If true, it would be perhaps the most revolutionary discovery in human history: a planet twenty light-years from earth that is not only habitable, but that has its own life-forms. There’s only one problem: scientists aren’t even sure the planet is there.
For evolution-believing astrobiologists, the announcement (which we first mentioned two weeks back) must have already seemed almost too good to be true. “My own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” claimed University of California–Santa Cruz astronomer Steven Vogt, one of the scientists reporting the discovery of exoplanet Gliese 581g. Exciting Vogt’s team was that the planet was believed to orbit in its star’s “habitable zone”—a distance from its star such that temperatures would allow water on the planet to remain liquid. For believers in evolution, that’s only a half-step away from life—hence Vogt’s plentiful confidence.
Adding to the hype was a more recent report from the University of Western Sydney’s Ragbir Bhathal. The astronomer claims to have detected a “suspicious pulse of light” two years ago that came from the general direction of Gliese 581g. “We found this very sharp signal,” he said, “sort of a laser lookalike thing which is the sort of thing we’re looking for—a very sharp spike.” However, at least one other astronomer is skeptical that the signal came from Gliese 581g.
But the claims are moot if research just released by Swiss astronomers turns out to be accurate. Researchers affiliated with the Observatory of Geneva announced at this week’s Astrophysics of Planetary Systems conference that they “could find no trace of [Gliese 581g] in their observations of the same planetary system.”
One of the researchers, Francesco Pepe, explained, “We do not see any evidence for a fifth planet . . . as announced by [Vogt’s team],” though he added that “we can’t prove there is no fifth planet,” either. A member of Vogt’s team shied away from Vogt’s certainty over the planet and its alleged life, agreeing that more data is needed to confirm that the hyped planet is really there.
Creationists are fascinated by scientifically rigorous discoveries about the universe around us, and learning about exoplanets is no exception. Still, the controversy over Gliese 581g’s existence is a powerful reminder of the indirect, tentative methods used to find and describe such planets—and, in turn, reminds us that any claims of life on other planets remain pure speculation.
How can rotting fish join the origins battle on the creationist side?
Paleontologists at the University of Leicester have been conducting a decidedly unpleasant scientific study—and one whose purpose may not be clear at first. Researchers spent 200 days watching dead fish rot under controlled conditions, carefully recording the patterns of decay and observing which body parts disappeared first.
The point? The team hoped to better understand the process of decomposition in order to ascertain what anatomy the fossil record may systematically omit. That is, if the same fishy parts always rot away quickly, the fossil record will have relatively fewer examples of those parts—perhaps leading scientists to believe such parts were rarer than in reality.
“Decay bias” is the term the researchers use for this problem, which was illustrated by decaying lampreys that the team observed. “[C]ertain parts of the brain and the mouth that distinguish the animals from earlier relatives begin a rapid decay within 24 hours,” ScienceNOW reports. Because the scientists believe those parts are more recently evolved, fossils missing them appear “more primitive than they would have been in life.” Therefore decay bias may lead to incorrect identification and distort (supposed) evolutionary history.
Yale University paleobiologist Derek Briggs, who was not involved in the study, notes that the research reveals “important constraints on the interpretation of rare fossils, including some of our earliest ancestors” and that the problem “can be applied to the interpretation of soft-bodied fossils in general, and particularly to determining their true place in the tree of life.” Indeed, the study is a reminder of the assumptions required for one to infer biological history based on a very incomplete record of imperfectly preserved fossils. More importantly, the research suggests that—at least in some biological taxa—there may be a systematic bias making fossils appear more “primitive” than they actually were; and by decreasing the frequency of supposedly primitive fossils, evolutionists have even less of an example of progressive evolution over time.
Monarch butterflies are famous for their distinctive coloration and multigenerational migration. Now, they may become famous for something else: prescribing medicine for their offspring.
Research at Emory University has revealed a shockingly sophisticated behavior in monarch butterflies: selective laying of eggs on medicinal plants when the egg-laying female butterfly is infected by a parasite. A team led by evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode investigated patterns of egg laying by female monarchs in an attempt to determine when (and why) butterflies lay their eggs on more or less toxic or nontoxic species of milkweed (which serves as the food source for monarch larvae).
Based on previous research, the scientists knew the selection of milkweed plant was connected to avoiding predation. (Monarchs that consume toxic milkweed as larva are toxic for any predator even after the caterpillar matures into a butterfly.) De Roode, however, wondered if the egg-laying patterns could also be related to Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a parasite that infects the monarchs throughout all life stages, is passed on through reproduction, and is potentially fatal.
