“Creationists will have a field day with this one,” writes one blogger on the news. Bingo.
Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, even if simply because scientists have known about the appendix’s function for some time now. Creationists—whose research was not clouded by evolutionary presuppositions—had an easier time documenting the appendix’s importance, such as in a paper from 1988. News to Note reported on determinations of the appendix’s function as well, in October 2007 and June 2008. (We touched on the topic two weeks ago when reporting on discoveries of the spleen’s functions.)
The latest news is of further research by some of the same scientists who had previously cast light on the appendix’s function. In a twist, those scientists have used evolution-based approaches to show that the appendix isn’t a vestigial by-product of evolution.
Specifically, the scientists examined existing beliefs about evolutionary relationships to determine that the appendix “has been around for at least 80 million years, much longer than we would estimate if Darwin’s ideas about the appendix were correct.” Those are the words of the study’s senior author William Parker, an assistant professor of surgical sciences at Duke University.
Charles Darwin first suggested that the appendix was an evolutionary dead-end that lingered, unused, in humans. Yet as Parker explained, “We find that more than seventy percent of all primate and rodent groups contain species with an appendix”—contrary to Darwin’s idea that only a few creatures had appendices.
Furthermore, according to the new study, the appendix has evolved “at least twice”—separately in Australian marsupials, rodents, and some primates (and humans). This again counters Darwin’s idea of the appendix as a useless dead-end. And as we’ve pointed out before, such “convergent evolution”—similar organs and anatomical features in otherwise isolated biological groups—makes much more sense as evidence of a common designer.
“Darwin simply didn’t have access to the information we have,” Parker said, adding, “Maybe it’s time to correct the textbooks. Many biology texts today still refer to the appendix as a ‘vestigial organ.’” To that, we can heartily agree. For decades scientists have started understanding the functions of the appendix, functions that should immediately put to rest “vestigial” claims. And while both creationists and evolutionists maintain their explanations for the origin of organs, each biological function discovered adds to the design evolutionists must explain and subtracts from the shrinking list of “vestigial evidence” evolutionists like to tout.
(As for the blogger mentioned above, he defends Darwin on his appendix mistake, writing, “[S]omehow, his theory that animals evolved from common ancestors is stronger and more confirmed than ever,” then he refers to us as “the same brain trust that advocates the laughable idea that all animals—including dinosaurs—were created by their god 6,000 years ago.” So much for substantive discussion.)
A recently discovered exoplanet may have been found just in the nick of time—in time for us to witness its demise, that is.
We’ve reported previously on WASP-12b and WASP-17b, two of the nearly twenty planets discovered by the UK SuperWASP team. (“WASP” stands for “wide-angle search for planets.”) But it’s planet WASP-18b that made headlines this week.
The newly discovered WASP-18b belongs to a class of exoplanets known colloquially as “hot Jupiters”—extremely large planets (WASP-18b is ten times the mass of Jupiter) that orbit extremely close to their stars. WASP-18b is so close to its star that it takes only 94 percent of an Earth day to complete an orbit. (By contrast, Mercury’s relatively short orbital period is nearly 88 Earth days.)
Because of the gravitational pull the star exerts, astrophysicists believe WASP-18b is on a collision course with the star it orbits. But that raises a question: how is it that we found the planet so close to its demise? As LiveScience’s Andrea Thompson puts it, “While planets spend most of their lives sort of growing up, they perish in a cosmic blink of the eye. And so there is only a small time window where a planet would be in this position of impending demise—it would be statistically more likely to have found it much earlier in its lifetime, or after its destruction (which means it wouldn’t have been seen at all).”
University of Maryland–College Park astronomer Douglas Hamilton said the same: “Either the odds of finding it are really small, and we just got lucky”—or astrophysicists are misunderstanding the full nature of the gravitational interactions between planets and stars. However, that understanding is partially based on evolutionary models of the origin of solar systems. Also, billions-of-years dogma dictates that a “cosmic blink of the eye” may actually be thousands or millions of years.
Regardless, astronomers are eager to keep a close eye on WASP-18b for changes in its orbit. It could be that astrophysicists are mistaken and that we don’t fully understand the true nature of physical forces in orbital contexts. Or it could be that WASP-18b is indeed on a collision course, perhaps heading toward impact even sooner than scientists guess. If that is the case, we will again have to revisit the issue of whether it was merely a one-in-a-2,000 chance (as The Independent reported) that we observed the planet so near its demise, or whether perhaps evolutionary timetables fail to predict the actual speed of events in the universe.
It sounds like an April Fools’ Day joke that came months too late: a Canadian scientist declares he will “flip some levers” and develop a dinosaur out of a chicken embryo.
The scientist is Hans Larsson, an evolutionary researcher at McGill University. Though Larsson has previously focused on paleontology—finding dinosaur and other animal fossils—he was influenced by fellow paleontologist Jack Horner, author of the book How to Build A Dinosaur. In the book, Horner—a technical advisor on the Jurassic Park series of films—proposes the embryonic experiment as a way to make a “chickenosaurus.”
Larsson calls the project—which is funded by Canadian taxpayers and the National Geographic Society—“a demonstration of evolution.” Although the team does not currently have plans to actually hatch any “chickenosaurus” embryos, that could change.
“If I can demonstrate clearly that the potential for dinosaur anatomical development exists in birds, then it again proves that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs,” explained Larsson, who told AFP it would only require “flipping certain genetic levers” (as the report puts it) to reproduce dinosaur anatomy.
The project sounds far more complicated than Larsson seems to suggest, and it will yet be seen what success the team has. But even if the team can, someday, on some level, create a purportedly dinosaurian embryo from a chicken embryo, will it prove dinosaur-to-bird evolution?
