Monthly Archives: November 2007

Forget neutral – how do I get off this runaway train heading over the cliff?

At least I’m not in Texas, where the State Board of Education’s runaway train, driven by their religio-political-appointee Chair, is taking all the children aboard with them as they head full-steam off the cliff and into the dark-ages! So worried are they about protecting the delicate sensibilities of children from the assaults of the E-word from a philosopher of science (SHOCK! HORROR!) that they had to force Chris Comer, the Texas director of science curriculum to resign for the crime of forwarding an email announcing a talk by said philosopher: you know, Barbara Forrest, that scary old wicked-witch who testified in the Dover trial! And was seen most recently on PBS’s re-enactment of the trial, explaining the transitional fossil she discovered connecting creationism with intelligent design. We can’t have young minds corrupted by such truths can we? But if you want to read that horrible email (only when the children are asleep!), it is available on the immoral internets, of course.

Texas Citizens for Science has the whole sordid story. What struck me was the Board of Education’s use of the word “neutral”:

TEA Policy of Neutrality Toward Creationism and Evolution

TEA has a new policy, one of neutrality between biological evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism. This new policy was put in place in September when Dr. Don McLeroy–an outspoken Creationist and activist for Intelligent Design Creationism and its marketing campaign who was appointed the new Chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE) in July–decided to start giving the TEA staff some tough love. By forwarding an email message that publicized a lecture in Austin by Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University professor of philosophy and Dover trial witness, that supported evolution (as required by the Texas science standards) and opposed the teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism, Chris Comer ran afoul of the new policy and was asked to resign or be fired immediately. As we will see, this excuse to terminate Ms. Comer was trumped-up and illegitimate. The memo to her from the TEA contained several other criticisms, all of which were petty or insultingly insignificant. Amazingly, this memo is now available for the public to read thanks to the American-Statesman (see below), and it reveals the lengths to which the top administrators of our state’s public education agency will go to silence dissent from their new policy of not criticizing Creationism.

when their agenda all along was something else.

The real reason Director of Science Chris Comer was forced to resign is because the top TEA administrators and some SBOE members wanted her out of the picture before the state science standards–the science TEKS–were reviewed, revised, and rewritten next year beginning in January 2008, and she would have some influence to make sure the standards were scientifically accurate and of high quality. Plans are underway by some SBOE members and TEA administrators to diminish the requirement to teach about evolutionary biology in the Biology TEKS and to require instead that biology instructors “Teach the Controversy” about the “weaknesses” of evolution, that is, teach the Creationist-inspired and -created bogus controversy about evolution that doesn’t exist within legitimate science. They may even want specific bogus weaknesses required. There are, of course, no legitimate scientific weaknesses with biological evolution as the natural process is understood by scientists. At the level at which it is taught in high school, evolutionary biology has no weaknesses, gaps, or problems. At higher levels, there are poorly-understood concepts, but these are not weaknesses: these are areas that need more research. Therefore, it is duplicitous to pretend such “weaknesses” and “controversy” exist. The so-called controversy is a manufactured controversy, one created primarily by the Discovery Institute to trump up the notion that there are disagreements among scientists about evolution and these should be taught to high school students. This “teach the controversy” and “weaknesses of evolution” ploy is an attempt to disparage, diminish, and distort evolution so students will not have confidence in one of the most highly-corroborated explanations in science.

Still think you can remain neutral on this moving train?

Human Sexual Selection and Arbitrary Traits

Human Sexual Selection and Arbitrary Traits: How Humans are using Lamarkian Principles to Increase their Fitness

By Donnie Copeland

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck gave a lecture in 1800 outlining what he believed to be the driving force behind animal evolution. The basic idea is that the environment changes animals, permitting them to acquire traits that are adaptive enough to ensure survival. The classic case is the giraffe that stretches its neck to reach leaves high above the ground. Over generations it passes this characteristic to its offspring, gradually augmenting the length until it reached the impressive size seen today. This theory was not well supported and was eventually discarded once Darwin’s natural selection theory gained acceptance. So how exactly are Homo sapiens reviving Lamarck’s long lost beliefs?

