Saturday, 12 August 2017

Creationism In Crisis. A Notion With No Practical Use

Scientists Map Sex Chromosome Evolution in Fungi | Duke Today

Chemical profile of ants adapts quickly to selection pressure

I won't call creationism a theory in crisis because that would be giving it a scientific standing far about what it deserves. It's a notion; a guess with no supporting evidence; an idea with no practical application other than making a few deeply ignorant people feel important enough.

A point I've made several time recently, but which I'll repeat again for those who may have missed it, science, especially biological, geological, archaeological and cosmological science, daily and routinely refutes creationism without the slightest effort or intent simply by reporting the facts.

This is illustrated by two papers published today which show that evolution is the very foundation of modern biology and the theory which makes sense of almost everything we can observe. The first concerns an explanation for how sex determinism in a species of pathological fungus came about. It was published today in PLoS Biology
by a research team from Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, USA: It comes complete with a neat animation summarising the process:

A schematic figure from the paper illustrates how recombination occurred at the centromere and then genes migrated and fused to leave Cryptococcus with just two sexes, when before it had many.

Credit: Sheng Sun, Duke University
This is an uncorrected proof

Abstract
Species within the human pathogenic Cryptococcus species complex are major threats to public health, causing approximately 1 million infections globally annually. Cryptococcus amylolentus is the most closely known related species of the pathogenic Cryptococcus species complex, and it is non-pathogenic. Additionally, while pathogenic Cryptococcus species have bipolar mating systems with a single large mating type (MAT) locus that represents a derived state in Basidiomycetes, C. amylolentus has a tetrapolar mating system with 2 MAT loci (P/R and HD) located on different chromosomes. Thus, studying C. amylolentus will shed light on the transition from tetrapolar to bipolar mating systems in the pathogenic Cryptococcus species, as well as its possible link with the origin and evolution of pathogenesis. In this study, we sequenced, assembled, and annotated the genomes of 2 C. amylolentus isolates, CBS6039 and CBS6273, which are sexual and interfertile. Genome comparison between the 2 C. amylolentus isolates identified the boundaries and the complete gene contents of the P/R and HD MAT loci. Bioinformatic and chromatin immunoprecipitation sequencing (ChIP-seq) analyses revealed that, similar to those of the pathogenic Cryptococcus species, C. amylolentus has regional centromeres (CENs) that are enriched with species-specific transposable and repetitive DNA elements. Additionally, we found that while neither the P/R nor the HD locus is physically closely linked to its centromere in C. amylolentus, and the regions between the MAT loci and their respective centromeres show overall synteny between the 2 genomes, both MAT loci exhibit genetic linkage to their respective centromere during meiosis, suggesting the presence of recombinational suppressors and/or epistatic gene interactions in the MAT-CEN intervening regions. Furthermore, genomic comparisons between C. amylolentus and related pathogenic Cryptococcus species provide evidence that multiple chromosomal rearrangements mediated by intercentromeric recombination have occurred during descent of the 2 lineages from their common ancestor. Taken together, our findings support a model in which the evolution of the bipolar mating system was initiated by an ectopic recombination event mediated by similar repetitive centromeric DNA elements shared between chromosomes. This translocation brought the P/R and HD loci onto the same chromosome, and further chromosomal rearrangements then resulted in the 2 MAT loci becoming physically linked and eventually fusing to form the single contiguous MAT locus that is now extant in the pathogenic Cryptococcus species.

Author summary
This manuscript explores the evolution of the genomic regions encoding the mating type loci of basidiomycetous fungi. Typically, the mating system is tetrapolar, meaning that it is composed of 2 unlinked mating type (MAT) loci (P/R and HD) that are located on different chromosomes. However, species with bipolar mating systems, in which the P/R and HD loci are located on the same chromosome, have also been identified. Tetrapolar and bipolar species are often closely related, suggesting the transition between these 2 mating systems might occur frequently. For example, the species within the human fungal pathogenic Cryptococcus species complex have bipolar mating systems, with 1 large MAT locus that appears to be a fusion product of the P/R and HD loci. On the other hand, the species that is the closest outgroup to these pathogenic species, Cryptococcus amylolentus, appears to have a classic tetrapolar mating system. Interestingly, the 2 MAT loci of C. amylolentus exhibit centromeric linkage during meiosis, and as a consequence, their resulting meiotic segregation pattern differs from other regions of the genome. Additionally, both pathogenic and non-pathogenic species are found to have large regional centromeres enriched with transposable and repetitive elements. Our genome comparison analyses indicated that these regional centromeres underwent ectopic recombination during the evolution of these 2 lineages. Based on these observations, we propose a model for the transition from the tetrapolar mating system in non-pathogenic C. amylolentus to the bipolar mating system in its related pathogenic species that is initiated by intercentromeric ectopic recombination, followed by chromosomal rearrangements. These events moved the 2 MAT loci closer to each other and eventually fused them to form a single MAT locus. This model is also consistent with recent findings on the organization of MAT loci in other basidiomycetous species.



The Duke press release explains:

Scientists have been studying the evolution of sex chromosomes for more than a century. In the 1960’s, Japanese-American geneticist and evolutionary biologist Susumu Ohno proposed a theory in which the genes determining sex first arose at various spots scattered across the entire genome, but over time were “captured” on the sex chromosomes. In humans, those chromosomes go by the familiar X and Y; in birds, they are known as Z and W; in moss, they are called U and V.

Regardless of the name or species, Heitman contends that some universal principles could govern the evolution of all sex chromosomes. He and an international team of researchers focused on the last common ancestor of the human pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans and its nearest sibling species, a non-pathogen called Cryptococcus amylolentus.

In C. amylolentus, dozens of genes at two different locations on the chromosomes control what’s called a tetrapolar, or four-part, mating system. At one location or locus known as P/R, genes encode pheromones and pheromone receptors that help the fungus recognize compatible mating types. At the other locus, called HD, genes govern the development of sexual structures and reproductive spores.

The researchers sequenced the entire genome of C. amylolentus, mapping the location of all the genes as well as the centromeres on each of the organism’s 14 chromosomes.

They found that the genomes had undergone quite a bit of rearrangement since the two species shared a common ancestor, at least 50 million years ago. For example, chromosome 1 of C. neoformans contained pieces of four different chromosomes from C. amylolentus, providing evidence of multiple translocations, some within the centromere.

[...]

In this study, the researchers showed that in Cryptococcus amylolentus, the ancestral state, the P/R locus resided on chromosome 10 and the HD locus on chromosome 11. But in Cryptococcus neoformans, the evolved state, those loci ended up in one place. According to their model, multiple translocations deposited the two sex determinants on the same chromosome, with a centromere in between. Subsequent rearrangements put P/R and HD next to each other. The result was an organism with a bipolar mating system, much like the male and female sexes that embody most species.

“In any kind of model like this, you are thinking about what could have been the organization in the last common ancestor, which is now extinct so you can’t know definitively,” said Heitman. “But in each of these lineages, there are multiple evolutionary events that have occurred, and you can use genomics to turn back the hands of time and deduce the trajectory.”