Consider this analogy: a robotics company produces a full line of robots for industrial uses. The various families of robots—each suited for a different purpose—were designed separately. However, they all share a few of the same elements that the designers re-used for the sake of efficiency. For instance, most are made of the same materials, use very similar servomechanisms, and have the same type of battery. Their internal computers use software programmed in the same language with many similar routines and subroutines.
Suppose that, for whatever reason, a malicious gang of engineers raided one of the robotics firm’s factories that was producing a certain family of robots. The gang then used their knowledge and skills to hijack the factory’s production, shifting it to a different family of robots. Such a feat would not demonstrate that the robots were developed from a single, original design—as we said, the robot families were designed separately by a common design team. The feat would only show the talent of the gang, able to transform the blueprints for one of the robot types into another. Likewise, even if Larsson’s team ever creates anything dinosaur-like, it will only show that they were able to successfully alter the genomic “blueprints” of the chicken embryo to make it more dinosaurian. That is not proof of evolution.
In related news, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have taken another step toward creating a synthetic life-form, reports BBC News.
A team began with the genome of one type of bacteria, transferring it to a yeast cell and modifying it before inserting it into a different bacterium. The researchers have overcome a key hurdle in their project: coaxing a newly inserted genome to function properly. Under normal conditions, a bacterium has an immune system of sorts that protects it from foreign DNA—like a virus. The scientists were able to shut the system down, however, permitting the genome insertion.
Ultimately, the team hopes to create synthetic organisms that can execute specific tasks. While sometimes called “artificial life,” these organisms would actually simply have human-customized “programming.” Thus, as with creating a “chickenosaurus,” such projects remind us of the incredible design in living organisms—design on a scale that challenges our smartest engineers. Pouring years of “intelligent design” work into such projects confirms not that life is an accident, but that life was engineered by the master Designer.
Although we frequently decline to comment when individuals inveigh against creationists (especially because such comments are often redundant and misinformed), we can hardly help but respond to vocal atheist (and anti-creationist) Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins begins his strangely titled* piece with what he intends to be an analogical scenario: a teacher of Roman history and Latin whose pupils are distracted by “a baying pack of ignoramuses” who “scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade your unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed.”
Before we can respond, Dawkins trots out a supplementary example: Holocaust deniers. “Imagine that,” Dawkins writes, “as a teacher of European history, you are continually faced with belligerent demands to ‘teach the controversy,’ and to give ‘equal time’ to the ‘alternative theory’ that the Holocaust never happened but was invented by a bunch of Zionist fabricators.” Dawkins then makes explicit the implication of his analogy:
The plight of many science teachers today is not less dire. When they attempt to expound the central and guiding principle of biology; when they honestly place the living world in its historical context—which means evolution; when they explore and explain the very nature of life itself, they are harried and stymied, hassled and bullied, even threatened with loss of their jobs. . . . They are supplied with state-approved textbooks that have had the word “evolution” systematically expunged, or bowdlerized into “change over time.”
We of course disagree that this is an apt analogy to what’s happening to teachers of evolution today—for several reasons:
Dawkins cannot even see around his own biases. Misleadingly, he decries the spread of attacks on evolution in Europe as “partly because of American influence,” as though it were an issue of foreign policy or popular culture—instead of simply more and more people recognizing the failings of Darwinian theory.
Nonetheless, Dawkins declares, “The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust.” That’s why, in his new book, as he explains,
I shall be using the name “historydeniers” for those people who deny evolution: who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years rather than thousands of millions of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs.
Next, Dawkins lists a number of (mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic) church leaders who “grudgingly in some cases, happily in others . . . accept the evidence for evolution,” as if to say there’s no legitimate contention between religion and evolution (an ironic point for Dawkins to make, given how he has previously railed against the irrationality of religion). But then he—inadvertently—makes a point for our side:
To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed! If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely “symbolic” meaning, perhaps something to do with “original sin,” or the virtues of innocence.
Here, Dawkins makes clear the point that certain theological truths are at odds with evolution! The Christian faith rests on the doctrine of original sin; original sin requires a real Adam and Eve. Thus, if evolution undermines the reality of Adam and Eve, it also must undermine the reality of original sin!
The remainder of Dawkins’ essay is increasingly dogmatic—and fallacious. He essentially repeats (over and over again, louder and louder) that evolution is a “fact,” dressing up his language in various ways but continuing to beg the question at the heart of the debate:
Dawkins gives no scientific specifics, merely offering such comments as, “We know [evolution is true] because a rising flood of evidence supports [evolution being true].” And he rips apart a creationist straw man, lecturing the reader that “[e]volution is a theory in the same sense as the heliocentric theory.” He even sounds religious at one point (which is no surprise, since evolutionism is effectively a religious position), declaring, “Evolution is within us, around us, between us, and its workings are embedded in the rocks of aeons past.”
Near the end, Dawkins uses another analogy that we have used previously:
We are like detectives who come on the scene after a crime has been committed. The murderer’s actions have vanished into the past. The detective has no hope of witnessing the actual crime with his own eyes. What the detective does have is traces that remain, and there is a great deal to trust there. There are footprints, fingerprints (and nowadays DNA fingerprints too), bloodstains, letters, diaries. The world is the way the world should be if this and this history, but not that and that history, led up to the present.
Dawkins is right—the origin of life is a historical event, something that none of us could have directly witnessed. All of us agree on most of the facts, and those facts permit certain conclusions and not others (which conclusions are permitted and which aren’t are the subject of most creation/evolution debates). However, there is one piece of evidence we all do not agree on: God’s Word. Presumably Dawkins would accuse us of arbitrarily introducing a piece of false evidence; we accuse Dawkins, et al., of arbitrarily rejecting the most important piece of evidence. And hence the debate is as much about religion as it is about science.
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