Americans spend billions of dollars every year on goods and services to augment their appearance; often producing a visage that is completely arbitrary and communicating no fitness-related information to the observer. So why then do so many devote a fair portion of their pay check to purchasing things that aren’t really informing potential mates of the quality of their genes? Well, we need not look further than to nature to find a plethora of cases where mates, particularly males, often possess traits that say nothing other than, “I have this trait and I know you want me so your offspring will have it too!” This is seen in birds that often possess elaborate ornamentations and coloration which do functionally no good (in fact, often handicapping the animal), but are necessary if they are to secure mates.

So what’s different about us humans and how we obtain our shot at reproduction (or at least the genetic transfer part of it)? Let’s take a few moments to compare and contrast a brief history of acquired traits in the form of fashion, make-up, and “body art.” By the way, most of these pictures can be found at:


This reminds me of a great quote from Mr. Burns (The Simpsons), who is of course renowned for his old-fashioned ways: “Damn that Pennybags! Between him and Scrooge McDuck, all the best ankle is taken!”

After seeing these images, one might conclude that Americans are far from the extreme when it comes to changing ones appearance to attract mates.



For men, this may have been the most effective phenotype for mate attraction in history!

Who could forget the decade when women were more masculine than the men?

She may very well be doing this to express herself, or to be “non-conformist.” Ironically, she is only conforming to a different ideal which is to do whatever is viewed as crazy or stupid in the name of self-expression. However, since this appearance is attractive to a certain demographic, it can be “selected” for.

Here is a case where an individual is communicating beliefs, deviance, and “manliness,” all in one sweet package! But how would the desire for such a phenotype arise, ladies?

What these images show is that regardless of what kind of appearance you were dealt at birth, you can ACQUIRE a modified look that can increase your chances of finder a quality mate. What you might also notice is how the “hot look” has changed over the last century in the U.S. The way that make-up is applied, the color of skin, body composition, even our gait has changed; all evolved to suite our preferences. While it is difficult to step away from our current fetishes and consider how a cohort of men would find really long dresses attractive, we must remember that at some point in time, these were the looks that were considered “dead sexy!,” much like the way we might find leg exposure or excessive cleavage. So it seems that ‘skin is in,’ but why should this really be what attracts us given the last few centuries of the heavily-clothed look? Perhaps we are tracking back to our early ancestors, who might have showed lots of skin for the mere purpose of thermoregulation or from the fact that clothing was a luxury when you’re living in a cave and animal skin garments are a scarce commodity.

How these traits ‘evolved’ is likely a case of cultural runaway selection. At some point in history, a preference for a particular trait arose and whichever individuals adopted this look were the ones that got to reproduce. Pragmatically speaking though, such an instance could only arise with the development of culture, as it is culture which tells us what is acceptable and what we should like. Furthermore this does not assume that any individuals without the preferred trait cannot reproduce. In fact, looking at today’s culture, there are many different arbitrary traits which appeal to a specific group of people, and if nothing else there may always be a preference for being the one who does not have any elaborate traits.

What it boils down to is that what is considered attractive or sexy can be completely random. I say “can be random” because certainly there are phenotypic modifications which should be attractive because they do communicate something fitness-related about the individual. Breast augmentation or wearing clothes to accent certain features like the hips would exemplify this case. And even brand name clothing, no matter how strange looking or non-functional, can at least say something about disposable income; though humans are often keen to the fact that this alone is too superficial to be an accurate indicator of socioeconomic status (so of course smart women know to play coy until they see the real assets).

Now to tie this all into human ecology. Remember that we spend billions of dollars on stuff to help us attract a mate. And with those billions comes lots of resource consumption. But since this is mostly arbitrary anyway, we should all come to the consensus that it’s purposeless and should be forfeited for the better good of the earth. I mean come on, if we all want a simple and effective way to seriously reduce our ecological footprint, this is the perfect place to start. The classic sci-fi films had it right decades ago when they portrayed futuristic humans all wearing the same outfit. I say we abolish fashion altogether-who’s with me?

