1. PhysOrg: “Evolution of the Appendix: A Biological ‘Remnant’ No More

“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.)

2. LiveScience: “Newfound Planet Might Be Near Death

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.

3. AFP: “Canadian Scientist Aims to Turn Chickens into Dinosaurs

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.

4. The Times: “Creationists, Now They’re Coming for Your Children

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 analogizes opponents of Darwinism as “a baying pack of ignoramuses,” yet hundreds of PhD’s have expressed their disagreements with Darwinian theory. No wonder he later commits the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy, arguing “No reputable scientist disputes [evolution].” (I.e., he defines “reputable scientist” as “a scientist who believes in evolution,” arbitrarily excluding the many good scientists who reject Darwinism.)
  • Dawkins apparently ignores the difference in the type of evidence supporting Darwinism, ancient Rome, and the Holocaust. The Holocaust is documented by photographic evidence, by historical documents, and by testimonies of both prisoners and jailers. The evidence of Rome, too, is based on eyewitness documentation (albeit eyewitnesses who are no longer with us) and direct archaeological evidence. The “evidence” of evolution, however, is indirect and based on speculation. For example, fossils can only show differences, not an actual process of change. One can only determine a process of change between two different fossils based on prior beliefs.
  • If a Holocaust-denying student challenged his history teacher, we would expect the teacher to be able to answer the challenges based on historical facts. In fact, if there was a crackdown on debate over the World War II history in schools, would that not trigger alarms that the evidence of the Holocaust were perhaps weaker than had been construed?
  • We will grant Dawkins the point that there are some debates in which the evidence is entirely on one side, and the opposing side has a series of ad hoc rationalizations around the evidence. Yet there are also many debates in which both sides have competing interpretations (or models) of the same facts. Dawkins offers nothing to explain why the creation/evolution controversy falls into the former category rather than the latter. Why not allow students to examine all models for themselves and conclude which best explains the facts?

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:

  • “Evolution is a fact.”
  • “Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.”
  • “It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees . . . .”
  • “Evolution is a fact, and [my] book will demonstrate it.”
  • “Evolution is an inescapable fact, and we should celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty.”

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.

* We’re not sure who titled Dawkins’ essay—himself or his editors—but it only seems to further many creationists’ worries that their parental rights will be abrogated if they teach creation to their children.

5. Introducing “Readers’ Voice,” the Newest News to Note Feature

Have your own thoughts on a news item? Want other News to Note readers to hear them?

When we put together News to Note each week, our goal is not only to offer our Bible-based analysis of science and other news. Just as important is encouraging readers to think biblically as well.

That’s why we’re offering a trial run of “Readers’ Voice,” an opportunity for us to share some of the best comments sent in by readers. If it’s a success, we hope to feature at least one reader comment each week.

If you would like to participate, find a current news story that you think we should cover in News to Note and that you have a pithy comment or interesting question on (fifty words or fewer, preferably). Then send the story and the comment or question to us along with your name and location, and be sure to mention it’s for “Readers’ Voice.”

Please don’t be offended if your comment isn’t selected the first week—our hope is that many readers will have thoughts they would like us and other readers to hear. If we continue to receive plenty of comments, we’ll make it a regular feature.

Remember, we’re looking for concise, thought-provoking (or even humorous) comments and questions on current news from a biblical perspective. If you have something that fits the bill, let us know!

6. And Don’t Miss . . .

  • Fossils discovered in Germany in 2007 and 2008 made news this week, as many were recently put on display. The finds include an incredibly preserved lizard, rodents, an iridescent beetle, and many other animals. And some of the fossil feathers discovered, along with fossils found elsewhere, are helping teach scientists about the colors and glosses of ancient birds and other creatures.
  • In a recent speech, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler warned listeners, “We’re losing at least two-thirds of our young people somewhere along the line between adolescence and adulthood.” Sounds like someone has read the research Ken Ham and Britt Beemer present in Already Gone! Actually, the forthcoming issue of Answers magazine features an interview with Dr. Mohler—be sure to check it out!
  • Still aren’t sure that evolutionary conclusions are based on presuppositions? A news release for a study of epigenetics declares, “Researchers . . . have found that the protein coding parts of a gene are packed in special nucleosomes. The same type of packaging is found in the roundworm C. elegans, which is a primeval relative of humans. The mechanism can thereby be traced back a billion years in time.” In other words, because the scientists already believe humans and roundworms are related, they arrive at the conclusion that the packaging has been “evolutionarily preserved.” Could it not also be a brilliant design from a common designer?
  • A team reporting in Science details a new method of aluminum-based radiometric dating that “can now offer precise timing of events 4.5 billion years ago.” But like all other forms of radiometric dating, the new technique must (necessarily) rely on a series of questionable assumptions.
  • Are we (and other advocates of intelligent design) guilty of “an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power”? That’s one of the many points that Robert Wright opines in the New York Times recently. But strangely enough, it seems that most writers advocating “science” (read: “Darwinian evolution”)—including Wright—offer absolutely no science to justify their assertions.
  • Could examinations of life on Earth in any way show that there is life on Mars? Of course not, yet that seems to be the implication of recent work by NASA and other scientists. (The linked article also mentions the discovery of methane on Mars as a “possible clue that life currently exists on the planet or did in the past,” despite that notion having been recently discarded.)
  • Do evolving robots prove that life could have evolved? Hardly. Not only were the robots and their “genomes” intelligently designed, but we’re confident that the “mating” and “mutating” of their genomes were intelligently managed as well. Furthermore, what “evolved” was not new anatomical features, but rather simply a variety of behaviors (i.e., the behaviors that evolved were no more complex than the ancestral behaviors).
  • While reports indicate that the news has “implications for the evolution of an ancient group of crustaceans,” the discovery of an eyeless crustacean in the Canary Islands would require no evolution: evolutionists need organisms to evolve eyes out of nothing, not to lose the eyes they (possibly) once had.
  • Lobsters are capable of “jet-assisted walking” thanks to their fin-like pleopods, according to a recent study that reveals the unexpected utility of the design.
  • In a bit of a twist, erstwhile Answers in Genesis critic Ian Plimer (well, still a critic as far as we know—just not in the news for it) has come out dismissive of claims about human-caused global warming. We suppose Plimer now knows what it’s like to be in the scientific minority.

For more information: Get Answers

Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, New York Times or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us. If you didn’t catch last week’s News to Note, why not take a look at it now? See you next week!

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