So there we have the entire explanation in terms of evolution and the study was predicated on the two species sharing a common ancestor. The current situation makes no sense otherwise but is perfectly understandable as the product of an evolutionary process. What doesn't make sense is that a designer, intelligent or not, would use two widely different systems for sex determination in two related species unless it keeps inventing solutions to the same problem then forgetting them and starting over.

Nest of Crematogaster scutellaris in a cork oak in southern France.

Photo credit: Florian Menzel, JGU
The second paper deal with the ability of ants to quickly adapt to environmental change. The question for creationists is obvious, and unanswerable - why would an intelligent designer design ants for one environment, then change the environment so it had to redesign the ants. Or perhaps that should be, how can that possibly be described as intelligent or even good design?

Sadly, the paper by evolutionary biologist Dr. Florian Menzel of the University of Würzburg, Germany together with colleagues from the Smithsonian Institute, Washing DC, USA, is behind a paywall and I haven't been able yet to obtain permission to reprint the abstract, but a University of Würzburg press release gives the details (auto-translated from German into English):


Crematogaster levior, a South American ant species that lives in symbiosis with other ant species in the same nest.

Photo credit: Florian Menzel, JGU
The body of ants and other insects is covered by a thin, waxy layer, which protects them from drying out, and which, especially in the case of social insects, serve the exchange of information, for example to distinguish enemies from nesting companions. Because of its dual function, this skin layer is not only essential for life, it is also so unique that it can serve as a unique identification and identification feature for an insect species like a fingerprint. Even closely related species can be distinguished by this layer. This is due to their composition of cuticular hydrocarbons, which form a specific chemical profile. Biologists of the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz (JGU) have now determined.

Kuticular hydrocarbons can consist of over 100 different substances, so they are extremely diverse. They are found on the cuticle of almost all insects and prevent water loss and dehydration so that the animals can survive even in a dry environment. CHCs, abbreviated by English Cuticular Hydrocarbons, are also the most important communication channel for social insects: they provide information about the affiliation of an animal to the colony, its caste and its task in the colony as well as in the case of queens about reproductive status The functioning of an insect colony is irreplaceable. In many solitary insects they serve as sexuallock [sexual pheromones].

"The evolution of such complex features, which fulfill quite different functions, is still bound up with many puzzles", explains the evolutionary biologist Dr. Florian Menzel. The scientist is particularly interested in whether CHC profiles remain relatively stable during the course of evolution, such as morphological features such as size or body shape, or whether they can change more rapidly and flexibly as a result of evolutionary change than other characteristics.

Related ant species with different CHC profiles

For the study Menzel and his co-operation partners from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the University of Würzburg investigated ants of the genus Crematogaster, with about 1000 species one of the most species of genotypes at all. These tipping elements can tilt their rear body upwards and in this way release poison or defenses into the environment and also into the surrounding air. The scientists selected 43 species of ants from the genus Crematogaster from five continents and examined them for their kinship and their chemical profile. "We wanted to know whether species that are juxtaposed in the family tree also have similar hydrocarbon profiles", says Menzel.

In fact, the evolutionary biologists found no agreement, however: species can differ strongly in the CHC profile. The profiles can therefore change more quickly in the course of evolution than morphological features or behaviors. "The ants obviously have a large genetic arsenal that they can adapt to change their CHC profile", explains Menzel. He assumes that the ants have the possibility to bring the chemical signals to a new level in an evolutionary short time if, for example, they require altered environmental conditions.

The important point from the point of view of this blog post is that once again, evolution provides the only logical way to understand these results. It makes absolutely no sense at all to ascribe it to intelligent design. What intelligent designer would design ants to function in a given environment than have to redesign them because it has change their environment?

Every paper on almost anything to do with biology has the Theory of Evolution as its fundamental basis. No piece of scientific research ever concludes that it was magic done by a magic entity. Simply reporting on the facts as discovered refutes creationism incidentally and without intent. This doesn't look to me like a theory in crisis as the Dishonesty Institute and other fundamentalist Christian extremist front organisations would have their dupes believe. It look very much to any objective observer as though the crisis is with the notion of creationism.

'via Blog this'

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Just Another of Those Mythical 'Missing Links'

Alesi, the skull of the new extinct ape species Nyanzapithecus alesi (KNM-NP 59050).

Photo © Fred Spoor
The Leakey Foundation | New 13 million-year-old infant skull sheds light on ape ancestry

It's another bad week for creationism. Is there ever a good week?

Close on the report of the earliest known primate fossil we now have the remarkably complete skull of an infant who lived 13 million years ago in what is now Kenya, and which is close to the common ancestor of the hominids and the other African apes. It gives us a fairly good idea of what the last common ancestor would have looked like.

The skull was found by fossil hunter John Ekusi in 13 million year-old rock layers in the Napudet area, west of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya; a formation that is easy to date reliably because of the activity of a nearby volcano. The skull, along with forest trees, was buried by volcanic ash, showing that they were buried during the same catastrophic event.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Evolution! Now a Theory With Teeth!

Chupkaornis keraorum.
Credit: Masato Hattori
Amateur collectors in Japan discover country's first and oldest fossil diving bird -- ScienceDaily

As a keen fossil hunter in my early days, I dreamed of finding something more than the usual marine shells - the muscles, oysters, bivalves and marine snails that are common in North Oxfordshire limestone deposits - so I can imagine how two Japanese fossil-hunting brothers, Masatoshi and Yasuji Kera, on the island of Hokkaido must have felt when they found nine skeletal elements of what turned out to be the oldest early Asian diving bird.

Fossils of these birds are relatively common in the Northern Hemisphere, but this is the first to be found in Asia and the first from the easterm margin of the Eurasian continent.

Another Intermediate Gap-Filling Fossil!

3-D images of Archicebus achilles.

Image credit: ESRF/P. Tafforeau. Source: ESRF News.
The oldest known primate skeleton and early haplorhine evolution : Nature : Nature Research

I'm thinking of starting another blog called Filling The Gaps. There are just too many examples of these 'missing' fossils to include in this one without it coming to resemble a blog devoted to nothing else.

These examples of things creationists insist are missing being found and described by science are almost a daily occurrence from the field of biology alone. If science was bothered about creationism and scientists felt they still needed to prove evolution and disprove creationism there would probably be several scientific journals called something like the Journal of Creation Falsification or Journal of Evolution, but of course it isn't needed because science has no such need.

There is a reason creationism is absolutely obsessed with falsifying and misrepresenting science and presenting science as some sort of vast conspiracy theory or based on false assumptions and therefore invalid - unless it can be made to appears to support creationism, then it's conclusive and irrefutable, of course.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Winning The Mammoth War.

On the Menu: Mammoth and Plenty of Raw Vegetables - Early modern humans consumed more plants than Neanderthals but ate very little fish

How fast science progresses!