Opening a blogging sandbox for students, again

Once again, this fall semester, I have offered students the option of submitting blog essays for credit. The students from my Human Ecology class are taking me up on this starting today – so I will be posting some student writing here over the coming week or two as the semester winds down. Please leave a comment if you like what they write, or have any other feedback!

Mushrooms, ecology, and Santa Claus

Yes, its that time again! Our next Café Scientifique meeting is coming up soon. And this time, even the Fresno Bee has noticed!

Please note that we are moving to a new location for this one, because Lenny’s Bistro is closing down this week. So here’s a reminder of the December Café with the new location.

Central Valley Café Scientifique presents:

Mushrooms, Ecology, & Santa Claus

by Dr. James Farrar
Plant Pathologist, California State University-Fresno

Monday, December 3, 2007, 6:30-8:30 PM
DiCicco’s Restaurant & Pizzeria
408 Clovis Avenue, Clovis, CA 93612; tel:559.299.2711

The restaurant is located at the southwest corner of Clovis Avenue and 4th Street. We are working with the restaurant to have a simplified menu of options available for the meeting to make things flow more smoothly.

And yes, we are also looking for a more suitable venue, so if you know of a more “bohemian” pub/cafe that might accommodate us, let me know.

Sidr and the Sundarbans

Satellite image of Sundarbans delta from NASA’s Earth Observatory (1999-2000)

Via Rezwan’s continuing excellent blog coverage of Sidr and its aftermath, I caught an all-too-brief alarm bell: “Ecological disaster in Sundarbans feared“, based on a news story from the Daily Star (Bangladesh’s biggest English newspaper?). Oh, and the BBC is also following up on a report in the local Bengali press of some Sundarbans tigers taking refuge in a village to escape the bad weather! Naturally, I would like to know more about the ecological effects on other species besides us, so I just posted the following query to Nathistory-India (The hour is late, and I still have much catching up (on sleep, among other things) to do, so forgive me if I simply copy and paste it here below the fold):

I haven’t seen any postings on Sidr here in Nathistory, but just saw the following report by Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper on the potential impact of its landfall in the Sundarbans. It cites largely anonymous “environmentalists”, “biodiversity experts”, and “forest officers” – and Dr. Ainun Nishat, the IUCN country rep – as fearing an “immense loss to the Sundarbans and its wildlife”. While I can try to imagine what a category 5 cyclone with 135 knot winds and a 7+ foot surge of sea water might do to the mangrove forests and animals in its path, I’m curious to hear more from any biologist who might actually be there. Do any of the experts referred to in the report happen to be participants in this forum? I don’t have a sense of how much representation Nathistory has from Bangladesh, but surely there is someone from the Indian side working in the Sundarbans who has some idea?

Of course, it is still too early for a proper assessment to be made, as I imagine much of the Sundarbans are even more inaccessible now than normally, but I do hope someone is looking at this as a research opportunity as well. This mangrove ecosystem has, after all, evolved under conditions of such extreme disturbance regimes occurring with some regularity – big cyclones are not uncommon in the Bay of Bengal – and presumably has evolved some (considerable) natural resilience. Do we have any idea how resilient the Sundarbans are? And I mean quantitatively rather than qualitatively? More importantly, how have human impacts on the mangroves (and I’m sure many here can jump in to talk about those) affected the resilience of the Sundarbans? I confess to not being up on the literature on this, and am loath (at this midnight hour when I am catching up on news of Sidr) to wading into the 60 odd items google scholar just turned up for “sundarbans, wildlife, resilience” – none of them seem to jump out as promising specific data anyway. I would appreciate any pointers to published or ongoing work – but surely there is a Ph.D. or two’s worth of work to be done here still?

While you may mull that over, here’s the story from The Daily Star:

Sundarbans bears the brunt of hurricane

Pinaki Roy

Environmentalists and bio-diversity experts fear immense loss to the Sundarbans and its wildlife, as the brunt of hurricane Sidr was borne by the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Sidr, with a ferocious wind force of over 220 kilometres per hour (kmph), hit the eastern parts of the forest, especially Chandpai range including Kochikhali, Kotka, Hiron Point, and Dublarchar, leaving a trail of severe devastation. The uprooted trees and destroyed houses on the edge of the forest are reminiscent of the devastation brought to the forest by the cyclone of 1988, sources said.

