As the attack on Darwin continues this week, I thought I would round up some of the recent news from the front lines.
I am listening to the Kansas "trial." It has to be in small doses because my neighbors wonder who I am arguing with and they like me to keep the yelling to a minimum.
One thing that strikes me is the ID/Creationists say they want there to be a debate. Well . . . science is a debate. This is how progress is made. One hypothesis is put forward, then another, maybe another and the debate rolls from there. Then the one that best explains the evidence is the winner . . . until a better explanation comes along.
A significant debate is currently underway in the scientific community over the evolution of the Great White shark, and Chuck Ciampaglio, Ph.D., an assistant professor of geology at the Wright State University Lake Campus, is right in the middle of it.
The issue is if the Great White, one of the most feared predators of the sea, evolved from the huge prehistoric megalodon shark or if its ancestry rests with the mako shark.
"Most scientists would probably say the Great Whites evolved from the megalodon line, which existed from two million to twenty million years ago. They were huge sharks, approximately the length of a Greyhound bus and possessing teeth that were up to six inches long," explains Ciampaglio. "However, our research, which is based on analyzing fossils of several hundred shark teeth, shows that the Great White shares more similarities with the mako shark." He added that because sharks regularly replace their teeth, it is relatively easy to obtain tooth samples through fossil field work along the Atlantic seaboard.
Another long standing debate has been the meaning of the "waggle dance" of honey bees. In the 60's Karl von Frisch proposed the dance was a coded message. When bees find food, they fly back to the hive and get jiggy with it. Other bees watch the dance and know where the source of food is. Not everybody was on board with this idea, and the debate has gone on since the 60's. A new paper shows von Frisch was probably correct.
Photo from the Morguefile
In another set of experiments, bee recruits leaving the hive were taken to release sites up to 250m away. These bees flew, not to the feeding site, but in the direction that would have taken them to the feeding site had they not been displaced from the hive. This result adds weight to von Frisch's original theory and allows alternative hypotheses about bee behaviour to be firmly discounted.
Notice the sentence in bold. Many hypothesis are put forward. After evidence is collected and analyzed, the ones that do not describe the event are discounted. The scientists that had the discounted hypotheses have two choices:
1. Accept that theirs did not describe the phenomena and they were incorrect.
2. Join Answers in Genesis. (I exaggerate, but not by much in my ever so humble opinion)
Another fascinating article is about lateral gene transfer in bacteria. This phenomena has very important implications for human health. Most antibiotic resistance is probably passed on this way. But if genes are passed like this - how can you classify different species of bacteria? It turns out that there are stable areas in the genome not passed on by lateral transfer. This is important when trying to identify which bacteria is the one causing an infection. This does not help much with antibiotic resistance however.
Bacteria acquired up to 90 percent of their genetic material from distantly related bacteria species, according to new research from The University of Arizona in Tucson.
"To maintain effective treatments and develop new antibiotics, it's important to monitor the rates and patterns of lateral gene transfer," said team member Howard Ochman, a UA professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and a member of UA's BIO5 Institute.
The research also solves a long-standing evolutionary puzzle. Many scientists have argued that drawing traditional family trees does not make sense for bacteria, because their genomes represent a mix of genetic material from their parental cells and from other species of bacteria.
Ochman and his colleagues' work shows that bacterial lineages can still be traced by considering only the "traditional" forms of genetic inheritance. The widespread exchange of genes does not blur the line of descent because the acquired genes get lost from the genome at a later point or, if they do persist, the bacteria then transmit them to their offspring.
Being able to classify bacteria is crucial for medicine, Ochman said. "If you go to the doctor with strep throat he can be pretty certain that it's the result of an infection with a species of Streptococcus and can therefore prescribe an appropriate antibiotic. If you couldn't classify bacteria because they have genes from all over, doctors wouldn't be able to do this."
And my favorite:
In the world of mosquitofish size does matter. This addresses an issue brought up by creationists. They don't like the thought of "random." Well . . . neither does Natural Selection.
There is a randomness in gene mutations. There is no control over radiation, errors in making copies of DNA, and others. There are many places for random error.
But choice in mates . . . not so much. Each species has a trait that is selected for, usually by the female. And in the mosquitofish . . . it's a big "penis."
This article explains why the not-so-well endowed are still around. It turns out a big penis can be a drag.
A biologist at Washington University in St. Louis has shown that for some fish species, females prefer males with larger sexual organs, and actually choose them for mating. That does not exclude males with an average-sized sex organ, called a gonopodium. These fish out-compete the larger-endowed males in a predator-laden environment because they have a faster burst speed than the males with larger genitalia, who lose out because the size of their organ slows them down, making them ripe for capture by larger fish.
Brian Langerhans, Washington University biology graduate student in Arts & Sciences, has performed studies on mosquitofish (guppy-like fish, about an inch long) and found that female mosquitofish spend 80 percent more time with males who have a large gonopodium.
"A male with a larger gonopodium has a higher chance of mating, but in a predator environment he has a higher probability of dying," Langerhans said. "That's the cost, the tradeoff. On the other hand, we found that in predator-free environments gonopodia size was larger, as there is minimal cost for large genitalia in that environment. Bigger is better for mating, but smaller is better for avoiding predation."
Researchers have thought for about 20 years that the striking diversity of genital form results from post-mating sexual selection, such as sperm competition or cryptic female choice. That is, most evolutionists have believed that for animals with internal fertilization -- like the livebearing fish Langerhans studies which don't lay eggs-- selection acting within the female's body that biases fertilization toward males with a particular genital morphology has been largely responsible for the generation of genital diversity. Langerhans's finding, however, contradicts that theory: he has shown that female mosquitofish make their choice before mating, and overwhelmingly that choice is made with size being the prize.
So there is a debate. A constant and sometimes heated debate. What the creationist don't understand is they need to have evidence to join this process.
If there were studies that would show their "scientific" ideas really were better at explaining the data they would be able to join in. If the data did look better - believe it or not, it would be accepted. There is no conspiracy of scientists. They love a good debate.
You can't just say "because God did it" and expect everyone else to say, "well that is a good one . . . we'll just stop what we're doing . . . what fools we were getting all that evidence and stuff." You can't.
The problem is that the creationist's ideas were the ones that got replaced. The world won't re-flatten for you, and crystal spheres will not re-enclose the Earth just because it makes you more comfortable.