Not long ago we weren't even sure how and where Neanderthals fitted in the human family tree. Were they ancestors of modern Europeans? Were they just a regional variant; a subspecies; a different species entirely? Did they or could they interbreed with modern humans?

Now most of those questions have been answered with some degree of confidence, and not a few surprises, thanks to DNA analysis, and we're just left with questions about how, why and exactly when anatomically modern humans replaced Neanderthals across western Eurasia.

Was it our superior technology? Hardly. We both used stone tools and hunted with spears. Was it our higher intelligence? Our brains are actually smaller but maybe organised differently, so maybe we could learn and adapt more quickly? Was it a better social organisation? Neanderthals seem to have lived in small, relatively isolated family groups in which incestuous breeding was common if not normal. Did this lead to genetic weaknesses accumulating? Did it mean hunting large game was more difficult with fewer numbers?

Saturday, 5 August 2017

100 Million Year-Old Flower

The ancestral flower was bisexual with multiple whorls (concentric cycles) of petal-like organs, in sets of threes.

Copyright: Hervé Sauquet/Jürg Schönenberger.
What flowers looked like 100 million years ago.

Flowering plants are by far the most diverse group of plants comprising so 300,000 different species. They were, however, late on the scene in evolutionary terms, only evolving some 140 million years ago.

This puts their evolution towards the end of the age of dinosaurs in the Cretaceous, when the ancestors of mammals were still mammaliform synapsids. The evolution of the first flowering plants is one of those enduring mysteries for evolution to explains, Darwin himself referring to it as "an abominable mystery".

Now an new study coordinated by Juerg Schoenenberger from the University of Vienna and Hervé Sauquet of the Université Paris-Sud has shed more than a little light on what the first flowers looked like. The same study has also reconstructed what flowers at the key divergence point looked like.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Just Another Example of the 'Impossible' Happening

An illustration shows nanocrystals assembling into an ordered ‘superlattice’ – a process that a SLAC/Stanford team was able to observe in real time with X-rays from the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL).

Illustration: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Scientists Watch ‘Artificial Atoms’ Assemble into Perfect Lattices with Many Uses.

One of the major problems that creationism suffers from is that so many of its claims are demonstrably untrue and can be seen to be untrue.

The leading frauds are acutely aware of that problem so have a work-around for it. They tell their followers that if the evidence tells them their beliefs are wrong, the evidence must be wrong because their beliefs can't be. Then they witter on about 'evidence' and try to mislead people about it as though it does matter after all. They must be the only people who call themselves scientists but argue you should ignore evidence unless you can persuade yourself it agrees with you.

Here, for example, is an example of scientists watching something happen that creationists insist doesn't happen. They watched order (and a high degree of order) emerge out of chaos.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Unintelligent Design - Silly Goose!

I took this photo today, in a park in Oxford. It shows why intelligent design is a stupid idea.

The white goose is almost certainly a hybrid between an Egyptian goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca, and a feral domestic goose. Domestic white gees in Britain are mostly a variety of greylag goose, Anser anser domesticus, so this strange looking goose is a probably a hybrid between the Egyptian and the greylag goose. The give-away is the strange-looking eyes that look spectacled from a distance, the pale brown wing feathers - not obvious in this photo (this one wasn't completely white) - and the long, pink legs.

It is highly unlikely that this was simply a leucistic Egyptian goose. It was also on it's own, not with the typical small group that Egyptian geese are normally seen in. Egyptian geese are believed to be related to the shelduck and so come somewhere between the ducks and geese. They were introduced as an ornamental bird into the UK and have become established in Norfolk, the only place I have seen them before. They have since spread to the Thames Valley (my son has seen them on the Thames).

Incidentally, the other geese in this photograph are Canada geese, an introduced species that has become widespread and which also interbreeds with 'local' geese.

But why does this show how intelligent design is a stupid idea?

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Tardigrades Give Up Their Secrets

Comparative genomics of the tardigrades Hypsibius dujardini and Ramazzottius varieornatus | PLOS Biology

There is something appealing about a tardigrade! There is a certain air of mystery about them - like, for instance, what on Earth are they?

They are justly famous for their ability to withstand just about any extreme environmental conditions other than extreme heat. They are just a few millimetres long and can withstand years of dehydration, being blown about in dust; they can withstand years of freezing. They can even go into space and withstand ionising radiation. They will live in your guttering through a long, hot dry summer, apparently lifeless, and within a few minutes of it raining, will be crawling about happily as though nothing has happened.

Until this study we weren't even sure where they fitted in with the rest of the animal kingdom. Were they primitive or degenerate arthropods; were they nematode worms with legs or some other distinct multicellular organism on a branch of their own? Well, actually, they are related to both nematodes and arthropods, distantly. The question was which are they closest to? The study doesn't settle the matter but it sheds a lot more light on the subject.

Friday, 28 July 2017

DNA Study Shows Bible is Fiction

Researchers sequenced whole genomes from five Canaanites skeletons found in Sidon, Lebanon.
Photo Credit: Ali Hashisho/Reuters/Newscom
Ancient DNA counters biblical account of the mysterious Canaanites | Science | AAAS

We've known for a long time that the supposed 'history' in the Old Testament is mostly, if not completely, fiction, and I'm not just talking about the frankly ludicrous creation myths in the opening chapters.

As Silberman and Finkelstein showed in The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, not only did the events described in Exodus never happen but nor did the destruction of the cities and the Canaanite genocide. Indeed, the Bible contains evidence of its own inaccuracy, being clearly written by people who did not know the history of the times in which they set their tales. Briefly, and by no means exhaustively:

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Good Old Biblical Slavery - In The USA Today!

The Word of Faith Fellowship church in Sao Joaquim de Bicas, Brazil.
(AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
They kept us as slaves: AP reveals claims against church

The North Caroline megachurch, Word of Faith Fellowship, can't be accused of not being a traditional Christian fundamentalist church.

The sect, founded by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband Sam, uses slaves taken from Brazil to work for the church and in the businesses owned by it's senior ministers. These slaves are trafficked from Brazil, as a Associated Press investigation has revealed. They are attracted to the USA by a branch of the World of Faith cult in Sao Joaquim de Bicas, Brazil and enter the USA on tourists and student visas.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Research Spits On Creationism!


In saliva, scientists have found hints that a “ghost” species of archaic human may have contributed genetic material to ancestors of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa today.

Image credit: Bob Wilder/University at Buffalo.
Archaic hominin introgression in Africa contributes to functional salivary MUC7 genetic variation | Molecular Biology and Evolution | Oxford Academic.

As an example of how divorced religion is from reality, these examples of archaic hominids interbreeding with other hominid species take some beating.

The Abrahamic superstitions require people to believe in a single founder couple from whom everyone alive is directly descended and from whom we have inherited some notional 'original sin' for which we need to constantly atone and beg for forgiveness.