In 1988, according to official records, nine tigers and several hundred deer perished when a six feet high tidal surge accompanied by 160 kmph wind hit the Sundarbans. Several newspapers published photographs of the corpses of deer, tigers and other wildlife.

But the damage done to the forest by Sidr with its seven feet high tidal surge accompanied with a wind speed of over 220 kmph might be much worse than before.

Some experts said they fear many wildlife including, tigers, deer, crocodiles, wild boars, king cobras, and monkeys might have been washed away and perished under the weight of uprooted trees of the world natural heritage site. Sidr practically ruined the beauty of the Sundarbans, the experts observed.

In recent times more than 400 tigers and hundreds of deer were spotted in the Sundarbans, according to official figures of the forest department.

Some experts however differ with the official figures saying the real number of tigers there is no more than 250.

The experts said the Sundarbans bore the major brunt of Sidr, reducing the impact of it on the adjacent localities.

Dr Ainun Nishat, country representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), Bangladesh, told The Daily Star that much of the wildlife of the Sundarbans might have been washed away by the tidal surge.

A forest officers working in Morelganj area said the situation there is very bad but he could not give an exact description of the situation inside the forest as he could not enter the forest in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.

An official of Red Crescent said many residents of Dublarchar and Shoronkhola were swept away by the tidal surge, 20 bodies of whom were recovered.

I’m also trying to keep up with some of this via my blog (linked below), since some of the science blogosphere reporting on this cyclone has raised some interesting questions (and prejudices) about environmental issues in the region.

Watching Sidr the cyclone unload half a world away…

Image of Sidr taken at 4:57am EST 11/15/07 (from the Navy Research Lab)

So Sidr made landfall at about 1430 GMT on thursday, having at last earned official respect through a Category 5 designation during its final 135 knot (155 mph) sprint on to land. Landfall was apparently over the Sunderbans, so the initial hope was that that mangrove swamp would soak up some of Sidr’s energy, in 155 mph winds and a significant surge of the Bay of Bengal waters (but what about all the tigers?). However, on bdnews24 and Rezwan’s blog, on-the-ground reports from Barishal and other parts inland suggest that Sidr retained at least Category 3 level power or more, and was still heading farther inland at a rapid clip, whipping up well in excess of 100-mile/hr winds. Initial casualty reports from the morning after now count over 250 dead, but overall, there is room for optimism (as I suspected) for Bangladesh appears to have handled this larger-than-Katrina monster much better than in the past.

Having been teaching / reading papers, rather distractedly, most of the day, I hadn’t kept up with Sadr’s progress. A quick check of scienceblogs and Rezwan’s 3rd World View during a break before my evening class brought some of the above updates. And it seems the US mainstream media finally caught up with this story, kicking it up to the top of CNN’s online coverage by the afternoon. The BBC’s South Asia page has better coverage with a unique highlight being the diary of their riverboat crew which was already there on a journey exploring the impacts of climate change! (What a coincidence – but I don’t see them tackily promoting their show unlike Anderson Cooper who was caught (by the Daily Show) repeatedly promoting CNN’s “Planet in Peril” show while he was reporting from San Diego in the middle of last month’s fires!).

And then, a toss-away comment on Pharyngula’s brief notice of Sadr’s strike somehow cut me deep, and I found myself jumping into a heated argument over there (check out comments #9 onward if you are interested!) on the role of overpopulation in Bangladesh’s woes! Awakened something that had been rather dormant in me, this “population bomb” meme, and I couldn’t help myself. Now I’m primed to articulate my thoughts better, threatening even more blogorhhea on the topic – so beware, dear reader of this blog, for you may soon see more on the topic here!

Meanwhile, there were reports of a drizzle (?) over Georgia that Gov. Perdue apparently took as a sign of the sky-fairy answering his public prayers! Whatever… I guess I’ll try to keep my eye on Sidr’s aftermath. Sigh!!

Homage to SIDR? or, why are there so many people in wretched Bangladesh?

