Monday, April 3, 2017

Catching up again

It's been a busy month.  Most of my time has been consumed with production on biology lessons for, and that's meant too many 13-hour days trying to get everything done.  The good news is that I've reached the end of that work.  I'll be putting the finishing touches on our final biology lessons this week!  Through that outreach, Core Academy reaches 6,000 families!  So it's definitely worth the long hours.

We also had our third Smoky Mountain Creation Retreat, and it was the biggest one yet.  We sold out for the first time ever, and we had nine students this year.  As usual, everyone stayed up way too late talking, which is kind of the point.  On Saturday, a bunch of folks went off hiking, while the rest of us just relaxed.  It was a great weekend!  I definitely want to thank all the donors to Core Academy who make this retreat possible every year.

Meanwhile, the world is still waiting for the details on the surprisingly recent date for Homo naledi and the revelation of the remains from Chamber 102.  I have no idea what's going on.  Probably editorial stuff.  Based on an article from The South African, I thought the big announcement was coming March 18, which admittedly seemed odd since it was a Saturday, but that didn't happen.  The book release for Berger's Almost Human has been pushed back again to May 9.  I did notice this morning that the American Association of Physical Anthropologists are meeting in New Orleans on the weekend of April 21, so if I had to guess, I'd say that will be the unveiling.

In other interesting science news, the age of the Little Foot skeleton has been questioned again.  Little Foot is the most complete and pristine australopith fossil ever discovered, and Ron Clarke has been working on it for nearly 20 years now.  It was found in a cave deposit in the Silberberg Grotto in Sterkfontein (literally around the corner from where Homo naledi was discovered).  Previously, researchers suggested a date of 3.67 million years, but this new paper argues that it's actually younger than 2.8 million years.  Who's right?  Honestly, the site sounds like it has a hugely complicated deposition, and it's way above this biochemist's pitifully small geology understanding.  I am fairly sure, though, that we haven't heard the last of the 3.67 million year date.

Also, genomic DNA sequences from the Wrangel Island mammoths have been published, and they're fantastic.  Wrangel Island is a Siberian island where a population of mammoths until surprisingly recently.  The most recent fossils from Wrangel Island date to 2000 BC by carbon dating.  The mammoths there were also dwarfs, and the isolation of this population on an island gives us an opportunity to study the effects of small population size on genomes.  What the researchers found was a surprisingly large number of loss-of-function mutations.  This confirms the basic idea that natural selection is less effective in smaller populations.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Origins 2017 Call for Abstracts

The Origins 2017 call for abstracts is now available at the Creation Biology website:

Origins 2017 Call for Abstracts

This year, the conference is in sunny San Diego at San Diego Christian College on July 20-22.  The conference begins Thursday morning and runs through Friday, with a field trip planned for Saturday.  We'll open registration once we finalize the costs, but for now, get your abstracts in!  And please tell your friends, students, and colleagues.  ABSTRACTS ARE DUE MAY 5, 2017!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Learning more

Tully Monster

Sometimes creationists criticize theistic evolutionists because merging theology and the science of the day is always dependent on what exactly the science of the day is. Historically, we know that science changes. We know there are big "paradigm shifts" that change our perspective on every part of a field, even though such shifts are rare. Modifying theology in light of the changing landscape of science seems like a poor idea, especially if you want to mess around with more important issues of Christian theology. Perhaps it's best to leave the theology alone, and wait to see if the science modifies itself.

Unfortunately, what I think is a legitimate point about the nature of science often comes across quite badly.  I've heard creationists sneering at reports of scientists changing their minds. I've heard creationists laughing at such reports and saying, "Scientists really don't know anything!" Others have exclaimed, "It's all just speculation!" I've heard speakers basically imply that science is unreliable and can't be trust at all. I certainly get the sense from some of these folks that they really are anti-science.

We really need to be careful how we phrase this argument. On the one hand, modifying major points of theology in light of the science of the day is not necessarily a good plan, but that doesn't mean science is bogus. What we should be saying is that perhaps we should let the science work itself out, because that's what science does. Scientists learn new things, and they modify what they thought they "knew" about the world in light of new knowledge. Science values discovery. We love learning new things.

Besides all that, casting aspersion on science cuts both ways. How can we credibly present scientific research that supports a young-age creationist position and then turn around and disparage science? That's just shooting ourselves in the foot.