The reality of course is that not only was there never such a single founder human couple but there was not even a single founder human species. The reality is that we are hybrids of three or more species who occasionally interchanged genes and that for a large part of our recent evolutionary history we behaved like an incompletely speciated 'ring species' as an example of evolution in progress.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

'Loving' Christians Trade Insults Over Reforms

General Synod of the CofE, York.
Photo credit: Reuters

Leading evangelical condemns CofE General Synod: 'God's word was mocked openly' | Christian News on Christian Today.

A failing group will normally turn inwards, degenerating further into mutually recriminating factions. This is no less true of the 'loving' Anglicans currently showing brotherly and sisterly love by trading insults over the latest attempt to reform their cult to try to halt the haemorrhage of members.

The vitriol also illustrates the problems faced by a dogma-driven cult as it tries to reform to attract back the former members to whom it has become increasingly irrelevant and who have left in disgust at its abuse of minorities. The decreasing number of moderates comes up against an increasingly large proportion of vocal extremists trying to retain their traditional dogmas.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Persecution and Martyrdom Special!




Is Christianity in crisis? Our survey reveals 9 out of 10 ordinary Christians feel marginalised

As Christianity continues to dwindle into a minority cult in the UK, and as more and more of its privileges are lost, so the whining about persecution, coupled with that old craving for martyrdom gets louder.

This collective whine was revealed in the results of a survey by Premier published last Sunday. The full survey is freely available as a pdf file here but be warned, you'll need to give your name and email address before you can access it.

The reality is of course that Christians in the UK enjoy precisely the same legal rights as anyone else regardless of their faith or lack of it. Rights and privileges are not granted on the basis of membership of a particular church or faith group in the UK anymore; they are granted on the basis of a shared humanity. There are not Christian rights, Atheist rights, Jewish rights or Muslim rights; there are only human rights.

But this survey shows that isn't enough for Christians. Christians feel persecuted if they're not granted the privileges to which they feel entitled. They are not granted the right to state mythology and prejudice as facts and not have them challenged. They're not granted the right to publicly condemn, abuse and persecute others for not sharing their chosen life-style. They're not granted the privilege to 'share' their superstition in the workplace and be quietly and respectfully listened to as they spout their bigotry and tell others that they're morally inferior and will be condemned to Hell.

Religions in the workplace do nothing but spread division, disharmony and isolation. The law requires employers to provide a healthy and safe working environment in which the Human Rights of all employees and visitors are safeguarded. No faith group is entitled to a special dispensation to pretend to occupy some notional moral high-ground with sanctimonious posturing and condemning others as morally inferior. Using what is in effect a captive audience to preach to is an abuse.

Typical of the judgemental sanctimony of the Christian church was the reaction of the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford:

[B]elievers should not be surprised or downhearted when the sheer beauty of the Gospel is a shock and an affront to a fallen world. The world has never been in accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we've always had the challenge that we need to live it and share it.

I have a book and it entitles me to tell other, lesser, mortals how to live! Ironically, this is exactly the sort of hypocritical judgmentalism that drives people away from a church that spouts this while covering up and facilitating clerical abuse of children, while wining about being treated the way it would like to treat others.

Christians are still vastly over-represented in positions of power in the UK in comparison to their dwindling numbers. No other religion has its titular head as head of state; no other religion has its leading clerics entitles to a seat in the upper chamber of our legislature and no other religion has its senior clerics appointed by the head of government on behalf of the head of state. Culturally we are still expected to defer to the moral authority of someone because he or she has an imaginary friend and dresses in robes and a silly hat.

If Christians feel marginalised then they only have themselves to blame. It's by and large their holier-than-thou judgemental sanctimony and hypocrisy that has driven so many people away from the church. The struggle to emancipate women into the priesthood and their continuing difficulty with accepting members of the LGBT community as entitled to the full range of Human Rights has rightly marginalised the Christian church in UK society. They have done this, not anyone else. The attitude of Christian bigots towards minorities has itself made them a minority now whining wrongly that they are being treated the way tho openly treated minorities themselves.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Oops! Another 'Non-existent' Beneficial Mutation!

The sex chromosome Z of male zebra finches comes in two variants. Males who possess a copy of these variant each have particular reproductive success.

© MPI f. Ornithology
Mutation speeds up sperm of zebra finches | Max Planck Society

For anyone who still imagines creationism is based on real-world facts and observable evidence, this little factoid should go some way to dispelling that myth.

It is yet another example of one of those beneficial mutations that creationists tell us don't and can't exist - usually followed by some garbled nonsense about information theory and thermodynamics that isn't recognisable as real science or even real information theory.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Unintelligent Design - A Purposeless Driven Life

Escarpia laminata.

Image Credit: Chemo III project, BOEM and NOAA OER
Is this Gulf of Mexico tubeworm the longest living animal in the world?

The thing about something well-designed is that it is as simple as can be and fit for purpose. The hallmarks of good design are minimal complexity and fitness for purpose.

Now, you would expect the Intelligent (sic) Designer to at least be good at one of those things wouldn't you! You would expect to be able to look at any of its designs and see an elegantly design, beautiful for it's simplicity, and a fitness for purpose so obvious that this purpose positively leaps out at you.

You should be able to look at anything designed by the creationism industries' Intelligent (sic) Designer and be immediately struck by the beautiful simplicity of it and how perfectly it does what it was obviously designed to do.

The problem is, this is never what we see. Instead, we see immensely complex things which apparently do nothing very much and for which any real purpose is difficult to discern other than making more copies of itself, apparently for no other reason than to make more copies of itself... and so ad infinitum.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Hallelujah! Satan is Dead!

Pastor Paseka Motsoeneng, aka Prophet Mboro
Pastor Paseka Motsoeneng is a very busy man and constantly at God's beck and call, but at least Christians and Muslims can sleep soundly tonight. Satan is dead!

He was killed by Pastor Paseka Motsoeneng, aka Prophet Mboro, who went to Hell on a special mission from God's to kill the world's number one enemy.

He told his jubilant Facebook followers:

...when I got to hell there was a queue of millions of people waiting to be braai’d [roasted] by Satan. I even saw some prominent South African politicians. I was so shocked because they lived like angels here on earth. I thought they went to heaven. When Satan saw me he panicked and directed his army to kill me. Like Samson in the Bible, I defeated them. Satan was my last victim.

Stupid Design - Cannibal Caterpillars


Beet armyworms on tomato leaves. A choice of nasty-tasting leaves or juicy sibling!
Plants under attack can turn hungry caterpillars into cannibals

I almost laughed out loud when I read this one. Not only is it a lovely little piece of biology and so easy to explain in terms of genetic evolution but it's also an example of the mind-numbing stupidity of any sentient designer who had to come up with such a design to solve a problem it had designed!

Abstract
Plants are attacked by myriad herbivores, and many plants exhibit anti-herbivore defences. We tested the hypothesis that induced defences benefit tomato plants by encouraging insects to eat other members of their

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Zebra Finches Show How Evolution Works

Zebra finch, Taeniopygia guttata.
Source: Wikipedia
Courtship song preferences in female zebra finches are shaped by developmental auditory experience | Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences

A paper published recently in Proceedings of the Royal Society B by researcher from McGill University, California, USA, illustrates a couple of interesting aspects to evolution and how species diverge.