Re: Jim Thomerson’s flip comment quoting Paul Ehrlich:

I think it was Paul Ehrlich who cited the fact that people live in Bangladesh as prima facie evidence that the world is overpopulated.
I don’t even know where to begin responding to this kind of insensitive and ignorant remark – and I am actually taken aback to find it on this forum from someone who otherwise seems to share the concern expressed in this post (and thanks PZ for keeping this in the news even as the mainstream media took their time getting to this story).

I don’t know whether Paul Ehrlich ever said such a thing (although I have plenty of other bones to pick over his having his population bomb epiphany in India), but I doubt an ecologist like him would fail to see that Bangladesh is actually perfect habitat for humans to settle in, and is productive enough to support a high population density. It is perhaps the richest delta in the world, with silt from all over the Himalaya pouring in every monsoon, and a warm climate, all leading to high primary productivity. Which translates to plenty of rice, easily grown, and plenty of fish in the rivers – which is what all those poor Bangladeshi’s subsist upon. If that strikes you as the kind of secondary habitat that would be occupied only if the world were overpopulated, I’d say you are really far removed from the processes of food production that sustain human life!

Sorry, I don’t mean to start some debate over whether overpopulation is a problem, but I’d point my fingers at the continued explosion of places like Las Vegas in the middle of hostile deserts, and the excessive consumption of resources they represent, as a much bigger problem for our species and our planet than the millions of poor crammed into the fertile Ganges Delta (of Bangladesh and India).

As for the periodic cyclones, as I’ve said on my blog, I think the Bangladeshis have far greater resilience than even some apparently sympathetic but patronizing westerners give them credit for. They sent help to Katrina victims before the US govt. reacted a couple of years ago – and that is because they know what it is like to suffer such cyclones and hurricanes. But as to how to actually make people safer in the face of such natural disasters, I think that needs a much greater rethinking of our entire outlook on how our species should be living on a dynamic planet – but I’ll save my thoughts on that for another time and place, and not take up too much of PZ’s space here.
Type your summary here.

Type the rest of your post here.

A cyclone and a drought – and just who is praying for Sidr?

Two regions routinely in the path of enormous oceanic storm systems are strangely on opposite sides of extreme weather this week: Bangladesh braces itself (with neighboring portions of India) for the truly awe-inspiring monstrous cyclone SIDR (pictured here in a NASA photo), even as the normally wet south-eastern US, especially the state of Georgia, continue to suffer a long, unusual drought.

If you are in the US you have likely only heard about the drought, since most of the US media remains blissfully ignorant about the approaching disaster in Bangladesh even as Sidr is set to make landfall tomorrow at Category 5 force, with winds in the 130 knot range and showing no signs of weakening: after all, isn’t it routine for that overcrowded, poor, tropical country to get hammered by a cyclone or two every year? Still, there are a few worry-lined faces on the US internets – you know, the habitual late-night weather channel watchers, some science bloggers, and, of course, Chris Mooney, author of Storm World – getting increasingly alarmed by the lack of news coverage and apparent lack of any action on the ground to evacuate people. How much alarm is warranted? Well, coming from that neighborhood, I’d have to say I’m not too surprised by the lack of news, and the apparent slowness of official Bangladeshi or Indian response to this cyclone. At the same time, I have some faith in the resilience of the Bangladeshis and how they might be rallying around to deal with Sidr. Of course, given that Sidr seems larger in area than all of Bangladesh, there cannot be much room to get out of its way, but at least the lowlands must be getting emptied quickly (one hopes!). I’m worried too, but perhaps a teeny bit more hopeful than Mooney or his fellow sciencebloggers. In any case, all we can do is wait and watch…

