Thursday, May 31, 2012 joins the Discovery Institute link farm

For a while, Uncommon Descent's resident flack (Denyse O'Leary) has linked in several blog entries from's blog. TBS appears to be a web resource targeted at Christians choosing a college. The main site mixes articles on the 10 Best Nursing Programs with interviews with folks such as William Lane Craig. The blog, however, seems to be the sole province of James Barham.

Well, it used to be the sole province of James Barham. Now Denyse herself has begun posting there, and Barham's posts have begun cross-posting between TBS and the Discovery Institute's Evolution News and Views site.

I had hopes for TBS, since it seemed to allow comments and Barham seemed to be a nice fellow posting on intellectually interesting topics. Alas, after I registered and tried to post a comment it went from moderation to deletion without seeing the light of day. At this point, I would consider TBS (the blog at least) to be just another corner of the DI link farm.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When there is no good news for ID, quote an old book

It is a slow news day over at UncommonDescent. Actually, every day is a slow news day there, since there are no ID scientists doing ID research publishable in peer reviewed journals. So the UD news desk, Denyse O'Leary, dips into the pages of John Sanford's Genetic Entropy for an extended quote.

During the last century, there was a great deal of effort invested in trying to use mutation to generate useful variation. This was especially true in my own area – plant breeding. When it was discovered that certain forms of radiation and certain chemicals were powerful mutagenic agents, millions and million of plants were mutagenized and screened for possible improvements. Assuming the Primary Axiom (that the secies are merely the product of random mutations plus natural selection), it would seem obvious that this would result in rapid "evolution" of our crops. For several decades this was the main thrust of crop improvement research. Vast numbers of mutants were produced and screened, collectively representing many billions of mutation events. A huge number of small, sterile, sick, deformed, aberrant plants were produced. However, from all this effort, essentially no meaningful crop improvement resulted. The entire effort was a failure, and was eventually abandoned. – Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome , page 25

It is an interesting quote, and I'd like to address the ideas in it by referencing the development of high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice during the Green Revolution, work which took place during the same approximate time as Sanford refers to.

First, let us note that Sanford is going to trade upon the ambiguity in his phrase "random mutations plus natural selection". RM+NS, as it is often abbreviated in internet dialogs, can mean either any kind of genomic variation and any kind of selective pressure, or only the substitution of exactly one nucleotide for another in DNA and the survival of the fittest. When making a claim against "Darwinism" or "evolutionism" opponents imply the first, broad meaning. When asked to defend a claim, they retreat to the narrow meaning.

No modern scientist thinks nucleotide substitution alone built the genomes of every species alive, and those extinct. Reading the genomes of many species has shown how  groups of genes have been duplicated as groups, sometimes across species boundaries. Importantly for the case of useful plants, the entire genome of plants such as wheat and potatos has been duplicated more than once. Each cell of a wheat plant has six complete copies of its genome! These large scale restructurings are responsible for the rapid change in plant and animal evolution, compared to bacterial evolution.

Second, if we look at the Green Revolution - the rapid expansion of crop productivity around the world since World War II - we see that the main driver was new kinds of wheat and rice. These new cultivars grew shorter stems, which were mechanically stronger than previous wild-type long stems. The strength of the stem was important when the seed head grew bigger. Without a strong stem, the plant fell over (lodged).

The short stems are the result of point mutations in the genome. We've known this for a long time. We know that the mutations affect the growth signal processes, stunting growth compared to the wild-type plant. So Sanford is flat wrong to suggest that we have never found beneficial mutations in plants. He has a fig leaf to hide behind in that these mutations were found in naturally growing variants of wheat and rice. They were not induced by human radiation or chemical experiments.

Since we now know the size of the wheat genome, we could calculate the expected time until discovery of a beneficial mutation, using the techniques of radiation and chemical mutagenesis. I'm going to guess it would be on the order of millions of years, if each batch of seeds has to be grown and tested for increased function.

This is an essential contrast between the small bodied, asexual evolution of bacteria and the large bodied, sexual evolution of plants and animals. We do see rapid response to chemical stresses, such as anti-biotic resistance, in bacteria because the population being stressed is trillions of individuals. We can't test a population of trillions of plants or animals. Perhaps Sanford hasn't thought about the implications of that, or perhaps he has and would prefer to obfuscate them.

The idea that exposing pollen grains to radiation would advance the species is 'hopeful monster' thinking. That said, it worked! Dwarf wheat and rice have fed billions of people. Sanford's pessimism is misplaced.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Blanka and I drove down to Memphis last week to spend some time with my Dad and his wife Doris. We had a great time. It was the first time I had been in Memphis since childhood.
We visited two places on our own, Graceland, and the National Civil Rights Museum.

Graceland, as most of the planet knows, is the home of the second best musician to graduate from Humes High School. (My father being number one, of course.) There was plenty of over the top Elvis worship on display, but it was enjoyable and a good introduction to the music and times Elvis shaped.

A different take on the same period was the NCRM. The museum preserves the facade of the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. The museum exhibits wind back and forth, and rise by carefully placed ramps until suddenly you are there, looking out of the window of room 307, right next to Dr. King's 306.

The museum is a powerful testimony to the civil rights struggle. One of the best parts, in my view, was the short film, "The Witness". Narrated for the most part by Rev. Billy Kyles, who was standing just a few feet from Dr. King when he was killed, the film gives the context for the events that brought Dr. King to Memphis.

The film is extremely effective and emotional. I highly recommend it. I purchased a copy in the museum store, and it has been uploaded to vimeo (not sure of the legality of that, though).

Friday, May 4, 2012

Superconductivity and Intelligent Design

I was reading a recent article on the very cool topic of topological insulators when it reminded me of an interesting period of time.

Superconductivity, the phenomenon of complete absence of electrical resistance, was first observed by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911. The observation was readily repeatable, and Onnes won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Physics for its discovery. However, for nearly 50 years there was no theoretical explanation that really satisfied the physics community. But during the 1950s the BCS theory of Cooper pairs of electrons acting as phonons was developed that described a mechanism for superconductivity.

Never, to my knowledge, did the physics community assume intelligent design was the answer for why superconductivity existed. There was not naturalistic explanation for 50 years, yet they never lobbied for a supernatural explanation as the 'default' or inference to the 'best' explanation. I wonder why that is?

Going Green

We just purchased a beautiful floor lamp at the Zen Shop in Riverside Square Mall.

The vertical poles are dark stained bamboo, and the panels are real cocoa (chocolate tree) leaves. It looks fantastic either lit or unlit. Unlit, the panels are an emerald green, darker than the image. Thank you Michelle for stocking this!

Blanka wanted something to celebrate returning from her Soul Coaching seminar in California, and this was it!