The team found that zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) reared in the absence of their fathers do no react in the same way to male courtship songs as those raised by both parents.

Now, this in itself might not be particularly important apart from one thing - female sex selection. Females normally select the best singers as their mates and there is growing evidence that the best singers are also the healthiest and fittest males. Females who don't have the ability to discriminate lose out in the competition for the best mates. This, after all, is probably one of the main drivers for the evolution of female sex selection.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Suffer Little Children - For Money

Pope Francis is surrounded by children as he speaks with patients and caregivers at Bambino Gesu in December 2016.
Credit:AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
'Pope's hospital' put children at risk as it chased profits

If you're a Catholic and you have a sick child, you know really that prayer doesn't work so you send them to a hospital where they apply science instead, unless of course it's the 'Baby Jesus' children's hospital, run by the Vatican with branches throughout Italy.

These hospitals were dirty, badly run money-making organisations that had little to do with curing and caring or sick children. Corners were cut, safety protocols were ignored and sick children were suffering as a result.

In typical Vatican style, a 2014 report on the secret three-month investigation following complains from staff and patients' families, was itself kept secret. Some of the recommendations were allegedly implemented, but many were not.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

What A Carry On At The Vatican!

Msgr. Luigi Capozzi.
Fun-loving Vatican insider with influence.
The truth about the Vatican sex-and-drugs scandal | Catholic Culture

It's reassuring to learn that in the Vatican at least, some things just never change. Everything is carrying on much as it was in the 16th Century.

You might have missed the latest piece of gossip because it seems such events are now scarcely worthy of the epithet 'news'. There simply isn't anything to justify several column inches of news print of several minutes of airtime to report something that scarcely raises an eye-brow these days. It was just another gay sex and drugs party in the Vatican involving a middling official with friends and considerable influence in high places. It was just another example of the hypocrisy we have come to expect of the Catholic clergy.

Now, what would be news is if we went a whole year without another sex and drugs, financial or rent-boy scandal at the Vatican, or even (not that this is even remotely possible) a whole year without another child sexual, emotional and physical abuse scandal involving Catholic priests and/or nuns complete with institutionalised cover-up or even active facilitation of it, somewhere in the world

Friday, 7 July 2017

How Creationists Lie To Us - Carbon Dating Hoax

Diagram of production of carbon-14 in the upper atmosphere by reaction of neutrons with nitrogen, and of the subsequent incorporation of carbon-14 into the biosphere.
Having been called a liar by a creationist for saying there were no scientifically valid examples of 14C dating of dinosaur fossils, and then, despite his claim that there were 'lots' of them, being treated to him prevaricating and deflecting for several days before failing to provide any such examples even after numerous requests, I decided I would look closer at this claim.

First a brief background. For more detail see this Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory article.

Carbon-14 (14C) dating is, when done correctly on carefully decontaminated specimens, an accurate method of dating an organic specimen within well-known limits of confidence and within a well-defined date range. The date obtained will always be expressed as x years BP ± y years.

Doing it correctly not only means careful decontamination but also understanding its limitations, the major one being the date range over which it is reliable, why this limit exists and, importantly, exactly what carbon you are measuring in the sample and how it got there.

Not all carbon is organic in origin and not all carbon in archaeological samples is derived from the original organic carbon. For example, although carbonates may be present in the mineralised bones of which fossils are made, this does not mean it came from the original bone. After all, fossils will contain large amounts of silicates but bone does not normally contain silicon. The minerals in fossils are replacements for the original material, not necessarily the products of it.

Another Gap Closes. No God Found!

Asiatic Yellow-striped Caecilian (Ichthyophis kohtaoensis)
Photo credit: cowyeow (via Flickr)
Stem caecilian from the Triassic of Colorado sheds light on the origins of Lissamphibia

Scientists working for the Department of Integrative Anatomical Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC have closed another one of those gaps in science that creationists scrabble around desperately searching for as somewhere to fit their god into.

Although no serious biologist these days sets out to confirm evolution or to refute creationism, papers such as this one do that quite incidentally because they report on the reality of the natural world and objectively assess the evidence. Quite naturally, this refutes any notions such as creationism which are not based on real-world evidence.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Mapping Human Evolution Out of Africa

Neanderthal
Out of Africa; new research explores drive behind early humanity's travels across the world - Royal Holloway, University of London

Interesting news came a few days ago from Royal Holloway, University of London, that a new research project is to start next month, aimed at mapping the spread of humans out of Africa and across the globe, to occupy all major landmasses other than Antarctica. The research is financed by a £450,000 grant from Leverhulme Trust.

As the Royal Holloway press release says:

Creationism's Nightmare - Abiogenesis!

Haematite tubes
Haematite tubes from the NSB hydrothermal vent deposits that represent the oldest microfossils and evidence for life on Earth. The remains are at least 3,770 million years old.
Photo by Matthew Dodd
Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates : Nature : Nature Research

Science is moving closer to an explanation of a process whereby the earliest proto-cells could have developed naturally on Earth. It's looking increasingly as though the best explanation of where suitable conditions could be found - in the rock precipitates around hydrothermal vents on ocean floors - is the right one.

It's also looking as though the process got going even earlier than we thought - when Earth was just few million years old, if the interpretation of the evidence presented in this paper is correct. It is strongly suggestive that the process may have got going at least 3.77 billion and maybe even 4.28 billion years ago.

The evidence was found in rocks from the Nuvvuagittuq belt in Quebec, Canada, which are believed to have been formed by precipitation around seafloor-hydrothermal vents.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Holy Smoke! Birds Use Cigarette Butts As Medication!

Urban house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) nest.
Credit: JerryFriedman/CC BY-SA 4.0
An experimental demonstration that house finches add cigarette butts in response to ectoparasites - Suárez-Rodr-guez - 2017 - Journal of Avian Biology - Wiley Online Library

Here is yet another fascinating example of the ingenuity of biological adaptability - and an example that should make any self-respecting intelligent design advocate cringe with embarrassment.

Constantino Macías Garcia at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and his colleagues have been studying a curious phenomenon observed in the Mexican urban house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) in which they collect cigarette butts and place then in their nests. There was inconclusive evidence that the effect was to deter parasitic ticks and other nest parasites so they designed a simple experiment to settle the matter. It was strongly suspected that nicotine and other chemicals in the butts acts as a deterrent to parasites. House sparrows (Paser domesticus) have also been observed to use the same strategy.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Anglican Church Colluded in Abuse Cover-up.

Peter Ball
Groomed and abused 18 vulnerable boys and young men.
Church 'colluded' with sex abuse bishop Peter Ball - BBC News

It's ironic really! Just when I go on holiday to Italy, the centre of the organised global Catholic paedophile ring that we discovered existed some ten to fifteen years ago, a similar, though smaller, scandal breaks in England and it's not even involving the Catholic Church!