Meanwhile, what of the drought in Georgia? The US news media have certainly been covering that much more diligently (and I suspect that its been better covered in the Indian media also), for who can resist the spectacle of three of the (suddenly not so) United States going to “war” over water distribution between rural and urban areas, especially that sprawling thirsty metropolitan behemoth Atlanta? I have to confess to finding myself mildly entertained by the political battles, even as I wonder how much of the drought effects are self-inflicted through lack of foresight and planning. But the media cake surely belongs to this bit of religio-political theatre: the Governor of Georgia holding a public prayer meeting on the capitol footsteps, quoting psalms, and praying to “the lord” to pour some water down on Georgia! Did HIS targetting GPS device malfunction this week, I wonder? Or who is praying for that cyclone Sidr? And which one of these two countries is the “underdeveloped” one full of “primitive”, “superstitious” people, again? I wouldn’t be surprised if, even now, Bangladesh offers aid to Georgia before Sunny Perdue’s prayers are over – but what can we expect from the current US government if the worst comes to pass tomorrow in Bangladesh?

NOVA smacks down the cdesign proponentsists

Wow, was that ever a serious smackdown that NOVA just handed down to proponents of intelligent design this evening! No wonder the IDiots at the DI are unhappy. Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial turned out to be an outstanding and gripping documentary of the saga of Kitzmiller vs. Dover School District. Even my 7-yr old Darwinista daughter was pulled in to watching large chunks of it. This one is definitely going on my holiday DVD order list from PBS, and I (like many of my colleagues, undoubtedly) will be pulling some of the outstanding science exposition bits out of it to add some multimedia pizazz to my lectures in Evolution next spring. Not that the social drama wasn’t interesting, but I wouldn’t necessarily take up classroom time with that material.

I could list a number of great things about this documentary were I to attempt a comprehensive review, but I won’t do that here – there are many other better reviews out there that you can read online, including one from the multi-taskmaster PZ Myers, who live-blogged it! If you missed watching the show, wait for the DVD, or go online to the NOVA site on/after Nov 16 and watch it there – and if you can also multi-task, you could fire up the Pharyngula live coverage along with your popcorn and enjoy the thumping of intelligent design in all its multimedia goodness.

As for me, here are some quick highlights, my immediate favorite moments:

  • I somehow didn’t know, and was therefore especially struck by the fact that the whole thing started in Dover over this mural by a student:

    I love it when artists get the creationists’ goat – although in this case the mural was actually burned down by (apparently) the school board member who thus got the ball rolling on this trial. It so often starts with burning art, doesn’t it?

  • The various segments of science interspersed between recreations of the trial (is it just me, or would we all be better off with a good Hollywood recreation of the courtroom drama? How about “Inherit the Wind – Part II”?) were especially good. My favorite would have to be the segment showing the discovery of the transitional tetrapod ancestor fossil Tiktaalik roseae (pictured above), which happened in parallel to the trial.
  • Another wonderful science segment addresses the evolution of the infamous bacterial flagellum. Not only do they have beautiful animations of the flagellum and its likely precursor secretory apparatus, but Nova also shows you how to do proper journalism when confronted with two unequal but opposite arguments. Rather than merely regurgitating the “irreducibly complex” flagellum argument in a (Be)he-said / she-said frame, the show brilliantly brings in DeRosier (Behe’s acknowledged source for the idea) who systematically takes apart Behe’s argument! One side can be wrong indeed – and how badly wrong at that!
  • And the transitional fossil of the day has to be cdesign proponentsists! It was immensely entertaining to watch Barbara Forrest in action digging through the 7000 strata of buried manuscript to find and piece together the missing links between the extinct (I wish) “creationists” and the soon to be endangered “design proponents” via this lovely fossil resulting from a copy-n-paste mutation.

What fun!

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

Clear your schedule next tuesday (Nov 13)evening at 8:00 PM, or set your Tivo/DVR folks! For the PBS series NOVA is set to air Judgment Day, which Nature’s review promises to be a rigorous documentary covering the Dover vs. Kitzmiller trial. How rigorous, you ask? Well the only major participant of that famous trial who refused to be interviewed for the documentary is Michael Behe! They even have Judge Jones reading from his ruling, but no Behe! Surely this ought to be worth watching, right? Will it convince the naive believers (not the hardcore who will keep re-inventing creationism by some other name) that ID holds no water? Maybe not, but this could be one more thing worth keeping on hand to play to some of the misinformed (but “open minded”) relatives one might meet over the holiday season, no?

Here’s a preview.