With that said, let's learn some new things. Back in 2014, I was very excited to read reports of the discovery of the weird critter Dendrogramma:
...these peculiar creatures were dredged from the ocean bottom off Tasmania in 1986.  They are definitely animals, but they don't look like anything previously known to science.  The authors classified their discoveries in a new family Dendrogrammatidae, but they declined to go any farther.  The specimens are probably a whole new phylum of animals, but we don't know for sure.  They could be really, really weird-looking worms or jellyfish or something like that.  Having DNA sequences would help clear that up, but the samples were treated with formalin, which makes recovering DNA difficult.
Last year, there was a less heralded report in Current Biology written by O'Hara and colleagues identifying Dendrogramma. Their research team found additional specimens of Dendrogramma, from which they could isolate DNA sequences. Although these critters are very weird looking, they are not so exotic after all. Turns out they're in the jellyfish phylum Cnidaria, and specifically in a family called Rhodaliidae. So Dendrogramma is a really odd-looking jellyfish-type critter instead of a new phylum altogether.

More recently, I blogged about the strange fossil Tully monster (above) being identified as a vertebrate. I wrote,
These critters are really strange, with eyes mounted on stalks and a mouth at the end of a long, narrow snout.  What could this thing possibly be? McCoy and colleagues published a research paper this year that described a detailed examination of 1,200 different fossils of Tully monsters.  They concluded that, believe it or not, the Tully monster is a kind of vertebrate, possibly similar to lampreys.  This research won't end the discussion of this strange creature, but McCoy's paper will remain a standard reference on Tully monsters.
It turns out that I was right. That paper not only didn't end the discussion about Tully monsters, it spawned a completely new discussion of fossil preservation. In a recent paper in the journal Palaeontology, Sallan and colleagues argue that the features used to identify the Tully monster as a vertebrate were misidentified. They note that some vertebrate characteristics not found in Tully monsters should be more surprising if Tully monsters were vertebrates, because other vertebrates from the same fossil deposit do preserve those characteristics. Once again, I'm sure we haven't heard the last of the Tully monster.

Should we conclude from these studies that scientists are clueless? Quite the contrary, the self-correcting nature of science is a valuable thing. These studies help us understand how further research is important. Nothing in science is unquestionable. We can always learn new things. And that goes for creation research, too. Who knows what the next discovery will bring?

O'Hara et al. 2016. Dendrogramma is a siphonophore. Current Biology 26:R457–R458.

Sallan et al. 2017. The ‘Tully Monster’ is not a vertebrate: characters, convergence and taphonomy in Palaeozoic problematic animals. Palaeontology DOI 10.1111/pala.12282.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Lab Meeting 4: Beetlemania

It's been a while since I checked in with a report on our research. Things have been coming along pretty well in the trillium project. We've gotten some genomic DNA sequences from our trillium samples, but we're still working on getting the ones we're looking for. The next batch of sequences look promising, so I'm hopeful we'll start making substantial progress on that work in the very near future.

Our other intern is working on created kinds of mammals, and while she ploughs through all of that, I've been playing around with beetles.  Specifically, the weevils of superfamily Curculionoidea.

The tricky thing about insect created kinds is that they are so diverse. The weevil superfamily contains about 60,000 species, most of which are in the weevil family Curculionidae. That's a lot of species. Previous studies of vertebrates have hinted that the family classification might be roughly equivalent to a created kind in some instances, but we don't really know much about insect created kinds. Because, like the weevils, their families are huge.

I recently obtained a set of characters for weevils that includes more than 500 taxa from a broad sample of weevil diversity. It's not 60,000, but it's pretty big. Certainly big enough to be really interesting. I needed a three-foot square plot to get the whole baraminic distance diagram to where I could actually read the labels, even with tiny font. So that was fun!

You'll also noticed I colored the dissimilarity red so it stands out better. The size of the thing still makes me a little dizzy looking at it. People prone to seizures should probably look away. I'm not sure how I'm going to publish this thing.

Why do I care about weevils?  Because bark beetles are part of the weevil family, and we have an ongoing research project on bark beetles. Check it out:

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The False Dichotomy

Is Genesis History? has been shown twice now, and I've been casually following reactions, mostly on social media. I've been alternately sympathetic to and dumbfounded by the negative reactions.  In this post, I want to deal with one major recurring theme, which, as you've already guessed, is the false dichotomy.