This one involves a form Anglican bishop, Peter Ball, and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey. Peter Ball had been Bishop of Lewes and then Bishop of Gloucester during which time he groomed, exploited and sexually abused eighteen young men and boys who went to him seeking spiritual guidance. He was jailed for thirty-two months in October 2015 for these offences but was released last February after just sixteen months.

Now a report into the church's handling of the affair, ordered by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and chaired by the former chief executive of Camden Council, Dame Moira Gibb, makes harrowing reading, according to Welby. Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury, a cabinet minister and a high court judge all conspired to protect Ball and wrote letters to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in his defence.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cretaceous Bird Mocks Creationists

Bird caught in amber 100 million years ago is best ever found | New Scientist.

It's not often we get to look at creatures from 100 million years ago, displayed in such detail. Normally we have to make do with distorted stone fossils which been subjected to all sorts of pressures and stresses, leaching by water and slow replacement by minerals over centuries. It's sometimes surprising that very much detail has been retained at all.

Preservation in amber is quite another matter, however. The specimen is trapped and coated in resin in a matter of minutes and sealed quickly away from any bacteria other than those trapped with it, and isolated from oxygen, other than the minuscule quantities that can slowly diffuse through the amber. It's almost as though the specimen has been sealed in a time capsule.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Yet Another Of Those 'Missing' Transitional Species

Map of the main Middle to early Upper Triassic outcrops in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, southern Brazil, highlighting the occurrence of Aleodon (A) and its skeletal reconstruction with available bones (in yellow) based on all known specimens (made by VDPN).
The African cynodont Aleodon (Cynodontia, Probainognathia) in the Triassic of southern Brazil and its biostratigraphic significance

At one time it became quite tedious writing yet another article about yet another of the transitional fossils that creationists dogma says aren't there. Who wants to read more or less the same thing several times a week with only the details changed? The problem of course is that every fossil is transitional because each represents a snapshot in time of a species that is evolving and changing over time.

But this latest one is interesting in that it is clearly transitional not between one genus and another or even between one family and another but between two or three major taxons. It is transitional between the reptiles and the mammals and comes close to the stem amniote that had earlier split from the amphibians to give rise to the land-based egg-laying tetrapods. This group went on to give rise to reptiles, mammals, dinosaurs and birds. The current consensus in palaeontology is that the amniotes probably radiated from a single ancestral species that had evolved an egg able to be laid out of water, so breaking the dependence of the amphibians on water.

Monday, 12 June 2017

More Nastiness From The 'Intelligent Designer'

Zombie soldier beetles: Epizootics in the goldenrod soldier beetle, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus (Coleoptera: Cantharidae) caused by Eryniopsis lampyridarum (Entomophthoromycotina: Entomophthoraceae):

The 'Intelligent (sic) Designer' is ever inventive in its sheer malevolent nastiness, continually coming up with ideas that would have been a credit to a Medieval torturer for the Spanish Inquisition or the organisers of 'entertainments' for a bloodthirsty Roman amphitheatre audience.

This one in particular is the epitome of casual malevolence and indifference to suffering. Its design turns a beetle into a zombie just before killing it, and then grotesquely reanimates its corpse so it can do it all over again to more victims.

Sadly, the copyright holders, Elsevier, want to charge me £22.43 to save you the trouble of clicking on this link, to read in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology how the team from the University of Arkansas and Cornell University, led by Donald C. Steinkraus, discovered how it works.

The victim is the goldenrod soldier beetles, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus which survives by eating the flowers of frost aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum, common boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, and Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensisnormally. They normally mate on top of a flower. It seems, if you subscribe to the notion of intelligent design, that the intelligent designer (who isn't God by the way, so it isn't religion it's biology and should be taught in schools, but he just happens to be identical in every way to the god of a literal interpretation of the Bible) spotted the opportunity for a bit of fun, so He it designed a fungus, Eryniopsis lampyridarum, to infect these beetles.

When the fungus, which has been living in and consuming the female beetle, is ready it first turns its host into a zombie and makes it clamp itself onto a flower stem with its jaws, immediately before killing it. Then it makes lots of spores inside the dead female's body before reanimating it! 15-22 hours after death the female spreads her wings out wide so the spores can escape through the spiracles she used to breathe through, then her body swells, making her more attractive to males who try to mate with her, so getting infected in the process.

They they find a living female to mate with and infect her with the fungus and the cycle repeats itself.

Neat, eh?

Now, although intelligent (sic) design is 'definitely-biology-not-religion', cDesign proponentsists (sic) will normally resort to 'The Fall' to explain parasites such as this. 'The Fall' is of course a purely religious construction found in the Bible and forming the basis of Christianity, but at least this enables them to dismiss these hideous examples of, if it were the intention of a real conscious being, malevolent intent, as not their god's the intelligent designer's fault. It doesn't explain how turning beetles into zombies and then reanimating them just to spread a fungus infection to the next generation of beetles relates to some mythical event in the Bible (which of course it doesn't because it's definitely-science-not-religion, except it does) but at least it nearly gets God the intelligent designer off the hook - if you don't think too much about it.

Using real science of course, this is exactly the sort of thing evolution predicts because there is no plan, no morality and no concept of punishing anything for 'sin', simply the allele frequency changing over time to maximise the number of reproducing offspring.

'via Blog this'

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Dogs and Wolves Have a Sense of Justice Too

Vetmeduni Vienna : Sensitivity to inequity is in wolves’ and dogs’ blood

To listen to religious apologists you would think there is something special about humans that sets them apart from the rest of nature.

More often than not, in addition to babbling about a 'soul' (although they don't seem to agree whether that's unique to humans or not) they will quote morality, ethics, love, compassion, and a sense of fair-play or justice as setting us about the mere beasts.

This view has repeatedly been refuted by naturalists who can show that, for example, elephants grieve over lost friends and relatives, that several animals including the other apes show compassion and empathy. Now a paper by a team from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria believe they have shown that not only domestic dogs but wolves have a sense of fairness and equity.

Highlights
  • Pack-living dogs and wolves show both reward and quality inequity
  • More dominant individuals were more inequity averse for both dogs and wolves
  • Inequity conditions influenced social behaviors in subsequent interactions
  • Inequity aversion is probably linked to the evolution of cooperation in dogs and wolves

Summary
Sensitivity to inequity is thought to be an important mechanism for recognizing undesirable cooperative partners and thus crucial for the evolution of human cooperation [ 1 ]. This link may not be unique to humans, as cooperative non-human primates also react to unequal outcomes [ 2 ], whereas non-cooperative species do not [ 3 ]. Although this hypothesis has not been tested in non-primate species, studies revealed that pet dogs show a limited form of inequity aversion, responding to reward, but not quality inequity [ 4–6 ]. It has been proposed that this primitive form of inequity aversion was selected for during domestication and thus absent in their ancestors, wolves. Alternatively, wolves, which hunt, raise pups, and defend their territory cooperatively, are similarly inequity averse as non-human primates, or at least to the same degree as pet dogs. Testing similarly raised and kept pack-living dogs and wolves, we found both to be inequity averse when their partner was being rewarded but they were not for performing the same action. Additionally, both wolves and dogs reacted to receiving a lower-quality reward than their partner. These results suggest that the inequity response found in pack-living dogs and wolves is comparable to that observed in non-human primates; results from studies on pet dogs may be confounded by the dogs’ relationship with humans. Consequently, our results suggest that inequity aversion was present already in the common—probably cooperative—ancestor of wolves and dogs and thus support the hypothesis of a close link of cooperation and inequity aversion.


