will prove to be a small part of a much larger story and yet another example of the scientific consensus getting it seriously wrong.

In spite of the essential reasonableness of his views and their grounding in good science, Henry is swept up into a public controversy in which he is labeled an extremist and accused of being anti-science. His eligibility for tenure is threatened, and the controversy even affects his family life.

What’s interesting to me is that The Third Side itself has generated controversy that parallels in some ways the content of the play.

In his writer’s notes for The Third Side, Vaughan says that Henry’s character holds views that are “based on the ideas of well-qualified scientists” who “are not creationists” and “do not believe in Intelligent Design.”

Vaughan himself does not subscribe to creationism or intelligent design, admitting that he is “not qualified to have a worthwhile opinion on who exactly is right in this scientific debate.” But the play was inspired by what he calls “the blistering, often personal attacks on these [non-mainstream scientists] by their colleagues.”

Vaughan says that during the writing of the play he sought the views of scientists, academics, and researchers to make sure that his play would present an accurate and well-rounded view of the issues and the science involved. During that process, he himself encountered hostility when communicating with some experts who hold more mainstream views on evolution:

They were openly hostile to not just the play but the very notion that these minority views should be given a voice at all. The interviews with the notable scientists these ideas are based on were attacked without being read. One individual even suggested that the interviews were probably just made up and not worth reading in the first place.

While this hostility came from only a few, and only from the academics, it was enough to assure me that the basic thrust of the play was essentially correct.

In spite of this opposition from some quarters, Vaughan says that “many more people have helped tirelessly with this production who still disagree with the arguments presented by Henry Darden.”

He particularly expresses appreciation for intelligent-design advocate William A. Dembski for his assistance:

Knowing full well that I did not agree with his views, Dr. Dembski still took the time to read the play to help assure the accuracy of how the ideas behind ID were portrayed. He even suggested a fine story note that I used and I think the play is better for it. I am very grateful for his trust, his generosity, and most of all his open-mindedness.

As the drama progresses, it becomes evident that Henry’s opponents are motivated less by their commitment to scientific integrity, and more by fear — especially fear that if any one breaks ranks with orthodox darwinism, that could let the camel’s nose into the tent, so to speak — it could give religious forces a wedge to gain legitimacy.

After reading to a colleague some critical emails he has received, Henry says, “These are political complaints. The are not challenges to the work.”

At the end of Act 1, an exchange between Henry and William, an ID advocate, highlights an interesting point about certainty.

Henry tells William that he thinks ID proponents “commit the same error the Darwinists do. You assume what you’re trying to prove.” Both sides insist it is an either-or issue. “Either natural selection or design. And you’re using evidence against one as proof for the other.”

However, William tactfully makes the point that Henry, too, is assuming what he is trying to prove when he insists “there’s no evidence that God exists.”

At this point, both characters come to a useful realization about certainty. Henry says:
There is a feeling of knowing that a person has when they know something to be true. Your name, or two plus two equals four.
Both characters admit they have had that feeling of certainty about something that turned out to be wrong. William says,
So that feeling — that feeling of knowing — it feels the same when you’re correct or incorrect. The brain can’t really tell the difference.

At this point, both characters come to a useful realization about certainty. Henry says:

There is a feeling of knowing that a person has, when they know something to be true. Your name, or two plus two equals four.

Both characters admit, though, they have had that feeling of certainty about something that turned out to be wrong. William says,

So that feeling — that feeling of knowing — it feels the same when you’re correct or incorrect. The brain can’t really tell the difference.

To me, this conversation, while fictional, illustrates the value of dialogue — both parties can benefit from a free exchange of ideas, and general knowledge can be advanced. That kind of dialogue is most useful when it occurs on an individual level, which is less likely to happen when individuals feel compelled to join sides and resort to dirty politics.

Later, in Act 2, Henry confronts one of his colleagues about her dogmatic position on natural selection, and accuses her of following “a new religion that wants to usurp the old one.” The old religion “put God in the gaps. You just put natural selection in the gaps.” He continues:

Face it. We’re not special anymore. We don’t live up to the standards we claim to have. We’re just another group of people saying, “I know what I know” — claiming the intensity of our conviction is proof in itself.

Besides making interesting commentary on current issues in science, The Third Side is a good story of character and relationships. In the end, Henry’s sense of integrity saves him from compromise through a ‘deal with the Devil.’ At the same time, not everything works out perfectly for the protagonist, and Vaughan leaves Henry with a realistic mix of messiness and ambiguity in his life.

ARK — 20 May 2009

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I’ve often read or heard people say that humans and chimps share 99 percent of their genetic makeup. However, I’ve suspected that this was an oversimplification. One reason is that I’ve also read the figure 99.5 percent, as well as 70 percent and 25 percent. I also know that science doesn’t yet know everything there is to know about genetics.

Oh yes, the other thing is that in practical terms and everyday life, humans are a whole lot different from chimps.

So I was interested in reading an article on the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News and Views by Richard Sternberg — see “Guy Walks Into a Bar and Thinks He’s a Chimpanzee: The Unbearable Lightness of Chimp-Human Genome Similarity.”

Sternberg is a science editor who was hounded out of the Smithsonian for publishing an article sympathetic to intelligent design research. (See “Article That Sparked Flap at Smithsonian.”)

Sternberg’s article is interesting and fairly intelligible for the average person interested in science. But even without my understanding all the details, his article confirms my previous suspicion that the often-cited 99 percent figure is based on oversimplification and imperfect knowledge of genetics.

ARK — 18 May 2009

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An article from The Daily Galaxy points to some interesting genetic research showing that Neanderthals had the same “language gene” as modern humans. (See “Did Neanderthals Share the “Language Gene” with Homo Sapiens?“)

In an article in Current Biology, geneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, describes the process by which he and colleagues obtained enough usable Neanderthal DNA to test for FOXP2, the gene in question. (See “The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals“)

The Daily Galaxy article says that “FOXP2 is thought to be crucial to the development of language as it governs the fine control of muscles that is needed to form words with the larynx, lips and tongue.”

Since no known written accounts have been discovered about the culture of Neanderthals, one couldn’t directly prove that Neanderthals had language, just that they had the physical capability for it.

Pääbo believes that the last common ancestor between Neanderthals and modern humans was 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. The Wikipedia article on Neanderthals says that the group is believed to have become extinct by about 24,000 years ago.

I would inject the comment that these fantastically long time periods are conjectural and rest on various assumptions, especially the assumption that life is the result of evolutionary processes that operate very slowly.

This information lends support to the idea that Neanderthals and humans are really just different varieties of the human kind. The original human pair no doubt contained the genetic capability for great genetic diversity. Many strains of the human family could have appeared and been extincted by genocide, environmental upheavals, or catastrophes.

ARK — 30 March 2009

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