The day the movie opened, Paul Nelson, one of the experts in the film, posted a dissent from the film on the day it opened, and I got some emails asking me what's going on. Paul's concerned about what he sees as a "false dichotomy" between historical Genesis and the "conventional view," which he described in the movie as "all the complexity of life [constructed] by strictly physical processes" (his quote).  According to Paul, it's possible to question the historicity of certain parts or interpretations of Genesis and still believe that God had to intervene to create life or major groups of creatures.  The dichotomy as he described it in the movie isn't fair to Christians who take an old-earth view or who hold to some kind of intelligent intervention during evolution.

BioLogos also posted a passionate rejection of the movie from a geological perspective, with a three person by-line of Gregg Davidson, Joel Duff, and Ken Wolgemuth. They decried the same thing:
A false dichotomy is created from the very first words by giving the viewer the impression that the world is divided between those who believe Genesis is history and those who believe it is merely a collection of myths.
Jeff Zweerink at the old-earth creationist ministry RTB says much the same, but he adds a nice little conclusion:
... the false dichotomy presented in Is Genesis History? creates an unnecessary dividing line in the church, one that is harmful to unity in the body of Christ and hinders our witness.
Then in a baffling turn, he compared the film to a couple Youtube videos advocating a flat earth.  Because, you know, the best way to respond to a "false dichotomy" that lumps old-earth creationists together with atheists is to create a false dichotomy that lumps young-age creationists with flat-earthers.  That'll just cut the dividing line even deeper.

Looking at social media, I saw the same complaints about the "false dichotomy." I even heard from people at church about it. Some people expected an actual evaluation of two views (given the tagline "Two competing views... one compelling truth"), but what they got was a one-sided presentation of young-age creationism.

Does the film present a false dichotomy?  From the world outside of young age creationism, it definitely does.  Lumping all the other positions on creation and evolution into one monumental thing isn't really fair to the vast diversity of opinions out there. That part is quite correct, and if I was an old-earth creationist or theistic evolutionist, I would definitely be bothered by that.

Unfortunately, the reality is that we all divide people up into "us vs. them."  Let's face it, BioLogos would have you divide up the world into BioLogos vs. those who reject all of science.  That's not remotely fair.  Paul Nelson wants the dividing line to separate those who accept design and those who accept only naturalistic processes.  That division would exclude those, like BioLogos, who think the "naturalistic" processes are God's design.  RTB's dividing line isn't so easy to summarize but I guess it would cut off Christians who think the world is young on the one hand and those who think evolution is real on the other.

More importantly, these "us vs. them" dichotomies represent something deeply real to those who present them.  For BioLogos, the idea of rejecting science is a powerful and compelling theme.  Even though I see right through that as a false dichotomy, for them, it's an overwhelming reality.  Likewise for us young-age creationists: Unraveling the history revealed in Genesis 1-11 is at the least very worrisome and at worst a potential road to apostasy (even though young-age creationism is emphatically not a gospel issue).  The theological importance of the historical Genesis is a giant theme of young-age creationism, even if you reject the way some creationists present it.  In the case of RTB or Intelligent Design, the theme seems to be fighting over things that really matter like evolution, and not fighting over things that don't matter like the age of the universe.  If we don't focus our real disagreement on the "most important" issues (like design), then we damage our witness by exaggerating the importance of secondary issues.

It seems to me that we should think more carefully about the genesis of our dichotomous thinking.  I see fear at the root of these dichotomies.  The BioLogos crowd seems to fear slipping into anti-intellectual chaos.  RTB fears majoring on the minors and thereby ruining the effectiveness of their witness.  Young-age creationists fear losing the very identity of Christianity over time.  Behind these fears are genuinely precious things worth valuing: Intellectual honesty and humility, maintaining a good witness and testimony before the world, and the beautiful and rich heritage of Christian theology and exegesis.

All Christians, everyone of us, engage in "us vs. them" thinking.  No exceptions. Until we all acknowledge that and resolve to do better, to find ways to seek and share those common values, there will continue to be these sorts of frustrations.  We all have work to do to elevate this debate to something more edifying and mutually understanding.  We're not there yet. Obviously.

And finally, to those of you patient people who actually read all of this and are still fuming, "That movie was terrible and misleading, and the greater sin is theirs!" you are part of the problem, my friend.  If you play the outrage card (BioLogos), you just add fuel to the fire. The response will be, "BioLogos is the one repeating tired old lies about young-age creationism!"  So please think carefully before you email me your outrage, and maybe direct that energy to thinking about ways of moving forward and not just yelling the same things at our deafened ideological "enemies."  I'd love to hear new ideas.

In another post, I want to talk more about the movie itself, because I think the dichotomy issue is obscuring some important things.  At least from my point of view they're important, but that's a post for another time.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.