This basic instinct in humans is of course the basis of many legal systems including English Common Law - from which the laws of most American states are derived (the exception being that of Louisiana which is derived from French Law). The Law assumes an entitlement to equal and fair treatment in a trial, including the idea that what was good in an earlier case should be good in this one - hence the Law is the body of cases. As we say in English Law, the Law if the cases; the cases are the Law.

Religious apologists have long argued that this this is what makes us 'civilised' and that the moral basis of this is God-given morals (conveniently ignoring the amoral, even immoral nature of their own god according to their holy books).

What the researchers found was that, in experiments where of a pair of dogs completed a task but only one was given a reward, or one was given a lower value reward than the other, the dog treated less fairly refused to co-operate in future experiments. The same phenomenon was demonstrated in a captive wolf pack where the response was also affected by the individual wolf's ranking in the pack heirarchy, with high-ranking dogs reacting more quickly to inequity, presumably because they were less used to being treated unfavourably.

Because a sense of equity is common to wolves and domestic dogs, it is strongly indicative that it was present in their common ancestor.

So, where does this leave the notion that somehow human's are above the animals because they are conscious, have empathy and enjoy civilising morals handed down by an invisible law-giver? It leaves it in tatters, of course. There never was any basis for this anthropocentric arrogance. Morals and ethics are evolved characteristics in social animals where teamwork and cooperation are essential for success.

'via Blog this'

Morocco Mystery Man

A composite reconstruction of what its discovers believe is the the earliest known Homo sapien fossil (from Jebel Irhoud), based on scans of multiple specimens. The virtual imprint of the braincase (blue) indicates that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapien lineage, the scientists say.

Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig
The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age : Nature : Nature Research

The press are having one of those, "The textbooks are going to have to be rewritten" days.

Apparently, the textbooks are not just updated with the most recent findings and understanding when a new edition is published; they have to be rewritten because everything we thought we knew was wrong. You sometimes wonder if the science news is written by creationists - except of course that the news media don't then make the absurdly childish leap of concluding that because one little bit of science has been revised this proves the entire body of science is wrong - about everything, so God did it!

But, in this case, the entire evolutionary story of humans now needs to be rewritten, so we are told. You might now be wondering what is this amazing discovery? Humans are not apes? Not African apes, maybe? We've evolved from guinea pigs or spontaneously generated? The truth is slightly more prosaic of course, in fact it barely rates as startling at all - interesting and thought-provoking, naturally, but startling? The 'startling' fact is some archaic human fossil remains including skulls, flint tools and animal remains found in Morocco have been dated to about 300,000 years old and may be the oldest fossil Homo sapiens so far discovered.

I Want To Tell You A Story!

How did almost nothing end up making you?

Don't tell the creationists and spoil their delusion but we've pretty much worked it out. It's not what they were hoping for!

From Chapter 10 of my latest book, "What Makes You So Special?":

From that small, unremarkable member of the Cambrian biota; those stiff little chordates that swam around amongst the trilobites and fearsome Anomalocaris with its huge, jaw–like appendages that were once thought to be a different species in their own right, big things were coming; in fact the biggest things to ever live – the blue whale. From that unpromising beginning were to evolve the fasted running animal, the fasted flying animal, birds that can soar on the wind and sing symphonies, two forms of powered flight, echolocation at least twice, a brain capable of doing calculus without realising it, and an ape that can go to the moon.

But first, it had to learn to walk on land and breathe air.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Islam is not the Problem. Faith is the Problem!

The grotesque random slaughter of innocent people, including young children, in the name of Islam, in Britain, France and Afghanistan by Muslim fanatics, and the equally grotesque murders of innocent Norwegians by the Christian fanatic, Anders Breivik a few years ago are the results not of Islam or Christianity; they are the result of faith.

They are the result of people arrogating for themselves the right to determine who can live and who should die, based on nothing but faith and the belief faith gives them certain knowledge of what a god wants, who it wants to punish - and that it requires their help in meting out that punishment.

It would be easy to condemn the deluded, simple-minded fools who carried out these acts as 'evil'; as representative of an inherently 'evil' religion or the products of inherently evil cultures, but that would be missing the point entirely.

The problem is not Islam; the problem is not Christianity. The problem is faith.

Faith is a fallacy.

Faith serves no useful purpose. It serves only to rationalise holding irrational beliefs; to make the faithful satisfied with not knowing and left pretending to themselves and others that they know things they do not know. In the absence of any substantive evidence for the physical existence of gods, the last (and often only) resort of a believer is faith. With evidence, faith would be unnecessary.

Faith is the resort of fools and frauds. Faith is pretending to know things you do not know.

There is actually very little attempt in the Qur’an to explain what faith actually is or why it should be regarded as trumping evidence. It is taken for granted that ‘Allah’ exists and faith is spelled out merely in terms of a Muslim’s obligations and expressions of confidence in what ‘Allah’ will do. Simply believing makes this all true, apparently.

Just as a Christian will claim that the Bible proves the existence of God because God wrote or inspired the Bible, so a Muslim will claim the Qur’an proves Allah exists because Allah inspired the Qur’an. The circularity in that reasoning is readily seen by the obvious fact that the claims cannot both be true, but if one claim fails then the other claim also fails because the failure is in the logic of the argument. In fact, this was never a real argument in the first place because both of them rely on two unsubstantiated assertions – this particular god exists and this god inspired the book.

The logical fallacy is in the presupposition of the conclusion. The logic collapses if you change this assumption and replace ‘God’ or ‘Allah’ for ‘Bottle of Milk’ or ‘Peanut Butter Sandwich’. This becomes just as absurd to a believer as the holy book ‘proof of gods’ does to a non-believer and yet the ‘logic’, such as it is, remains unchanged.

Here's how one Islamic apologist site (IslamWeb.net) tries to explain it:

The basis of any religion is faith. Faith is not merely conviction of the truth of a given principle, but it is essentially the acceptance of a principle as a basis for action. Without faith, a man is like a car without a steering wheel, drifting aimlessly upon a sea of doubt and confusion.

This is, of course, exactly what someone with no evidence, but a dogma to push, would say. It tells us what faith is not, and then makes a claim which any non-believer, indeed I suspect any non-Muslim, will tell you, is nothing more than an unfounded assertion, the entire purpose of which appears to be to reinforce in-group smug self-satisfaction. An almost gleeful revelling in how much better the believer thinks his or her life is compared to those less fortunate fools.