A battery of experiments in the lab showed that infected monarchs preferred to lay their eggs on a toxic species of milkweed, whereas uninfected females selected species at random. “We have . . . found that infected female butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on plants that will make their offspring less sick, suggesting that monarchs have evolved the ability to medicate their offspring,” de Roode said. Of particular interest is that the mother butterfly does not benefit from laying eggs on toxic plants; only her offspring do.
Animals’ ability to medicate themselves has not been studied extensively, which inspires University of Michigan chemical ecologist Mark Hunter, who contributed to the findings. “Studying organisms engaged in self-medication gives us a clue as to what compounds might be worth investigating for their potential as human medicines,” he explained. The case of the pharmaceutical monarchs is thus another example of humans looking to learn from God’s incredible creation and a way that God has provided for and designed the monarch for living in a fallen world.
T. rex is one of the best-known dinosaurs, and among the things T. rex is known for are its almost humorously short, weak arms. Many herbivorous dinosaurs, meanwhile, had four powerful legs but no arms. But a newly discovered dinosaur appears to have been something of a hybrid: it stood on only two hind legs, like T. rex, but sported arms with powerful hands.
The dinosaur, Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis, was discovered in Arizona and was thought to have lived nearly 200 million years ago. Described as “remarkably complete,” Sarahsaurus was thought to be an herbivore, and stretched 14 feet (4.3 m) long with a long neck and a small head. Unlike previously found dinosaurs, however, Sarahsaurus had an “unusual clawed hand . . . clearly built for enormous power and leverage.”
Study leader Tim Rowe, a University of Texas–Austin paleontologist, explains, “The dogma is that these animals were herbivores, but these hands and massive claws reopen the door to what they might have been doing with them. . . . Looking at the teeth, I think . . . they may have also been scavengers and not pure herbivores.”
The find has also prompted a reworking of the prevailing theory of how sauropod dinosaurs came to “power” in the ecosystem of North America nearly (supposedly) 200 million years ago. Rather than becoming dominant because of inherent superiority, the find supports the idea that dinosaurs merely filled a gap created after other organisms became extinct.
Of course, as with so many fossil finds, the discovery of Sarahsaurus shows us how little we—both evolutionists and creationists—genuinely know about the lives and the extinction of the dinosaurs.
If you’re religious, science isn’t for you—and vice versa, according to evolutionary biologist (and staunch creationist critic) Jerry Coyne.
For atheist Coyne, things are looking good. “Science nibbles [away] at religion” while “America’s fastest-growing brand of belief is non-belief,” he writes in USA Today, confidently asserting that (among other things) “[w]e now know that the universe did not require a creator” (emphasis added). But religion won’t just go away quietly, Coyne laments; the so-called “New Atheists” have been met by a new generation of theists who argue that religion and science go hand in hand. His uncompromising response?
I see this as bunk. Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. . . . Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.
The University of Chicago biologist easily knocks down his own straw men, positing that only religious scientists “can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time.” A few paragraphs later, Coyne tries to defend his argument that science and faith contradict each other by pointing out how many scientists are atheists or agnostics; however, we would point out that their worldview is a religion and that our worldview, with its starting point—God’s Word—makes more sense of the origin of the laws of logic, morality, and nature than their worldview. It is impossible to prove that there is no God, yet he easily accepts that there is no God, while claiming that in science, “No finding is deemed `true’ . . . unless it’s repeated and verified by others.”
But at the heart of Coyne’s dismissal of religion are relatively common complaints. For instance, he claims to think that the Holocaust should be enough to “make [Christians] abandon [their] beliefs in God and Jesus,” and he repeatedly references religiously motivated terrorism, implying that all religion is prone to evil. Not to worry, though; according to Coyne, atheists embrace “the same moral truths” as the religious—though he provides no explanation as to how atheists are intellectually consistent in doing so. And, as an atheist, Coyne holds to a worldview that purports to explain everything, and thus he holds to a religious belief (albeit a he’s a non-theist).
For Coyne, the ultimate problem of religion is the faith that, come what may, one’s religion is right. “I’ve never met a Christian,” he declares, “who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus.” (Whether that problem is necessarily generalizable to all religious views, we leave for the reader to consider.) By contrast (according to Coyne), “I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance—one is a billion-year-old ape fossil—that would convince me that evolution didn’t happen.” But what if we responded that finding a living ape-man would disprove creation—is that criterion for falsification any less realistic than Coyne’s?
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