What is faith in Islam? It is belief in the Unity of God or Tawheed. This is expressed in the primary Kalimah (Word) of Islam as: “Laa ilaaha illallaah", meaning: “There is no one worthy of worship but Allah.”

This beautiful phrase is the bedrock of Islam, its foundation and its essence. It is the expression of this belief, which differentiates a true Muslim from an unbeliever, or one who associates others with God in His Divinity.

This is merely a statement of dogma, entirely dependent on preconceptions about the existence of a particular god with particular qualities. There is no special beauty in the phrase itself, merely in the comfort it brings to believers as confirmation of bias. If there is intrinsic beauty in the phrase, try spotting the intrinsic beauty in the phrase, “There is no one worthy of worship but Thor!” Is there intrinsic beauty and power in that phrase sufficient to form the ‘bedrock’ of a new religion?

There is no attempt to explain how faith gains this special insight. Faith is simply the acceptance of dogma. “I believe because I believe… and because I believe, what I believe is beautiful and true without question!” This is the self-referential certainty of the smugly self-satisfied.

The acceptance or denial of this phrase produces a world of difference among human beings. The believer finds out the right path, knows the truth and chalks out the course of life in the light of reality; the unbeliever chases one illusion after the other and gropes into the dark. For the believers, there is the promise of unhampered progress and resounding success in this world and in the Hereafter; whereas failure and ignominy are ultimately the lot of those who refuse to believe in it.

Again, these are merely assertions which to an outsider are patently false and which are nothing more than appeals to existing biases, intended to reinforce in-group versus out-group self-satisfaction and contentment.

The Bible is not much help in understanding how this faith thing is supposed to work either.

The entire 11th chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews is about faith, but it only starts off with a nebulous ‘definition’, and then has a lot of claims about what people have done through faith, all of them from the Old Testament and none of them demonstrably true. One might have expected some more contemporary examples but apparently Paul, or whoever wrote Hebrews, did not know of any.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

Hebrews 11:1-6

The nebulous platitude in the first verse is trotted out ad nauseum by Christians but it means absolutely nothing as a practical definition. It might as well read; ’Now faith is pretending to know things you do not know’. What exactly is this ‘substance of things hoped for’? What on earth is the ‘evidence of things not seen’? How do we know what these invisible things are, to be able to say with any degree of certainty that this or that is the evidence for them? This is something pretending to be deep that is not even shallow. As a piece of philosophy it would not deserve to be pinned up behind a bar. Why not be honest and say faith is just wishful thinking and the pretence of knowledge?

Hebrews 1:1 would have been far more honest, and might have served humanity better if it had read, "Now faith is the triumph of ignorance over knowledge; the triumph of certainty over truth and an abdication of personal responsibility." But of course the author was not writing truth but propaganda. The author was providing slogans to be used in place of rational thought

The problem is faith.

But that's not the whole problem.

The problem is also those who tell the faithful that faith is a virtue; that's it's a character flaw - a sin even - NOT to have faith. The problem is also the ever-so-moderate Imam, no doubt bosom pals with the local rabbi, the local Anglican parson, Catholic priest, Baptist pastor and the local Sikh granthi, who, along with his pals, tells his congregation what a great thing faith is, and how, by faith, they know with complete certainty that all other faiths are wrong.

The problem is also with bishops and archbishops; with the monarch and heir to the throne, and the Prime Minister who all proclaim faith to be the greatest of virtues.

The problem is that, by 'faith', God's holy words in God's holy books DO tell the faithful what God wants and who God wants punished and how to punish them, and by 'faith' there is no way to tell which are the good, moderate, socially responsible, caring and loving things that God wants, from the extreme, antisocial, hateful things that God wants. By faith alone it is impossible to tell right from wrong because, by definition anything and everything God wants is 'right'. Ever-so-moderate Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, for example, can divine meaning in the Bible that makes infanticide and genocide not only good things but moral imperatives, mandatory on all good Christians, when God wants them!

Moderates, by proclaiming faith to be a virtue and God's word as great, empower and permit the extremists. By telling them that there is an afterlife; that this life is merely a preparation for something infinitely better if they just do what God wants; the life is a cage from which death liberates us, the moderates might just as well help them into their suicide vests, arm them with machetes, and send them out to do what God wants! And they 'know' this ONLY by 'faith'.

The problem is faith in the hands of the simple-minded faithful, empowered and encouraged by those who sell them faith as a virtue because they don't have anything else. The truth is, faith is the triumph of ignorance over knowledge; the triumph of certainty over truth and an abdication of personal responsibility.

The murdering fanatics who carried out these atrocities were just as much victims of faith, and those who sell faith a virtue, as were their innocent victims.

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Meaning of Information to a Flightless Cormorant

A genetic signature of the evolution of loss of flight in the Galapagos cormorant | Science

The thing about information is that it means nothing without a reader; a reader moreover that can interpret the information and give it meaning.

Try this for example. Look at the following sequence of letters and see if it means anything:

teave

The chances are, especially if you're reading this in English, it won't mean much. It's information but it doesn't have much in the way of meaning. Maybe something to do with a popular beverage? Is it an accidental typo? Leave, heave, beaver, maybe?

New Book - What Makes You So Special?

My latest book goes on sale today!

It tells your story and how the stuff you are made of came to be and found itself on a tiny speck in the cosmos where the conditions were right to make more stuff stuff that could reproduce itself.

It explains why, 3.8 million years later, you can look at the cosmos and wonder how it all happened.

This book tries to answer that question, not in the technical terms one scientist would use when talking to another but in terms that should be understandable to anyone who wants to know this amazing story - the story of you!

Like all good books it should leave you feeling satisfied but wanting more. Above all, it should leave you feeling both very special and very humble.

From Chapter 1 'Something for Nothing'
The singularity cannot have had a cause because there was nothing to cause it. It could not have exist anywhere because there was nowhere for it to exist. It cannot have had a before because there was no time for it to have been in. It did not exist in space or time because there was no space or time for it to exist in.

For all practical purposes, it did not exist. It is zero; nothing; nada; not.

And yet this nothing gave birth to the entire Universe!

Thursday, 1 June 2017

How Science Works - Ancient Egyptian DNA

Geographic context, of the samples used in this study.
Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods : Nature Communications

The thing about writing science books is that the moment you publish them they start to go out of date. The reason for this is obvious to anyone familiar with how science works and how knowledge is continually improving and being refined. Creationists, with their preference for certainty, no matter how false, over truth, this continual self-checking and self-revising nature of science is both baffling and disturbing.

As though to illustrate this point, no sooner had I put the finishing touches to my most recent book, "What Makes You So Special?", and submitted it for publication, than a paper was published that answered one of the mysteries that I alluded to in it. I had briefly covered, amongst other things, the origin of the Ancient Egyptians and their part of the human story. The mystery was who exactly the Ancient Egyptians were and where they came from.

The answer has been made possible by a new technique which has enabled DNA of sufficient quality to be extracted and compared to the DNA of other human groups. There is probably a lot more yet to come from these studies, including identifying what foreign incursions there were into Egypt in ancient times.
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